ashion’s importance to the LGBTQIA+ community has long been established as a medium to express individuality and articulate identity. While clothing alone has the ability to communicate, for queer and trans people of color, fashion has the ability to weave together societal issues, defy time, and cultivate conversations. Despite fashion’s supposed affinity for inclusiveness, the subcultural influence and direct contributions from QTPOC to fashion remain overlooked, even though conversations on inclusivity are ongoing.
From Billie Holiday’s gardenias to the flamboyant stage outfits unapologetically worn by Sylvester — the disco singer-songwriter of the LGBTQ anthem, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” — QTPOC have broadly influenced style culture through forms of dress. On the one hand, queer sartorialism serves as a point of reference, such as the use of Josephine Baker’s notable styling for Prada Spring/Summer 2011; however, this can easily be reduced to an empty commercialization. A recurring example of this is the unfair commodification of Frida Kahlo’s image by several fast-fashion brands, such as ASOS, Topshop, Zara, Urban Outfitters, and Hot Topic. On the other hand, Kerby Jean-Raymond’s Pyer Moss respectfully celebrated and honoured Black queer icons, paying homage to Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the Spring/Summer 2020 collection, “The Godmother of Rock ‘n Roll” and to Little Richard in, “The Architect of Rock ‘n Roll.”
Fashion has long been a form of resistance against societal conditioning and expectations. Experimental expression continues to be a catalyst for collective queer power demonstrating that clothing can be a form of visual activism, even if unintentional. In his 1960 essay, “They Can’t Turn Back,” James Baldwin said, “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.” In a world that is intent on dispossessing uniqueness and enforcing binary ideals, it is both brave and healing for QTPOC to prioritize creative freedom and legitimate fashion as a form of aesthetic expression. Many of us have spent portions of our lives suppressing visual reflections of our authenticity due to fear; and history’s assault on our existence has demonstrated that safety is a benefit of heteronormativity and its related forms of expression.
The period following the Stonewall riots saw a notable shift of the political landscape regarding fashion and beauty. Throughout history, QTPOC have necessarily altered their aesthetic expression to gain proximity to universal acceptance and safety. Even so, we have established safe(r) places cultivated from being ostracized by not only mainstream society, but also from queer spaces that cater to white, cisgender gay men to the exclusion of alternative queer subjectivities. Within these spaces, QTPOC have established a range of subcultures.
Founded through resistance and shared identities, these subcultures support the freedom to grow and explore. Some have led to direct contributions to fashion. For example, Ballroom culture, which celebrates Black and Latinx LGBTQIA+ communities, has long been celebrated by the industry. Fashion’s legendary “enfant terrible” Jean Paul Gaultier, cast New York Ballroom stars José Xtravaganza and Kevin Stea for his Spring/Summer 1991 show, and paid homage to Ballroom culture in his Spring/Summer 2014 show. Though QTPOC deserve the appreciation and recognition, there are corporations who attempt to shift the focus from its roots in resistance into consumerism — or even as an opportunity for performative activism.
As QTPOC remain marginalised, our subcultural aesthetic styles and slang are commodified and commercialized. This is evident in how Pride, a commemoration of the Stonewall Riots and celebration of LGBTQIA+ lives, is capitalised annually when brands and corporations attempt to create a profit by propitiating us with rainbow-themed clothing and products. Even as mainstream media discuss the absence and necessity of diverse representation, they only deem it palatable when the queer identity is white, cisgender, able-bodied, and a reflection of Eurocentric beauty standards.
It is important to note that although many queer subcultures have become popular in the mainstream, they are still mainly composed of marginalised groups and represent non-mainstream values; therefore, they remain a site of resistance against mainstream culture and norms. QTPOC subcultures have not yet disappeared due to mass consumption.
Susan Sontag wrote in 1965, “whenever speech or movement or behaviour or objects exhibit a certain deviation from the most direct, useful, insensible mode of expression or being in the world, we may look at them as having a ‘style.’” By looking at “style” itself as nonconforming, one can acknowledge how the fashion of queer subcultures, which are often considered a deviation from the conventional, have always had presence within queer politics. Even the modest t-shirt has been utilised as a tool to uplift queer voices during waves of political activism. For example, in 1987, during the AIDS epidemic, queer activists in New York used t-shirts that featured an inverted pink triangle — symbol once used to identify homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps — as a tool in their fight against AIDS stigma. The t-shirts were a proclamation of their manifesto, which affirmed: “silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.” The visibility of these t-shirts, alongside with the activism of ACT UP (a grassroots political group working to end the AIDS pandemic), led to tangible policy changes including an improvement of the FDA drug approval time window which allowed access to HIV and AIDS experimental medicine. Here we can see the very real impact of how, when, and to what purpose fashion can be usefully deployed as political.
Very few QTPOC have the freedom to express their full queerness in their everyday lives. In many cases, being truly visible can be dangerous. Though the creativity borne from suppression is unfair, it can be a powerful source of expression for artists. For example, consider how Jean-Paul Gaultier’s “Cone Bra” dress was designed for his teddy bear after his parents suppressed him from having a doll, and Gianni Versace’s iconic BDSM-inspired “bondage” collection in Spring/Summer 1994 summarised a visual shift from the closet to the catwalk. Queerness should be able to thrive without internalised trauma. However, fashion design has been one space utilized to combat that phenomenon.
When acknowledging queerness in fashion, there is a predominant focus on a subset of gay fashion designers, and a noticeable exclusion of the rest of the LGBTQIA+ community. With white cisgender men at the epicentre of the discourse, those hunting for traces of themselves in dominant culture continue to turn to the fashion sectors that elevate QTPOC.
It is also the nonconformity, which is intrinsically tied to our identities, that has been the drive for gender-fluid designs within fashion. In 2018, the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) added the new “unisex/nonbinary” category for brands whose clothes are designed for people of all genders. This is beneficial to brands such as No Sesso, BARRAGÁN, Gypsy Sport, Telfar, Vasilis Loizides, LaQuan Smith, Gauntlett Cheng, Vaquera and LUAR that reinvent the industry in their own image and diversify the fashion community whilst championing inclusivity by principle rather than for marketing. Pierre Davis, a Black trans woman, made history last season as the first trans designer to present at NYFW. No Sesso, founded by Arin Hayes and Pierre Davis, has been built on an idea of inclusivity that is truly all encompassing, across gender, size, and race. As a brand, they have been inclusive in all sectors including models, stylists, and even the acts at their underground DJ parties. They have expanded this practice by collaborating with “Mirror” — a group of five co-oped, immigrant transgender Latinx cosmetologists — for their Spring/Summer 2020 beauty looks. With QTPOC culture’s influence on fashion’s trajectory becoming more appreciated and accessible, we are seeing the creation of safe(r) spaces for QTPOC on mainstream platforms.
For future generations whose sense of self is vulnerable to being swept up in heteronormative visions of the dominant culture, visibility still matters. With fashion becoming more responsive to community demands, we can continue to view it as an extension of one’s personality. Clothes are politicized; and the gender-fluid designs that have dominated headlines and runways for several seasons are due to theperseverance of queer voices. One should hope that the freedom of a genderless wardrobe and collections will have a domino effect hailing a progressive shift in attitudes towards sexuality and gender. It is because of the bravery of QTPOC daring to live authentically that we may all benefit from less restrictive and less oppressive ways of expressing ourselves.