It’s Pride Month, and I’m excited to dive into the long-standing relationship between queer history and fashion history! For centuries, clothes were a secret language and an avenue for self-expression for many closeted queer people. Much like subcultures such as punk, the Beat Generation, and the New Romantics, queer culture has an influential identity and visual language all its own. You probably use queer slang in your everyday life (yasss, slay hunty!), but did you know you most likely also wear queer-influenced clothes? To celebrate Pride Month, let’s take a look at some queer fashion pioneers that broke style boundaries and changed the way we dress.
Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde & Dandyism
Typically seen as a stodgy, laced-up period, the Regency Period and later early Victorian era were actually a time of great self-expression. Women would forgo stuffy stays for a more relaxed silhouette, while men started to follow the tenents of Dandyism. Most famously associated with Beau Brummel and the Romantic poets, including Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, and John Keats, this movement allowed both queer and straight men to experiment with style and gender norms. With the rise of Regencycore throughout all facets of fashion, dandyism is a perfect style to rock now!
Ma Rainey & Bessie Smith
While flapper fashion is typically associated with The Great Gatsby and thin, blonde white women, it’s time to start looking toward Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith for your inspiration! Two of the most influential Blues singers of all time, both Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith defied gender norms and stereotypes during their lifetime. Blues culture and the Harlem Renaissance were relatively accepting of queer identities during this time, with both women having open relationships with other women (and, reportedly, each other!) With films such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Passing exploring the lives of Black women during the 1920’s, there is no better time to learn more about these two style icons.
Between her effervescent screen presence, tumultuous personal life, and witty one-liners, Marlene Dietrich is the ultimate screen siren. Openly bisexual, she spent time in the accepting, artistic culture of Berlin in the Weimar Republic. Her personal strength and unapologetic defiance of gender norms, particularly with her tuxedo in 1930’s Morocco, paved the way for many women and queer people to embrace wearing pants and defining gender on their own terms. Her androgynous look directly influenced Yves Saint Laurent’s famous smoking jacket, with her vast filmography inspiring Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Madonna, and drag artist Sasha Velour, among others.
What do Prince, David Bowie, Elton John, and Harry Styles have in common? They all owe their style cues to Little Richard! A rock and roll pioneer of the 1950s, Little Richard used his experience as a drag queen to create an androgynous style that combined sharp suits with eyeliner and perfectly coiffed hair. Sometimes referred to as a rock-and-roll dandy, his own relationship with sexuality and rock music was complicated, to say the least. However, his influence on style and fashion is undeniable. As he said on the Dick Cavett show in 1970, “I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and I am the best-looking man in this business, without any doubt. I’m very, very beautiful.”
While many couturiers and fashion designers identified (or could possibly be identified) as queer, perhaps none made their mark on American fashion like Charles James. His architectural, voluminous gowns greatly influenced the style of the 1950s, a time when queer people were often vilified. Their frothy, fantastical silhouettes evoke an escapist, perfectionist fantasy and continue to influence fashion to this day.
Perhaps the most famous fashion illustrator of all time, Antonio Lopez’s illustrations defined the visual language of fashion to this day. Working with style icons and designers, including Charles James, his work pioneered the frenetic, vibrant, and dynamic style of fashion illustration often seen today.
Who is your favorite style icon? Let us know in the comments down below!