What Do Dykes Wear? 4 Things Our Forebears Taught Us About Getting Dressed
As the queer community integrates more with the general population, we lose certain aspects of our previous culture.
The Last Call: New Orleans Dyke Bar History Project seeks to document and interpret the neglected history of lesbian bars in New Orleans which have now become extinct. We've invited them to share archival notes about dyke fashion from people who frequented these bars. These interviews give a unique look into how our community style evolved to where it is today. — Qwear team
“We were babies and we were scared shitless and we would get all dressed up like it was Saturday night and we would get in my car...and what we were seeing was this bar on the corner...and um we would just like drive by...and watch from a distance...we would just stand a little way away on the sidewalk and like, practice being lesbians at a bar.” — Alda Talley
Alda’s words describe her first experiences in the vibrant 1970s lesbian bar scene in New Orleans. Since 2013, Last Call: New Orleans Dyke Bar History Project has been interviewing queer folks about their experiences coming up and coming out in the thriving lesbian bars of New Orleans in the 1970s and 80s for the past three years.
When the last dyke bar in New Orleans closed in 2013 (RIP Rubyfruit Jungle), we found ourselves searching for context. What was this vibrant nightlife really like? How did these spaces serve the people who frequented them? What have we lost now that the dyke bars no longer exist? What do the clothes we wear have to do with anything? Over and over again our interviewees described clothing as a site of meaning, risk, and self-expression. Here are four themes that emerged through our interviews about fashion as rebellion against oppressive systems.
1. When we feel safe, we dress our best.
“What the bars meant is that that was the only place all week that people could really be fully themselves....The only place you could go and dress like whatever form of dyke you wanted to dress. You couldn't wear this shit on the street, girlfriend!” — Mary Capps
Bars have long served as havens for LGBTQ people, particularly in the conservative South. We heard repeatedly in our interviews how the bars were where people went to feel safe, to feel free, to be able to express themselves fully, and how often this expression revolved around the clothing people wore.
Paula Kilbourne explains, "I worked Monday through Friday and wore that mask and those clothes that didn't really fit me. But on a Friday nights and Saturday nights, I could be me. I could put on my blue jeans, put on my boots and I could go out and look as butch as I wanted to look. And the bar saved me. It was my freedom....it was the only time that I could be me."
Even when we feel safe, we still obsess over appearances. Mary Pappas shares, “I was always very conscious of what I was wearing....I dressed with an edge, because I wanted to play both sides. You know, I didn't dress femme, but I didn't dress butch...So I dressed in tight shirts, tight pants....I just was very conscious of what I looked like....I'm not saying that anybody else wasn't---I'm sure they were. They were doing their thing. But I just tried to find my identity.”
2. Dressing well is risky business.
Dressing as oneself was precarious in a time period where gender norms were strictly enforced by social penalty, and the social stakes were high but the legal stakes were often higher. Though times have changed, there are still many in the queer community for whom the bar is a safe haven. Transwomen of color in particular still face disproportionate rates of discrimination and harassment.
We heard from various interviewees about how they were harassed or arrested for not wearing clothing that matched their assigned gender. “It was illegal to wear the clothes of the opposite sex,” reports Mary Capps. The risk was particularly high for women and trans people who were what we might now describe as masculine of center. Donna Bechet-Kilbourne elaborates, “[Y]ou could go to jail for just about anything...you had to wear the right kind of clothes...These days it's not as tight, but back then it really really was and the butch women would catch hell. You know the butch women really would catch hell.”
Resourceful queers found ways around restrictive gender roles, however. Interviewee Maxx Sizeler says, "I was always into vintage clothes....It was my segue into men's clothes because I couldn't walk into a clothing store and buy myself men's clothes but I could go into a thrift store....and I didn't have the guts to buy myself men's clothes outside of Levi's and t-shirts.”
3. Dyke bars were both sites of liberation and sites of oppression.
Tensions inside the bars often manifested along gender lines. Mardi Youngblood explains what life was like as a self-described soft butch in a world that wanted to put her in a more rigid box.
“The femmes still wore real feminine clothes, and there was no such thing as a lipstick lesbian. What in the hell was that? If I felt like it, I would wear lipstick. Nobody judged, that’s why I guess people constantly came up to us asking, ‘Which one’s butch and which one’s femme?’....They would say, ‘Well y’all gotta make up your mind. It’s too hard for the rest of us.’”
Alda Talley describes a conversation between herself and another dyke, not at a bar, but at an underground lesbian separatist book distributor.
“I went into Atlantis one time, and I was just coming from work, and I'd have my little skirt and my little blazer, a little makeup on, my little pumps...and this woman in the traditional boots, dirty jeans, funky plaid flannel shirt...and she said to me with great disdain, “Why do you always look so nice? You're just dressing for men.” And I said, “What men would that be? I'm a lesbian. I'm not dressing to attract men.....And if we're talking about liberating women or whatever, I'm gonna wear whatever the fuck I want! I happen to like heels! I think I look nice! This is important to me!”
4. This is New Orleans — We know how to costume!
The bars weren’t always serious. They were also sites of joyous protest. People across the gender spectrum could dance, sing, laugh, and play. Through our interviews we heard stories of queer Carnival traditions in the late 1970s. Here Liz Simon shares about her experiences at Brady’s Bar in 1977.
“My previous partner and I had been there the Mardi Gras before, and we had been in a part of a big contingent of a dyke band, we had like about fifty people marching down the streets of the quarter with kazoos, all of us dressed and I was the drum major and my partner was the majorette, and we had kazoos and we were singing, “Oh when the dykes go marching in!”
We also learned of La Femme, an early drag king troupe made up of mostly women of color, that toured across the South in the 1980s. Co-founder of La Femme, Juanita Pierre, describes the process for joining the troupe and shares a story about a particularly memorable performance.
"You couldn't just join La Femme. You had to audition. Then you had to do a dress performance. And La Femme was made up of four black girls and a white girl. And a little girl named Cynthia came in from Independence, Louisiana. And when you audition, you have to bring your music, so she came in and she asked Leslie, “Uh, you have a quarter?” And we were giggling. "Oh what she need a quarter for?" To play her music on the jukebox.
"And Cynthia got up there and stumbled through her music. Oh it was a hallelujah mess and we all were just laughing at her. But we let her join anyways. So the night of that show, when she performed, I'm telling you we were shocked. She came onto the stage in her tux, we all had pants and shirt but she had on a tux. She had facial makeup on, beard, mustache. Sharp as a brand new nickel! Got up on that stage. I think she did ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ And we were there with our mouths wide open."
Keep This History Alive
Reading these words on a screen is powerful, but if you want to hear the voices of our forebears themselves, listen in to the Last Call Podcast. We’ve released eight episodes of a podcast that features these stories and many others. We’re also turning these rich histories into a dyke bar musical called “Alleged Lesbian Activities,” set to premiere in New Orleans this fall.
We’re running a Kickstarter campaign to support both the podcast and the performance, along with continuing to conduct and transcribe interviews with additional people in New Orleans. Your support helps us to keep our vibrant, vital legacy alive! The Kickstarter is at bit.ly/dykebarmusical.