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Queer Women in Fashion: History and What’s to Come

Fashion is historically queer. All the way back to the 1700s, when homosexuality was illegal in Europe, how you dressed was basically the only way to signal to someone that you were queer. Fast forward to the 1920s, and this was still the case, although in a few places, such as Berlin, New York and San Francisco, there were more defined queer subcultures that offered safe spaces for everyone to be themselves and therefore even more distinct queer fashions. Around this time is when Dior, Balmain, and Balenciaga started their brands, using fashion as an outlet to express their queerness. Hence the start of queer fashion emerging into mainstream and pop culture. In the ’90s, Jean Paul Gaultier made less gendered queer fashion even more prevalent in popular media by making skirts for men and his iconic cone bra corset dress.


Despite all this, fashion, like most other industries, has also been dominated by white cisgender men. When thinking about the most well-known and influential designers, people may think about Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld or Yves Saint Laurent — all men. There are barely any visibly or openly queer women, let alone queer women of color, who are praised in the fashion industry. When women are discussed, they are usually cis white heterosexual women, such as Coco Chanel, Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, and Elsa Schiaparelli (an exception is Vera Wang). Nowadays, more women are becoming designers and stylists, but queer women are still not acknowledged much in the industry.


Although a majority of the major fashion houses were either created by or are currently run by queer men, there has always been a strict gender binary when it comes to collections and general designs. Designers are slowly starting to become less concerned with the menswear/womenswear distinction, but not at the rate one would expect. Most of the brands that do claim gender nonconformity just make androgynous, neutral toned, relatively shapeless clothing, which does not fully encompass the type of clothing that gender nonconforming people actually like to wear.


This strict gendered distinction is not only evident in the technical side of fashion, but on the aesthetic side as well. Modeling is less toxic than it was in the ’90s and early 2000s, but not significantly so. It depends on who you interact with: your agency, the designers you model for, even the photographers you work with. Tall, thin, and light-skinned are still the preferred look. More diversity among models has been slowly advancing, yet cisgender people are still the first choice. Trans women and nonbinary people are just starting to be more accepted in the modeling world. Although, due to the lack of overall representation, there is of course still the risk of tokenization and fetishization as well.


Social media is simultaneously the best and worst thing to happen to fashion. The speed of social media has impacted trend cycles; trends used to cycle every 20 years or so, but due to platforms like TikTok and Instagram, microtrends now exist. Instead of overall silhouettes being trendy and staying trendy, we’re seeing individual pieces (like that one green dress from House of Sunny) worn by influencers rise in trendiness only to become “outdated” within months, if not weeks.


TikTok has accelerated the trend cycle so much that we’re already nostalgically reminiscing on trends like “twee” and “indie sleaze” that were only in style less than a decade ago.


However, social media is also the best thing in fashion, because of the possibility for virality. All you really need is one video to pop off for people to see and appreciate your designs. And it is a great resource to share queer fashion, from queer-dominated aesthetics like cottagecore to modern spins on vintage fashion to transforming mundane, nontraditional items like computer parts into accessories.


What is the future for queer women in fashion? With more media comes more inspiration. Film, nature (or the lack thereof), technology, trauma, historical fashion, and deconstruction are all topics that I believe will continue to be explored in fashion. Afrofuturism is a popular aesthetic on the rise among queer Black creators. Coined by Mark Dery in 1993, the cultural aesthetic and philosophy explores the relationship between the African diaspora and technology. It takes inspiration from the science fiction and fantasy genres to imagine a technically advanced and hopeful future for Black people, usually through art, cinema, literature, music and fashion. Sanaa Bell is an up-and-coming designer in Atlanta studying at SCAD whose brand, Eketchi Universe, focuses on this Afrofuturism aesthetic.


Other notable young, independent designers and brands that have shown up on my radar and I think embody the future of women in fashion and queer fashion in general are Emily Erdelyan (@postmodernspicegirl)Devin Ray (@totally_devin)Julia McGrady (@iidkkkkkkkkk on Etsy)Fashion Brand CompanyUppleva (@shopuppleva)Moldy Smith ClothingTora-Lily (@toralily_), and Fleur A (@fleurasayag). Some stylists I follow are Sam (@samanthasb30) and Chloe Felopulos (@chloe.felopulos). Fashion is an ever-evolving medium and hopefully with time, queer women will get as much recognition in the industry as queer men have had for decades.