Late fashion design legends Christian Dior, Bill Blass, and Halston spent their whole lives in the closet. The full list of great gay designers is too long to print but includes Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent, Cristobal Balenciaga, and Pierre Balmain. Throughout history, fashion has served as a way to give expression to otherwise silenced queer voices. Finally, in a post-Prop-8 world, the heretofore hidden history of the LGBTQ community’s extraordinary contributions to the fashion world can be explored in full.
The Museum of FIT’s groundbreaking new exhibit, A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, opens today. Spanning 300 and featuring a hundred ensembles, from the foppish “macaroni” menswear of the 18th century to Gaultier’s cone bras and skirts for men, the show is the first to examine fashion history through a queer lens.
Curators Fred Dennis and Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT, spent two years of painstaking research to develop the exhibit. “For many years, gays and lesbians were hidden from history,” says Dennis. “By acknowledging the historic influence of gay designers, and by emphasizing the important role that fashion and style have played within the LGBTQ community, we see how central gay culture has been to the creation of modern fashion.”
The exhibition explores a wide range of trends, from the lesbian “butch-femme” paradigm, to drag culture, to the flashy dandyism of the Oscar Wilde era. The AIDS crisis took a tragic toll on the gay fashion world–designers like Perry Ellis and Bill Robinson died of the virus, and the exhibition’s midpoint is devoted to honoring their memories, with their clothes on display along with a series of classic activist t-shirts. Also on view are three-piece suits of 1800s “men milliners,” a classic 1980s “Clone” look with nylon flight jacket and aviators, and a Dior cocktail dress representing his “New Look” of the 1950s. Widespread homophobia led to incidents like Coco Chanel hissing at New Look-clad girls: “Look at them. Fools dressed by queens living out their fantasies.”
Joel Sanders, the architect and queer theorist who designed the exhibition, built a white catwalk for displaying couture-clad mannequins with a purple platform running underneath to display gay subcultural styles as a counterpoint.
The exhibition concludes with a section on gay wedding fashions, celebrating the fact that the finish line is finally in sight in the struggle for marriage equality.