An assistant scuffled into the entryway of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology holding a disco ball. “Where’s Fred? I have his earring.” Laughter filled the room, foreshadowing the delightful display that would follow.
At a media preview for “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk,” co-curator Valerie Steele credited senior curator Fred Dennis with the inspiration for the exhibit—a two-and-a-half-year-long project that culminated in the first major museum exhibit of LGBT influences in the fashion world.
“It was Fred’s idea,” co-curator Valerie Steele said. “We were going out to lunch and he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do an exhibit on gay fashion?’ I immediately said, ‘Yes we must do that!’”
And they succeeded. Two rooms of haute couture recount the evolution of fashion based on developments within LGBT politics. The purpose of the investigation is to offer an “alternative fashion history” that allows gay designers to be recognized for their contributions, Steele said.
The entry room pays homage to the 18th century. The first garment is a dress worn by the “mollies,” cross-dressers in early 18th century London who were considerably ahead of their time (homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967).
The following room holds the world’s finest, from Chanel to Dior to Balenciaga, all complemented by a lovely musical selection curated by Scott Ewalt. The exhibit, though tending toward impartiality, critiques Chanel’s homophobic tendencies, which led her to make condescending remarks about her gay colleagues.
Despite this negativity, Chanel’s own work was often edgy and implemented some androgynous aspects. In fact, it has been theorized that she had an affair with her female friend Misia Sert.
The curators’ focus on both designers and the courageous individuals who sported their creations—outfits worn by Andy Warhol, Marlene Dietrich, and Hal Rubenstein—dazzle onlookers. The implications of stepping outside of society’s fashion comfort zone are also recognized. One plaque describes Dietrich as “the best-dressed man in Hollywood.”
The transition in style after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 is starkly obvious as the mannequins are arranged in chronological order. Gay men left the realm of ritzy glamour to embrace a more macho template, sporting jackets and toned abs, in order to avoid violence against homosexuals. On the other hand, the exhibit suggests that lesbians refused fashion altogether to embrace an asexual look.
No movement had impacted the LGBT fashion world as much as the fight against AIDS. Designers like Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly are remembered for their abilities, which were extinguished because of the disease, and paper dresses by Andre Walker and Geoffrey Beene for the Love Ball—an AIDS benefit held in 1989—demonstrate the involvement of designers in raising awareness for AIDS victims. Famous T-shirts, like the “Read My Lips” print, adorn the walls to reveal a different, more politically energized side of clothing.
As the exhibit moves into the 1980s and ’90s, designer Walter Van Beirendonck’s sentiment comes through.
“For me, sex is as normal as eating,” he once said. In this era, fashion was made to look sexy, largely thanks to people like Jean Paul Gaultier, who redefined innerwear by making it outerwear: His cone bra dress is the poster look for the exhibit. As S&M and dominatrix culture also infiltrated the scene, leather and chains entered the dialogue of haute couture. Steele’s favorite piece, a Versace leather ball gown, screams of sirens and sexuality.
The exhibit concludes with several stunning wedding fashions that adorned same-sex couples on their special day. The looks represent the desire for LGBT equality in marriage and the poignant visual ties together the exhibit’s emotional journey.
“I think for Fred it was a question of educating young people to remember all of the LGBT [designers] who have been involved in fashion history,” Steele said.
Thanks to their effort, they achieved that goal.
“A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk” runs through Jan. 5. The museum is located at 227 W. 27th St. Admission is free.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the Love Ball as the Life Ball. Spectator regrets the error.