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

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‘When it comes to lesbians, apparel tin really style our spot successful nan world,” says nan manner historiographer Eleanor Medhurst. “They tin fto america beryllium recognised by others successful our community, aliases let america to beryllium hidden to nan world astatine large.”

She takes nan illustration of Christina, Queen of Sweden successful nan 17th century. While Christina’s sexuality remains ambiguous, location is grounds she felt romantically towards women. Her clothing choices still speak to immoderate lesbians today, Medhurst included, successful nan measurement that she toyed pinch stereotypes. “She would play pinch gender done her self-presentation,” says Medhurst. “She was often, passim her life, mixing masculine and feminine clothes,” wearing men’s shoes, shirts and vests, arsenic good arsenic elaborate women’s gowns and skirts.

Christina is conscionable 1 of nan subjects of Medhurst’s caller book, Unsuitable: A History of Lesbian Fashion, which charts nan diverseness of clothing worn by women-loving women passim history – their individual lives often hidden aliases their romanticist relationships dismissed arsenic friendships.

Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian successful Love Lies Bleeding.
Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian successful Love Lies Bleeding. Photograph: Crack successful nan Earth LLC

The women of nan 1920s Parisian lesbian barroom Le Monocle, whose styles ranged from tuxedos and ties to dresses and bobs group successful digit waves are included. So is nan resistance king Stormé DeLarverie, who some opportunity threw nan first punch astatine nan 1969 Stonewall uprising, and who would often deterioration tailored suits for performances aliases leather jackets successful her different occupation arsenic a bouncer. Medway delves into nan styles of those who were lesbians aliases who whitethorn person identified pinch today’s LGBTQ+ community, moreover if specified labels didn’t beryllium successful their time.

It comes astatine a clip erstwhile “lesbian fashion” is bursting backmost into nan mainstream. That manner is arsenic divers arsenic nan lesbian organization itself, but 1 meaning mightiness beryllium clothing stereotypically worn aliases inspired by lesbians, which has often surgery gendered expectations. In May, Kristen Stewart, who Medhurst describes arsenic “a figurehead of 2020s lesbian-chic”, delivered vessel tops and sports bras in nan deed lesbian thriller Love Lies Bleeding. In February, nan New York Times celebrated nan manner explanation Kallmeyer, celebrated for its suits and waistcoats, arsenic serving “lesbian chic, for all”. Lesbian and queer manner is visible from musicians Muna to Young MA and Reneé Rapp done to nan BBC’s caller lesbian making love bid I Kissed A Girl, which showcased connection boots, rings and snapbacks. The queer satirical movie Bottoms, starring Ayo Edebiri, serves up stereotypical lesbian staples – corduroy trousers, dungarees and flannel shirts.

Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott successful Bottoms.
Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott successful Bottoms. Photograph: Alamy

“Lesbians are having a spot of a taste moment,” says Medhurst, who has herself played a part. Having group up her blog Dressing Dykes during nan pandemic, her TikTok account now has much than 100,000 followers.

But nan history of “lesbian fashion” is simply a analyzable one. Wider nine hasn’t ever considered clothing worn by lesbians arsenic cool. Often, nan measurement lesbians dress, peculiarly those wearing masculine clothing, has been seen arsenic unfashionable, a constituent of intrigue aliases conscionable plain ugly. In Medhurst’s book, she explores nan 19th-century life of Anne Lister, dubbed “the first modern lesbian”, who wore gentlemen’s braces and achromatic – astatine nan clip deemed a masculine colour – alongside bonnets and ribbons. Lister’s quality wasn’t liked by each her contemporaries: she was referred to pejoratively arsenic “Gentleman Jack” – nan nickname later utilized arsenic nan title for nan BBC play astir her life.

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Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) by Sébastien Bourdon.
Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) by Sébastien Bourdon. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

“Lesbian manner has gone successful and retired of mainstream fashion,” says Medhurst. In nan precocious 19th century, antheral impersonators flourished successful Victorian Britain and nan US; not each were lesbians, but immoderate perchance were. The resistance king Annie Hindle had astatine slightest 1 unofficial matrimony to different woman. In nan 1920s, nan lesbian mates Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland brought queer influences to British Vogue arsenic nan editor and manner editor respectively; Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West were among its contributors.

In nan outpouring of 1993, nan word “lesbian chic” was splashed crossed nan beforehand screen of New York magazine, accompanied by a image of a sauve-looking kd lang, nan Canadian musician and lesbian icon. Later that year, lang would airs successful a three-piece suit connected nan beforehand screen of Vanity Fair, reclining successful a barber’s chair pinch nan supermodel Cindy Crawford, wearing a swimsuit, pretending to shave her face.

However, nan commodification of nan lesbian look has not ever travel pinch nan support of lesbians themselves. In a blogpost connected nan conception of “lesbian chic”, from lang to nan TV play The L Word, Medhurst cites lesbian critics who deed backmost astatine nan sanitised depictions of lesbians successful nan 90s mainstream, which eschewed nan afloat diverseness of nan lesbian artistic successful favour of much airbrushed versions: models were mostly white, slim and without assemblage hair.

The full conception of “lesbian chic feels frustrating for immoderate lesbians”, says Medhurst, “because nan apparel that they person been wearing person been seen arsenic being unfashionable, and anti-fashion, and ugly. Now, suddenly, they’re awesome and they’re fine. So there’s that constituent of it being like: ‘Oh, but you hated these clothes!’” Some stay captious of seeing stereotypical accessories – from carabiners to applicable footwear – successful nan mainstream, while others clasp it.

But coming astatine slightest location is greater, though still not complete, diverseness erstwhile it comes to what it intends to look for illustration aliases beryllium a lesbian, from butch done to high-femme, pinch nan lesbian taste segment besides encompassing trans, bisexual and queer identities.

While Medhurst understands nan frustrations of immoderate lesbians, she besides thinks location are benefits. “A batch of nan stereotypes of lesbian style are things that are applicable aliases comfortable … I deliberation there’s decidedly a immense affirmative constituent successful those being mainstream manner for women, because women historically person been encouraged to not deterioration comfortable aliases applicable clothes.”

Anne Lister (1791-1840), dubbed ‘the first modern lesbian’. Oil coating by Joshua Horner.
Anne Lister (1791-1840), dubbed ‘the first modern lesbian’. Oil coating by Joshua Horner. Photograph: Visual Arts Resource/Alamy

Ultimately, lesbian manner offers “ways that we tin play pinch gender roles, categories of sexuality, ways that we are aliases are not allowed to be,” says Medhurst. For immoderate lesbians, and nan LGBTQ+ organization much broadly, clothing is simply a captious shape of self-expression; it’s a intends of signalling personality to nan world, whether discreetly aliases overtly. As Medhurst concludes: “Fashion is often thought of arsenic being rather a frivolous thing. But it’s really incredibly important, personally and politically.”

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

Source theguardian