A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, New Exhibition at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT)

The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) will present the groundbreaking exhibition, A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, the first museum exhibition to explore in depth the significant contributions to fashion made by LGBTQ (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer) individuals over the past 300 years. Opening on September 13, 2013, A Queer History of Fashion will feature approximately 100 ensembles, from 18th-century menswear styles associated with an emerging gay subculture to 21st-century high fashion.

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From Christian Dior to Yves Saint Laurent to Alexander McQueen, the importance of gay men as fashion designers is undeniable in the 20th century. But scholars have demonstrated that, as early as the 1700s, men who loved other men were pioneers in challenging sex and gender roles. Drawing on this research, A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk will be organized chronologically, beginning with the 18th century, when cross-dressing “mollies,” foppish “macaronis,” and “men milliners” created controversy.

Exhibition curators Fred Dennis, senior curator of costume, and Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT, spent two years researching and curating the exhibition. They worked with an advisory committee of eminent scholars, including professors George Chauncey (author of Gay New York), Shaun Cole (author of Don We Now Our Gay Apparel), Jonathan Katz (author/curator of Hide and Seek), Peter McNeil (co-editor of The Men’s Fashion Reader), and Vicki Karaminas (co-editor of the forthcoming Queer Style), as well as FIT faculty and fashion professionals.

Dr. Valerie Steele, , director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT

Dr. Valerie Steele, , director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT

This is about honoring the gay and lesbian designers of the past and present,” said Dennis. “By acknowledging their contributions to fashion, we want to encourage people to embrace diversity.”

“We also hope that this exhibition will transform our understanding of fashion history,” added Steele. “For many years, gays and lesbians were hidden from history. 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.”

Oscar Wilde was a key 19th-century figure with regard to both the history of homosexuality and the history of style. Known for his influence on aesthetic dress, Wilde was also identified with a flashy sort of dandyism associated with the most visible urban homosexuals. Although it has not been possible to find clothing actually worn by Wilde or other gay men and lesbians from this period, styles similar to what they wore will be on display.

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Elite menswear looks became an important stylistic signifier for lesbians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The garçonne look of the 1920s brought lesbian style into high fashion. Several extraordinary menswear looks worn from the 1930s on by the great bisexual actress Marlene Dietrich have been made available for this exhibition by the Berlin Film Museum. Also featured will be Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Le Smoking, which was inspired by Dietrich’s tuxedo.

However, not all lesbians and bisexual women gravitated toward tailored suits. Also on display will be a lavender dress worn by lesbian actress Katherine Cornell and a body-worshipping dress designed by the great couturiere Madeleine Vionnet, who told Bruce Chatwin, “They always said I loved women too much.”

By the 1930s, identifiable gay or bisexual male designers played a significant role in fashion. Designers from the early- to image_gallerymid-20th century featured in the exhibition will include Adrian, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain (in collaboration with Bébé Bérard and Jean Cocteau), Christian Dior, Norman Hartnell, Charles James, and Edward Molyneux. The exhibition will contextualize these designers’ lives and work by showing the societal homophobia and discriminatory laws that they faced. For example, the sight of women in Dior’s New Look gowns or Balenciaga’s Velasquez dresses threw Coco Chanel into a rage. Director and producer Franco Zeffirelli describes her hissing at girls: “Look at them. Fools dressed by queens living out their fantasies.”

Facing the very real danger of exposure and arrest, many gays and lesbians adopted a style best described as discreet and invisible. By the 1960s, however, a more openly gay look began to influence “mod” menswear styles, as gay designers such as John Stephen of Carnaby Street and the tailor Tommy Nutter introduced colorful, decorative, body-conscious styles. Rudi Gernreich was a founding member of the pioneering gay liberation group Mattachine Society and advocated unisex styles such as caftans. In New York City, the Stonewall riots that took place on June 28, 1969, marked the beginning of a more open movement. Drag queens were among the leading participants in the riots, and the first gay pride parades took place the next year. Continue reading