Interview with Valerie Steele, Curator of the Queer History of Fashion Exhibit at FIT

Our racks of bow ties and closets full of leather dresses might carry an emotional backstory for us, but now academics are also showing an interest in our fabulous wardrobes.

The Queer History of Fashion Exhibit at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) is the first major exhibit to focus on the queer community’s contributions to the fashion industry. Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of FIT, together with colleague Fred Dennis, spent over two years researching and collecting pieces for the exhibit, which spans 300 years.

Valerie Steele 2013

Valerie Steele (from: nymag.com)

Though I haven’t gotten the chance to visit FIT yet, I had the pleasure of speaking with Valerie Steele about her work. Even though her background in queer fashion and culture is mostly academic, I felt that her words were spot on! Read on for her experience with pulling together the show, as well as thoughts about the term “lesbian chic,” and what makes fashion queer.

All further images courtesy of queerfashionhistory.com

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Pretty Gentlemen

How did your interest in queer fashion emerge?

It was my colleague Fred Dennis who came up with the idea of the show. We were just crossing the street, talking about various shows we could do next, and he said, wouldn’t it be cool to have a show about gays in fashion? We realized that no one had done it before on a large scale. A few LGBTQ centers had done shows. Through our research, we found that small center in Switzerland had done a show, but it was more about gay male sexuality than fashion. We were excited to put together the first show that would really highlight the LGBTQ community’s contributions to fashion.

So how did you get started working on the exhibit?

We put together an advisory committee of people who gave suggestions. That was international. Some of them wrote essays, others came to New York and had long sessions, others loaned clothes. We worked for more than two years, identifying things we knew they wanted to have in the show. For example, we knew they wanted the Versace Dress and Jean Paul Gaultier’s sailor outfit. We were surprised at how far back we were able to go. At first we thought it would be a 20th century show, or start with Oscar Wilde. But then we found a lot of research about gay male fashion, and found it was exciting to get to go back that far.

How did you collect the items?

It’s always like a treasure hunt. It’s the fun part, if you’re not too rushed. You just start looking up who might have something; you ask people who were associated with certain people who are still alive. One of our advisors said, you’ve got to get something from The Cockettes.That’s a queer performance group from the 70s. We thought none of them would be alive anymore, but we asked around and followed a trail of emails until we got in touch with one of the members who was able to lend an outfit.

Was there anything you wished you could get that you weren’t able to?

Only one thing. I had wanted to get the Chanel couture wedding dresses from 2013. They were perfectly willing to lend them, but there was a problem with the feathers that they couldn’t get past the food and game administration.

Do you believe that queer male and female designers influenced one another, or did you find that they worked independently?

That’s a good question. It wasn’t so much about influencing each other, but drawing on queer vernacular style. So many queer women wore menswear. Yves Saint Laurent said Marlene Dietrich inspired him when he designed his tuxedo for women. Liz Collins, a lesbian designer and artist in the show did a dress made out of plaid shirts, which is referencing a gay and lesbian style of plaid shirts that goes back to the 1970s.

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Marlene Dietrich, Lesbian Elegance

How do you feel about the term “lesbian chic?”

I think it’s a term that is not just a media creation of the 1990s. There’s a book called Paris Gay 1925, which was a series of interviews with French gays and lesbians. They interviewed one lesbian who talked about “lesbian elegance.” They had a style through which they could all recognize each other. Then in the 1970s you’ve got this movement that was anti-fashion. They would wear denim overalls, plaid shirts, Birkenstocks, Doc Martens. People forgot that there had been all these chic lesbians a few decades before. Once it turned around to the 80s or 90s, people took elements from punk, rock and roll styles, and it was more overtly sexy, playing with stereotypes of femininity and masculinity.  

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Les Garçonnes, 1920s

The press release talks about “The garçonne look,” saying that it brought 1920s lesbian style into high fashion. Can you tell me more about this look? 

That was the very short hair and boyish or mannish style. Not many pants, but it included skirts and a jacket with a monocle or necktie. Together with the short hair and relatively flat chest, it struck contemporaries as androgynous. A lot of heterosexual women liked it too. The name was taken from a novel La Garçonne, in which the heroine sleeps with another woman.

The subversion of gender expectations is queer in itself, but what queer attributes can you tell us about Katherine Cornell’s lavender dress and Madeleine Vionnet’s dress?

It’s partly a question of highlighting who the players were. We now know that Katherine Cornell was a lesbian and Madeleine Vionnet was almost certainly bisexual, and inspired by beautiful women through their fashion. 

So it sounds like it’s not so much about the item itself, but who was wearing it.

Well, it’s about who designed it, who wore it, or the context. Lavender was a color associated with queerness.

One of the issues raised through my readers and femme friends is that, if you’re a feminine queer woman, it’s hard to be recognized by your own community. Do you have any thoughts about that?

That’s been an issue for a very long time. It’s very clear that lesbians and gay men have had to conceal their sexuality for safety reasons, but they also had to reveal it enough so that they could find each other. Over the course of that, dandyism became important to both lesbians and gay men. On the one hand, it’s masculine and seems straight, but if you carry it to an extreme, it becomes almost a parody of itself and become a function of queerness. Oscar Wilde had a great line where he talks about the “dangerous and delightful distinction of being different.”

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Dandies and Aesthetes

How would you recommend queer women with feminine presentations express their queerness if they aren’t interested in the dandy look?

It’s gotten much more loose, and very much a generational thing and it changes constantly. Younger lesbians are taking tricks on what their friends are wearing. There seems to be a lot more diversity among lesbian style today than among gay male style today. I think a lot of gay men are emotionally invested in being fashionable, whereas a lot of lesbian women are interested in creating a look for themselves. There seems to be less investment in high fashion. Although when Hedi Slimane started designed menswear for Dior, a lot of so-called “power lesbians” started buying his suits in their size.

A Queer History of Fashion: From The Closet To The Catwalk at The Museum at FIT runs though January 4th, 2014. View more on the exhibition website. They are also holding a free symposium with an international array of scholars, authors, designers, and curators November 8-9. I will be there!

As Qwear's Founding Editor, Sonny’s work centers around envisioning a future in which the clothing people wear does not dictate their chances of survival. Sonny was awarded 2015 dapperQ of the Year and was the first trans blogger to be sponsored by Topman. In March 2016, Sonny spoke at South by South West's first official queer fashion panel.