How Queer Aesthetics Have Influenced Fashion
Written by Mollie Knight
February is LGBTQ+ History Month, so in honour of that I thought it would be a great time to discuss how queer aesthetics have influenced mainstream fashion.
What are queer aesthetics?
Queer aesthetics can refer to anything that is perceived as “queer”. Queer aesthetics in terms of fashion can include things like clothing choice, haircuts, even hair colour – basically how you present yourself to the world. It is, therefore, less of a defined checklist, but more of a relationship between presentation and perception from the individual and the onlooker.
Usually, for something to be considered queer means that it deviates from conventionality. As Morgan Sung states:
“The aesthetic ranges from the flamboyant to the austere, but regardless of visual presentation, each article of clothing or accessory is worn with intention.”
This is what Susan Sontag termed “camp” in her famous 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”. Camp is more than a 2019 Met Gala theme, it is specifically defined as “an aesthetic in which something has appeal because of its bad taste or ironic value”. Sontag emphasised the elements of artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness and shocking excess as fundamental to campness.
Self-presentation and self-actualisation
Choosing to style yourself to fit into a queer aesthetic can be used as a signal to others that you are queer yourself. Through your ‘queer style' you might be able to find your in-group and signal to potential partners what your sexuality is.
"Fashion is just such an important part of who we are…That's the first time you tell someone, 'I'm not straight.' I think when we know that the mainstream society rejects us, or doesn't welcome us, we kind of naturally gravitate towards style worn by people who will accept us." – Sonny Oram, queer fashion activist and founder of the fashion incubator Qwear.
Studies have also found that for people who have just come out, they describe dressing “gayer” as a way to signal to others that they are queer and comfortable with their identity. When studying gay women, researchers also found that many lesbians reported taking cues from other lesbians when they first come out to guide them on how to present themselves. However, it could also be argued that people veer towards queer aesthetics subconsciously, before they have come out, as a way to explore and find their identity. Either way, clothing and how you dress can be a visual expression of identity, a way of affirming gender and be encoded with meaning.
It is important to note, however, that not everybody presents as “visibly queer”. Firstly, it might not be safe for someone to do so, but also, people may not feel comfortable with dressing in a way that draws attention to themselves. For some, clothes are the way they identify themselves , for others it isn't. It is an individual preference - just because someone chooses to dress more ‘mainstream’ does not mean they are not queer-enough. Also, the categorisation of ‘queer’ or ‘not queer’ can stem from and even reinforce stereotypes, so you shouldn’t assume someone’s sexuality or gender solely based on what they look like. Now I have said my piece, let’s get into some examples!
Examples of Queer Aesthetics in Modern Fashion
As mentioned, using subtle, or not-so-subtle, visual signals is deeply woven into queer history. Though some of these examples may be commonplace now, in the past some acted as a secret code due to the huge danger related to coming-out, which still persists around the world today.
- Women in Trousers
Our own Silky Peacock Aladdin Trousers
Gay and Bisexual women were among the first in western cultures to wear trousers and other traditionally masculine clothes. The massive impact that this has had on fashion is self-explanatory. I mean, I’m wearing trousers as I write this, which I may not have been able to do if it wasn’t for the trend popularised by gay and bisexual women in the 19th Century.
- Gender Fluidity
Grace Jones, a pioneer of androgyny
Source: Gavin Bond
Dressing androgynously and experimenting with gendered garments has definitely become more popular in recent years with the fashion industry becoming more comfortable with producing ‘unisex’ styles – more recently, social media platforms are acting as a catalyst in its popularity. This trend has its roots in the ballroom scene in the 70s, 80s and 90s in New York. The balls acted as a safe-space for black and latinx LGBTQ+ people to express themselves and find who they are through experimentation, drag and performances. Though it has become more popular for cishet celebs to be praised as pioneers in gender-fluid fashion (looking at you Harry Styles), the true trailblazers were those part of the underground ballroom scene. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the documentary Paris is Burning or watch HBO’s Pose, starring Billy Porter and Dominique Jackson.
The use of slang popularised by the ballroom scene is used by fashion brands and other companies more frequently now as the words have trickled down into the mainstream. So if you see ‘yasss queen’, ‘serving realness’ or ‘spill the tea’ in fashion campaigns and marketing, know that is the influence of queer BIPOC.
Source: Nicole Sover
Thumb rings often crop up in conversations about lesbian symbolism in fashion; in a Vice article, Daisy Jones called thumb rings “a subtle yet ubiquitous symbol for queer women”. On TikTok there was also a trend where queer women and non-binary people showed their white thumb rings as a symbol of their identity.
The thumb ring is not the only ring that has historically signified queerness, with the pinky being the finger of choice for British lesbians in the early 1900s. According to Katrina Rolley’s research on lesbian fashion from 1918-1939, the lesbians she interviewed said that pinky rings were a specific lesbian symbol.
- Colourful Bandana
Source: Matthew Basco
The Hanky code was a practice used in the 70s + 80s among gay men who were in search of causal sex. The handkerchiefs were placed in your back pocket and depending on the colour and placement, it symbolised a sexual fetish or a position. They can still be seen at pride marches today and are often worn casually as a fashion statement (sometimes without knowing the meaning behind them).
Though the history of this bandana language is debated, some people believe it originated in San Francisco due to a shortage of women at dances where men would end up dancing with each other — a blue bandana meant they took the "female" part, while red symbolised the "male" part. Other people think the system was thought up in New York in the 70s.
The spectrum of colours ranged from red to grey and the meanings varied from ‘escort work’ to ‘anything goes’. If you wore your hanky in your left pocket, that signalled you were a “bottom” or submissive, and the right pocket was symbolic of you being a “top” or more dominant.
- The Carabiner
The humble carabiner has recently also become popularised through TikTok and Instagram coupled with the trend of wearing more utility wear.
Though seemingly modern, the use of the carabiner can be traced into historical lesbian culture. In a piece for Slate, Christina Cauterucci, argues that the carabiner “is one of the most enduring sartorial symbols of lesbian culture, one of the few stereotypes of our kind that’s both inoffensive and true”. She isn’t the only one to think that the carabiner has become emblematic of lesbian culture - in 2018, Natalia Joseph wrote an article called ‘4 Carabiners to Let That Guy in your Econ Lecture Know You’re Not Interested’ in which she wrote that “the only women who wear [carabiners] are either rock climbers or massive lesbians”.
Our own Meshy + Ruched Midi Dress
The far-reaching influence of the ballroom scene even penetrated into the way models, well, model. Voguing is a style of dance that was a big part of the performances that took place in the ballrooms. It was spread to the masses by Madonna in the 90s with her hit ‘Vogue’. She was taught how to vogue by dancers from the House of Harlem in New York and her visuals included attires that were worn in the ballroom, which also brought that style of dressing into mainstream fashion. But the specific mode of movement that voguing involves came to shape modelling as we know it.
Though these are only a few of the influences that queer aesthetics have had on fashion, as attitudes towards queer people change, so will the use, appropriation and style of queer fashion in the mainstream. In a few years’ time saying “yass queen” might be ‘out’ again, but maybe something else taken from queer culture might replace it. As mentioned, an essential part of queer aesthetics is non-conformity and openness to individuality, so I am looking forward to seeing the new and exciting ways of experimenting with style that (likely BIPOC) queer people will come up with in the future.
If you are into experimenting with your style, but don’t want the environmental cost, check out how OWF can allow you to dip your toes into trying some of these queer styles here.