Fashioning an identity: Struggling with the confounding concept of lesbian chic

Lesbian Chic
Photography by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty
Lesbian Chic
Photography by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

By Zoe Whittall

In the early ’90s, I would take an hour-long bus trip from the suburbs of Montreal to hang out with friends in the city’s downtown core. I remember seeing billboards featuring lithe girls (who mainly looked like boys) posing in black and white alongside Highway 20, selling the apotheosis of gender erasure via CK One fragrance ads. It was a time when Quebec-born supermodel Ève Salvail was the biggest question mark on the scene. She sent shockwaves through the industry when she first walked down Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway with a shaved and tattooed head. She represented an overtly androgynous presence in the fashion industry and seemed, to me, as rare and queer as a glitter-encrusted rainbow unicorn.

But I’ll say it straight: Lesbians are rarely part of the fashion party. The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and its museum’s latest exhibit,  A Queer History of Fashion—which opens Sept. 13—touches on the subject.

Lesbian Chic
Author Zoe Whittall

Truth be told, Salvail didn’t come out publicly until 2007, and often it is gay men who design clothes to be worn by straight women in hopes of attracting the male gaze. Lesbian élan was, and sometimes still is, seen as an oxymoron. Legendary lesbian designer/Sex and the City costumer Patricia Field recently told The Advocate magazine, “Any place you can go from [the stereotypical image of] ‘lesbian’ would be chic, I imagine.” And there you have it—no matter how many self-pronounced L.A. dykes press their A-cups into L Word-like power suits, the idea of gay-girl fashion will always be suspect. Add to that lesbian feminism’s critique of sexist power structures and the objectification of women’s bodies, and it’s easy to see how the fashion apparatus became “the enemy” and the idea of a fashionable lesbian became a joke.

As with all major life transitions—think about the post-divorce haircut or graduation tattoo—coming out of the closet meant I needed to change my look. Until then, music had always dictated my sartorial choices. I was 18, with long, blonde hair, and very much concerned—though in true ’90s style I would never admit it—with style. I dressed like every other indie-rock fan: miniskirts, One Star sneakers, off-season toques, Sonic Youth baby T-shirts, bracelets made from bike chains. When I wore dresses, they were plaid or lace, fabrics whose very pattern made an ironic comment on femininity. I shopped only at thrift stores along Mont Royal. My most prized possessions were a gauzy purple mini-dress and silver combat boots that musician Melissa Auf der Maur left behind in a bag that I found in my first apartment. My style icons were Kathleen Hanna and Kim Gordon. I found myself at lesbian bars where my baby-doll dress and Chainsaw Records sweatshirt read as heterosexual, where even my ironic take on femininity got in the way of getting laid.

That changed when my first girlfriend took me to see Go Fish, an early representation of modern lesbian life on film. The characters wore suspenders, knee-length jean shorts and leather vests, and I wondered silently, “Does being queer mean I can’t have any style?”
Unless I had a butch girl on my arm, I was never read as queer. This of course had its privileges in wider culture, but the invisibility got on my nerves. Butch women had style —dapper suits and tough leather jackets—but femme gals like me could only mirror straight culture or attempt to play with it sarcastically, employing extra red lipstick, gaudier animal prints, shorter skirts. I was fine with being a femme for a while—but things changed as I grew. Born of politics and a rejection of patriarchy—which, ironically, resulted in a rejection of the feminine—it felt like there was a community-wide obsession with androgyny and a significant amount of peer pressure to dress more middle-of-the-road. In one tonsorial misstep, I shaved my head, but felt neither Sinéad sexy nor Ani DiFranco rebellious.
As my hair grew, I became more comfortable and less concerned with fitting into a particular aesthetic to cement my identity. What is fashion, after all, if not constantly in flux? Fast-forward to the new millennium: Ellen DeGeneres is a Cover Girl model and her wife, Portia de Rossi, is the star of shampoo ads. The more mainstream representations of queerness emerge, the more brash my style icons become. I am now drawn to the gorgeous, glamorous excess of Beth Ditto. The Arkansas-born singer’s confidence with clothes seems to illuminate a path for the riot grrrl in me who has grown up. She’s beautiful and brazen and never seems to reconsider her femininity.

As I approach middle age, I have toned down my style, while young queers embrace a whole new era of fashion. They open stores geared toward tomboys and custom-fitted suits; out models like Tasha Tilberg and Freja Beha Erichsen are no longer anomalies. There are important conversations happening about the complex relationship between what we wear and who we are. Queer and feminist thinkers no longer feel pressured to dismiss fashion entirely, or trash talk about selling out or conforming to impossible standards. The didacticism of the identity politics era has softened to make way for a more meaningful dialogue on the ways in which style can be a part of everyone’s lives. And when you go to a queer bar, there is an array of styles and less pressure to demonstrate your politics with shorn hair or T-shirt slogans. That said, there are days when I just want to wear my Vision Street Wear T-shirt—the one I lost in a pit at Lollapalooza ’96. But some lessons are learned the hard way.