Why we’re covering this: As fans of fashion and activism, we attended the “Queer Style: Visual Activism and Fashion’s Frontier” at SXSW 2016 and got inspired by everything we learned there. Naturally, we wanted to share it with you (you can also hear the entire talk at the embedded SoundCloud below).
Last September, DapperQ, bklyn boihood, Posture Magazine and D.Y.D.H. Productions presented “the largest queer New York Fashion Week event and runway show” in partnership with the Brooklyn Museum. The show featured feature eight designers “whose work is systemically rooted in notions of gender nonconformity and its intersections with race, ethnicity, and culture with over 70+ models.”
Fabio Costa of Not Equal, Karen Quirion of KQK, SunSun, Jag & Co., Sandra Gagalo, LACTIC, Fony, and MARKANTOINE all took part in the event which marked the shifting trend towards genderqueer fashion as society increasingly rejects traditional gender roles and advocates for equality regardless of gender identity.
The show’s organizers say that it was steeped in an ethos of visual activism because society punishes people for wearing the wrong things — police regularly harass and arrest trans women and sex workers over their clothes; most states have no laws protecting gender identity, meaning that a butch lesbian or flamboyant man can be fired for not dressing too “feminine” or “masculine”; sometimes women and queer people get raped and murdered and afterwards people say things like, “Did you see what they were wearing? They were asking for it.”
It’s hardly news that queer identities have long histories of being oppressed, ignored and erased, but Queer Style is inevitably on the rise — it’s mix of urban swag and dapper luxury, butch and stud lesbian style and masc-femme genderfuck-fashion with androgynous women, trans men and women at the forefront.
As Kenya Hunt wrote in her article at The Guardian entitled “How Voguing Came Back Into Vogue”:
“It all seems to add up to an overall celebration of gender fluidity in fashion and beauty culture, a moment in which people who may have been relegated to the status of camp entertainment in years past are finally being taken seriously.”
Queer Style is rooted in gender non-conformity and thrives off of the tension between what one is expected to wear and what they want to wear. Society, after all, is based off of straight culture: women are expected to dress as feminine and in a way that encourages the male gaze.
But when a queer woman dresses, should they dress as a straight woman is expected to dress? Do they dress as a queer woman or lesbian is stereotypically expected to dress (that is, masculinely)? If they dress as a femme in a predominantly butch or lesbian space, will they be mistaken for a straight woman and ignored or dismissed as a tourist? Or should they dress how they actually feel? Doing that isn’t always safe: playing with gender and flamboyance can have undesirable consequences; it takes guts dress how you actually feel every single day. Such are the challenges of Queer Style.
Yet, we’re seeing Queer Style seep moreso into the mainstream. Some department stores have gotten rid of men’s and women’s sections, and the growing acceptance of homosexuality has made hip-hop style being more open and daring fashion-wise. The cuts and fits of today’s fashions now cater to different body types with a lot more usage of color. As a result, Queer Style is creating positive change for not just the queer community, but the entire community at large.
Not that we’ve entered a promise land — many misunderstandings still abound. For example, many folks discount the need for Queer Style by pointing out that the fashion industry is already very gay. But there’s two problems with that thinking: first, “queer fashion” is more than just white, cis, gay males making homogenous heteronormative clothing; it’s far more transgressive. And second, fashion houses have long been ripping off other artists’ queer fashions without any recognition or financial reward to its creators. So while gays may rule the fashion house, Queer Style hardly rules the world — society is still a far away from respecting a man who wears a skirt in the boardroom, no matter how “gay” the fashion world is, and that needs to change.
Second, many publications and fashion houses use terms like “androgynous” and “unisex” interchangeably, and also use skinny models to convey the idea that androgyny only looks one way. Concurrently, fashion labels and journalists have yet to catch up with the changing trends: menswear doesn’t have enough sizes for people with smaller feet and larger chests (and the opposite goes for womenswear). Journalists still use gender-binary terms like “female-bodied” rather than more accurate, less-gendered phrases like “people with curves” or “people who are shorter”. But as the trend continues, more are likely to catch on.
Style is an opposition to mainstream values, a way to express identity, sex, gender, our lifestyle and what we prioritize. Dress conveys that in a tangible way. While Queer Style gets equated with “invisible signals” (that is, the “right” combination of certain clothes and accessories to make one “queer”), defining it in that way makes it more exclusive than inclusive: we all come in different packages and that’s exactly what Queer Style tries to embrace.
It’s really all about to evolution and re-thinking what we consider beautiful and what we consider dangerous. Putting our differences on display helps society to become more tolerant and open to queerness. When people feels more stylish, they feel more empowered, and when they can reflect on the outside how they feel on the inside, others feel more empowered too.
You can hear the entire SXSW 2016 talk “Queer Style: Visual Activism and Fashion’s Frontier” at the embedded SoundCloud below.