By Shaun Cole
Throughout the twentieth century there was an undeniable association between homosexuality and fashion. Even in the two centuries preceding the last one, an overt male interest in fashion had associations of effeminacy and, consequently, of sodomy.
The illegality of homosexuality and the moral disapproval that it attracted forced gay men and lesbians to live virtually invisible lives in Britain and North America and in many other parts of the world in the first part of the twentieth century. But gay men and lesbians found ways to express their identities through their dress choices.
The adoption of a series of secret codes allowed gay men and lesbians to spot each other, while remaining invisible to the outside world. The gendered nature of clothing led some gay men to adopt overtly feminine dress and some lesbians to adopt overtly masculine garb as markers of sexual identity.
In the 1960s and the 1970s, however, changes in society and in the self-perceptions of many gay men led to a questioning of traditional dress choices. Many gay men adopted an increasingly masculine image.
The role of gay men in the fashion industry has also changed, from an unspoken assumption that gay men worked in fashion to an overt acknowledgement of the immense contribution they have made at all levels of the fashion industry. The increase in interest in fashion by straight men over the last thirty years has also led to changes in gay dress choice and in the perceptions of what it means to be interested in fashion.
Up until the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s the most important criterion of public dress, for the mass of gay men and lesbians, was to be able to “pass” as heterosexual. Despite this need, many were aware of the dress codes and items that could be used to signal sexual orientation. These symbols of identity often took the form of a specific type or color of accessory and, like other secret symbols, developed and changed over time.
The primary signifier at the time of the Oscar Wilde trials in the 1890s was the green carnation. Indeed, the color green continued to have gay associations in clothing through the first part of the twentieth century. In his ground breaking study Sexual Inversion (1896), sexologist Havelock Ellis observed that homosexuals had a preference for the color green and that in Paris green cravats were worn as a badge.
Before World War II, especially in New York, a red necktie was one of the better known signifiers, mentioned by a number of the elderly men interviewed by George Chauncey for his book Gay New York (1994).
One of the most international and enduring gay signifiers was suede shoes. By the 1960s, particularly in Britain, this signifier was well known even to mainstream society. Anyone wearing suede shoes then was viewed with suspicion.
For some gay men, dress choice became a means of openly declaring sexual identity. Rather than choosing clothes that enabled them to pass as heterosexual, these men often wore clothes that made their sexual identity overt. Living in a society where the prevalent belief was that gay men were female souls trapped inside male bodies (and lesbians male souls trapped inside female bodies), some gay men made the obvious and daring choice of wearing items of dress designed for women.
Overtly gay men sometimes adopted the most obvious signifiers of female mannerisms and dress: plucked eyebrows, rouge, eye make-up, peroxide blond hair, high heeled shoes, women’s blouses. Both contemporary novels and newspaper reports make much of the effeminate appearance of gay men.
Adopting such an appearance was dangerous, for it was risky to be overtly homosexual. In his autobiography The Naked Civil Servant (1968), Quentin Crisp recalls being stopped a number of times by police because of his effeminate appearance.
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