Whether it is through the creation of t-shirts to support a cause, or harnessing it as a force to break the boundaries set by society, fashion has always been a tool for feminism.
Fashion can be used as a device to break gender stereotypes, for self-expression and self-affirmation. Now more than ever we are seeing this liberation being celebrated by people of every gender, race and sexuality. Particularly, the rise in cis white men exploring their gender expression through fashion is notable. This can be attributed to the “Harry Styles effect”, a far cry from toxic masculinity, men are embracing traditionally “feminine” aesthetics.
This should be celebrated, but there is a danger that cis white men are becoming the focus of this movement to break down gender stereotypes, when they are not the pioneers that media paints them to be (queue the thousands of articles of cishet men being hailed as ground breaking for wearing black nail polish). An example which is causing debate currently, is the inclusion of a cis staight contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. There is a difficult line which is being crossed here. It isn’t clear yet whether this is a step towards true inclusivity, or an intrusion of queer safe spaces.
Billy Porter came under fire for calling out the favouritism of Harry Styles after his December 2020 Vogue cover. Though they later publicly apologised to Styles for having his name in their mouth, they raised interesting points on who should really be the poster child of the movement to change fashion norms. When being thankful for the progress which has been made, we need to remember the history of black and latinx queer people who paved the way and endured the real battle, so that we could enjoy the rewards we presently enjoy.
The Harlem Drag Scene
The LGBT+ community has been historically faced with adversity simply for existing. It took courageousness to not compromise on self-expression when looking anything other than heterosexual would more than likely end in abuse. Haven was found in the underground ball scenes where they could be free to express themselves in front of a crowd who accepted them. The most notable example which comes to mind is the Harlem drag scene. The documentary ‘Paris is Burning’ gives a glimpse into the lives of the queers and queens of the day, the hardships they felt, and the joy they found in the balls. The personal interviews of Dorian Corey, Pepper Labeija, Octavia St. Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza offer insight into the culture of the balls, but more importantly, the way they survived in a world that was trying to tear them down.
As often happens in history, this subculture went on to inspire popular culture. Though more often than not, it went without credit. Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ is heavily influenced by voguing, a dance created in the Harlem ball scene in the 80’s. The debate of whether this was appropriation or appreciation is still up for debate. Some would say that Madonna is just another white cis person getting credit where it isn’t due, whilst others hail her celebration of queer culture, and thank her for sharing her limelight.
Appreciation not appropriation
To achieve appreciation of queer fashion rather than appropriation, the most important factor is education. Attributing credit to those who are often erased from history is so important. It is the least of the reparations which need to be done. We should question who is seemingly leading the cause and why they are there. Are there any societal perks which has made them more palatable? What exactly are the privileges which helped them reach where they are today? What are the origins of their aesthetic? Is it borrowed?
Pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable for people to wear is always a good thing, no matter your race, sexuality or gender identity. Self-expression through fashion is freeing, beautiful and fulfilling. When homage is paid to the people who fought for this to be normalised, we can wholly celebrate how lucky we are to be living at this incredible time in history. We are rewriting the rule book.