Queer Eye for the History Buff

Installation view of A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk. (Photo courtesy of The Museum at FIT)

“A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk” is on view through January 4 at The Museum at FIT. (Photo courtesy of The Museum at FIT)

Once upon a time, men wore monochromatic breeches, pantaloons or trousers. And their female counterparts wore skirts, whether for special occasions, everyday wear or for lounging around the log cabin.

Oscar Wilde changed all that when he arrived on American soil with his colorful britches, extravagant jackets and a new concept to share — aestheticism, which may have been our first introduction to personal style. The famous Irish writer is one of the first faces you see at “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk,” a new exhibition at the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).

The show makes the case that, even before Wilde brought Americans queer style in 1882, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer (LGBTQ) individuals had a huge influence on fashion. It also makes the case that queer fashion and the journey “from the closet to the catwalk” plainly reflects history as we know it.

Gay Pride "Kings and Queens 3," 1989. (Photo by Joyce Culver)

Gay Pride “Kings and Queens 3,” 1989. (Photo by Joyce Culver via The Museum at FIT)

The words gay and fashion together suggest lightheartedness, whimsicality even. But the show’s curators have managed to create an intimate and serious space in the two rooms the exhibition fills, illuminated by stage lights overhead and songs like 1935’s B.D. Woman’s Blues by Bessie Jackson playing in the background.

About 100 well-dressed mannequins adorn the floor space, with captivating floor-to-ceiling photos providing a historical backdrop for each installation. For example, behind the four mannequins that make up the La Garconne (boyish) era of the 1920s — wearing cropped wigs, midi skirts, flowing blouses and blazers — is a photo of young women from that time period to serve as a reflection of the shift from the corsets and floor-length skirts of traditional womenswear.

French designer Jean Paul Gaultier's 1984 cone dress. (Photo courtesy of The Museum at FIT)

French designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1984 cone dress. (Photo courtesy of The Museum at FIT)

The exhibition notes the lesbian fashion that was made haute couture in the 1920s and ’30s (like the tuxedo and top hat Hollywood star Marlene Dietrich wore in Josef Von Sternberg’s film “Morocco”) went on to influence designers like Yves Saint Laurent over three decades later.

Works from superstars such as Christian Dior and Gianni Versace to lesser known LGBT designers like Justine Taylor from Australia are featured. Taylor is one of the few female designers included as, unsurprisingly, gay men dominate fashion history.

Gay men have always been masters of self-presentation, disguise and transformation, so it is only natural that they found a home within the fashion industry. The creative ambassador of the department store Barneys, Simon Doonan, addresses this point in a video presented at the close of the exhibition. His declaration is illustrated by a historical display showing men in 18th century London who used to meet in private to cross-dress, safe havens like New York’s Stonewall Inn that provided a place for gay people to be themselves, and the “tells” of each era, where a red necktie at one time was a secret LGBTQ badge.

An image of Oscar Wilde at the “Pretty Gentlemen” platform in the exhibition A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk. (Photo courtesy of The Museum at FIT)

An image of Oscar Wilde and “Pretty Gentlemen” section at “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk.” (Photo courtesy of The Museum at FIT)

The exhibition’s title may suggest vogueing and sashaying down a runway, but what is presented is more than a plethora of new vocabulary (dandy, mollies, macaronis, fops) and some of the greatest garments ever created (John Paul Gaultier’s orange cone-bra dress, Yves Saint Laurent’s le smoking ensemble). It is when Doonan declares that young designers will never really know who Perry Ellis was because there was a time when “gay designers were wiped off the landscape” because of HIV/AIDS, that it’s clear that here is a story worth telling, and that it is done quite effectively through wearable art.

“A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk” continues through Jan. 4, 2014 at the Museum at FIT, queerfashionhistory.com.

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  1. Pingback: Before the Devil Wore Prada » Queer Eye for the History Buff

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