“But you hated these clothes!” The complicated history of ‘lesbian fashion’

“When it comes to lesbians, clothes can really define our place in the world,” says fashion historian Eleanor Medhurst. “They can ensure that we are recognized by others in our community, or that we remain hidden from the world at large.”

She takes the example of Christina, Queen of Sweden in the 17th century. Although Christina’s sexuality remains ambiguous, there is evidence that she had romantic feelings towards women. Her choice of clothing still appeals to some lesbians today, including Medhurst, in the way she played with stereotypes. “She played with gender through her self-presentation,” says Medhurst. “She often spent her life mixing male and female clothing,” wearing men’s shoes, shirts and vests, as well as elaborate women’s dresses and skirts.

Christina is just one of the subjects of Medhurst’s new book, Unsuitable: A History of Lesbian Fashion, which charts the diversity of clothes that misogynistic women have worn throughout history – often hiding their personal lives or dismissing their romantic relationships as friendships.

The women of the 1920s Parisian lesbian bar Le Monocle, whose styles ranged from tuxedos and ties to dresses and finger-wave bobs, are included. That includes drag king Stormé DeLarverie, who some say struck the first blow during the 1969 Stonewall uprising, and who in her other job as a bouncer often wore tailored suits for performances or leather jackets. Medway delves into the styles of lesbians or people who may have identified with today’s LGBTQ+ community, even though such labels did not exist in their time.

It comes at a time when ‘lesbian fashion’ is becoming mainstream again. That fashion is as diverse as the lesbian community itself, but one definition could be clothing that is stereotypically worn or inspired by lesbians, which has often exceeded gender expectations. In May, Kristen Stewart, who Medhurst describes as “a figurehead of 1920s lesbian chic,” provided tank tops and sports bras in the hit lesbian thriller Love Lies Bleeding. In February, the New York Times celebrated the fashion label Kallmeyer, popular for its suits and cardigans, as “lesbian chic, for all.” Lesbian and queer fashion is visible from musicians Muna to Young MA and Reneé Rapp to the BBC’s recent lesbian dating series I Kissed A Girl, which featured statement boots, rings and snapbacks. The strange satirical film Bottoms, starring Ayo Edebiri, serves up stereotypical lesbian staples: corduroy trousers, dungarees and flannel shirts.

“Lesbians are having a bit of a cultural moment,” says Medhurst, who has played a role herself. After setting up her blog Dressing Dykes during the pandemic, her TikTok account now has more than 100,000 followers.

But the history of ‘lesbian fashion’ is complicated. The wider society has not always considered clothing worn by lesbians as cool. Often the way lesbians dress, especially those who wear masculine clothing, is seen as old-fashioned, intriguing, or downright ugly. In Medhurst’s book, she explores the 19th-century life of Anne Lister, dubbed “the first modern lesbian,” who wore men’s suspenders and black – considered a masculine color at the time – alongside bonnets and ribbons. Lister’s performance was not liked by all her contemporaries: she was pejoratively referred to as ‘Gentleman Jack’ – the nickname later used as the title for the BBC drama about her life.

“Lesbian fashion has gone in and out of mainstream fashion,” says Medhurst. In the late 19th century, male impersonators flourished in Victorian Britain and the US; not everyone was lesbian, but some may have been. The drag king Annie Hindle had at least one unofficial marriage to another woman. In the 1920s, lesbian couple Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland brought queer influences to British Vogue as editor and fashion editor respectively; Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West were among the contributors.

In the spring of 1993, the term “lesbian chic” appeared on the cover of New York magazine, accompanied by a portrait of a chic-looking KD Lang, the Canadian musician and lesbian icon. Later that year, Lang posed in a three-piece suit on the front of Vanity fairlying in a hairdresser’s chair with supermodel Cindy Crawford, wearing a swimsuit and pretending to shave her face.

However, the commercialization of the lesbian look has not always been met with the approval of the lesbians themselves. In a blog post on the concept of ‘lesbian chic’, from long to the TV drama The L Word, Medhurst quotes lesbian critics who pushed back against the sanitized images of lesbians in the mainstream of the 1990s, which denied the full diversity of the lesbian shun aesthetics. in favor of more airbrushed versions: models were generally white, slim and without body hair.

The whole concept of “lesbian chic feels frustrating to some lesbians,” says Medhurst, “because the clothes they wear are seen as unfashionable, anti-fashion and ugly. Now suddenly they’re great and fine. So there’s an element to it that says, ‘Oh, but you hated these clothes!'” Some remain critical of stereotypical accessories — from carabiners to practical footwear — becoming mainstream, while others embrace it.

But today at least there is greater, though still not complete, diversity when it comes to what it means to look or be lesbian, from butch to high-femme, with the lesbian cultural scene also including trans, bisexual and includes queer identities. .

While Medhurst understands the frustrations of some lesbians, she also thinks there are benefits to it. “A lot of the stereotypes about lesbian style are things that are practical or comfortable… I think there’s definitely a huge positive element in mainstream fashion for women because historically women have been encouraged not to wear comfortable or practical clothes. “

Ultimately, lesbian fashion offers “ways in which we can play with gender roles, categories of sexuality, ways in which we may or may not be,” says Medhurst. For some lesbians, and for the LGBTQ+ community more broadly, clothing is an essential form of self-expression; it is a means of communicating identity to the world, discreetly or openly. As Medhurst concludes: “Fashion is often seen as something very frivolous. But it is actually incredibly important, both personally and politically.”

Unsuitable: A History of Lesbian Fashion, by Eleanor Medhurst is now available (Hurst Publishers)

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