They said/We said: A new exhibit will explore the impact that queer designers have on modern fashion

Photography by Peter Stigter
Photography by Peter Stigter

Leave it to Valerie Steele, the first person to ever tout a fashion studies PhD, to tackle an industry-related question that’s rarely been explored before: why is it exactly that modern fashion history has had so many iconic gay designers?

Steele, a bona fide fashion expert who has pioneered fashion-related academia, said she wants to celebrate gay designers in an upcoming exhibit at The Museum at FIT, where she sits as director and chief curator. Along with these designers’ deserved nod of recognition, she wants to explore the ways in which their sexuality has helped develop the industry into what it is today.

It’s true: even when compared to other creative fields, many if not most of fashion’s influential leaders are gay, including (but obviously not limited to) Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.

Despite the fact that generally speaking, this density of gay designers is common knowledge, Steele points out that no one has ever really delved further into the question of why so many gay people seem to flourish in the industry.

“[…] Nobody’s ever really thought consciously to put the gayness back into fashion history and say, ‘Why are there so many gay people in fashion?’ and ‘Is there a gay aesthetic?’ and ‘What have been the influences of having so many gay people in fashion?'” Steele told Fashionologie.

It’s an interesting and potentially groundbreaking point: given fashion’s runway-to-streets trickle down effect, is it even possible that the fashion industry’s early embracing of homosexuality has helped encourage similar acceptance outside of the industry’s confines? And Steele’s question of aesthetics makes us look at some famed designs in a completely different light: for example, could a straight man have ever created Le Smoking, or was Saint Laurent able to create such a game-changing design thanks in part to his sexuality?

Though we doubt these questions could ever be answered in full, given Steele’s past thought-provoking exhibits, it will definitely be interesting and insightful to see how she navigates her way through these questions.


Dhani Mau: “Admittedly, our initial thought was: ‘Wait, so will it include every (male) designer?’ The fact that gay designers outnumber straight male ones (though, there are more heterosexuals than you might think) makes us wonder how exactly they’ll… narrow that down.” [Fashionista]

The London Look Newsletter: “[…] Let’s drop to our knees and thank Gianni Versace in Heaven that Valerie Steele, Director of the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum is doing her bit to acknowledge homosexuality’s inestimable contribution to fashion.” [The London Look]


Elio Iannacci, features editor: “It. Is. About. Time. Sexuality is such an important part of life and affects everything we do. It cannot help but be part of a designer’s DNA. From Tom Ford to Karl Lagerfeld, queer men (and women) of the cloth have been able to shake up fashion’s status quo with their progressive thinking. It is no secret that so many LGBT people have been at the forefront of envelope-pushing fashion, so having an exhibit that acknowledges their rich heritage and culture is absolutely necessary.

Also: I’m thrilled this exhibit is in the capable hands of Valerie Steele. My only wish is that Harold Koda would co-curate.”

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