Dressing has always been an extremely important part in expressing personal identity, especially for queers. Among queers, each one of them may have different needs, for the definition of sexuality has changed over time, and a lot more people come to realize that certain type of outfit may not be only suitable for certain gender, and the real dressing freedom is actually gender neutral, which means boys can wear dresses while girls can wear cargo pants, but only for comfy instead of some stereotyped gender expression.
Lesbians: No more ‘Butch’ or ‘Femme
In the 1960s, most of the leading feminists chose to wear trousers, flat boots, a collar and tie, or anything else that could make them look more masculine. At that time, dressing like men was a way to show the women power, which became a certain theory that was supported by many famous lesbian figures, including Elizabeth Wilson and Barbara Gittings, as Elizabeth said: ‘for a lesbian, a hint or more than a hint of masculinity in dress might be less of a challenge to society than a way of simultaneously signalling and defusing the threat of one’s identity.’ Shortly after the most powerful railroad company banned gay people working and thousands of queers were fired, lesbians needed to establish their social status as they were no worse than men, by working, talking, and dressing like men. On the other hand, after being oppressed and defined as innocent and hardworking housewives for centuries, the concept of ‘ Republican Motherhood ‘ was so deep rooted in United States before World War Ⅱ. During the war, many women got the chance to work temporarily for the labor shortage, and soon lost their jobs as the war ended. There was a gap between the reality and their expectations, as women, especially gay women, identified themselves as ‘powerful’ and ‘strong’, while the society expected them to be good mothers and wives. Gay women had no interest in men, and decided to not live to their expectations by dressing as men, so that they wouldn’t be underestimated.
After the famous Stonewall riot, a serial of queer civil movements started. As queers no longer consider protesting as top priority, they started dressing to attract each other. At that time, a butch, sweaty cowboy or worker looking lesbian, was supposed to date a more feminine looking lesbian which we call ‘Femme’. While butch lesbian usually wore leather jacket and trousers, without much argument, there were more than one opinion about how a ‘Femme lesbian’ should be look like. Some might choose to wear more conventional clothes, like a jumper or sweater, for they felt insecure to be stared at by men, and others might wear midi dresses, for them wanted to look more attracted to other women, but also did not want to show too much of their legs. Of course, there were also many gay women chose to dress like ordinary women, or even overdressed, by wearing frills or high heels or other accessories that might seem more traditionally sexual appealing to men, but only for themselves. This kind of difference depended on the society or the social class they lived in, for some of them were rather radical and thought the same way as in 1960s, while others did realize they were dressing for themselves, not for others. But even though they realized they were dressing according to their needs, most of them still needed to hide their sexuality from people they knew, like their parents or teachers, so they might dress more conventionally. In fact, to wear fancy dress or not largely depended on the social class, as the lower class femme lesbians were mostly workers who were still frightened by possible sexual harassment by men and were very insecure, and felt uncomfortable ‘ dressing up like some dumb men’, so they chose to dress less fancy and rather unsexy. While the femme lesbians in the upper class were well-protected and had more passion to express their personal identities. Different thinking methods made femme lesbians rather hard to be identified by each other, so some Europeans lesbians wore pinkie rings to show their sexuality as a way to express their pride and to be identified.
1980s was the age lesbians ‘got through all the layers and became real’, as the ‘butch’ looking dressing style was criticized by a large group of lesbians for it was too stereotyped and when a butch lesbian and a femme lesbian were together, they were still following the trend that a woman should marry a man or someone look like a man. Besides, one in ten butch lesbians in mid-1980s took steroids to make them more muscular. Lesbians in 1980s intended to break down the old butch femme role by creating something different. Lesbians were encouraged to dress more casually to blur the difference between gender, like wearing T-shirts or boots. Some others dressed ‘funky’ and might mixed things up by wearing a suit and tie and high heels. During the 80s, gay issue was no longer as sensitive as before and was no longer treated as mental disease, while many rock music groups emerged, gay celebrities emerged, lesbians no longer needed to prove anything but to look cool. Also in this age, the ‘butch’ and ‘Femme’ pattern became rather unimportant, even former ‘butch’ lesbians tried new dressing styles like pink shirt and purple boots to make them look softer. Some lesbians became ‘Soft butch’ for they wanted to keep their short hair but did not want to look like men. During the 80s, many ‘bold’ looking colors were widely used in queer fashioning designing like gold or silver. It was eventually proved that both long haired and short haired lesbians were interested. 80s was the age of adventure, both straight and gay people wanted to be outrageous and cool, different from others. Lesbians dressed more gender neutral, while they no longer could be defined as women in only two dressing style-butch or femme, but all sorts of dressings according to the trend.
Gays: Redefined Masculinity
As early as 1940s to 1950s, the first group of openly gays appeared. Ironically, most of the famous gay figures served in the army, which was supposed to be the symbol of “Masculinity”. What actually resembles “Masculinity”, or to say, what makes a man, and what should a man wear? In the traditional thoughts, a man, if single, usually wears the clothes his mother or sister bought him. If he is already married, then shopping his outfits becomes his wife’s responsibility. A real tough man shouldn’t care too much about his appearance. A man in purple would be accused of being weak and not “man enough”. Under this kind of pressure, most of the gays just wore ordinary outfits and acted they were straight, except “Their suits might be ‘slightly waisted’ and with very tight trousers”. The situation that there weren’t any boutique shops for gays to shop in has made the drag queens’ life extremely hard, as they lived under discrimination and couldn’t find any suitable dress in the women’s wear area. In contrast, butch-lesbians would be much easier to pick any leather jackets or jeans. However, many drag queens weren’t actual transgenders, they didn’t want to become women, but just to sexually attract straight men by acting like women. In the famous movie “The Gay Deceivers”, Elliot, a heterosexual man who pretended he was gay, totally freaked out when he found out the woman he brought home was a drag queen wearing a wig. He yelled out one of the most famous dialogue in gay movie history: “Why don’t you take your dress off and fight like a man?” For most of the people at that time, “Gay” was a man with a woman’s spirit living inside of him, which “softened” his masculinity. As long as this weak part can be removed, the man would be straight again, so even for drag queens, they were only men in dresses. The gap between gay, transgender and cross-dressing was blur, and all three of the groups
had different needs, but there did was a connection between them-they were all trying to HIDE their identities by dressing like straight men or women. The safe space for gays and drag queens was actually out in the sea, as many young queers joined Navy. Uniforms are always popular among gays, especially for sailors at that time. Gays found the idea of being “Sailors” erotic and sexual appealing, for sailors were usually strong, young men, half naked, or even only wearing underwear. Sailors’ Uniform became a trend among gays for decades, as there was this vivid description of a party full of young gays dressed like sailors, “These men were not generally butch icons such as the cutely bellbottomed sailors who could be hired as a bit of uniformed rough from the armed services. Rather…They were hotel workers – stewards, waiters, pursers, but also some officers – not hornyhanded Able Seamen or the sweating stokers of legend.” The trend that young queers disguised as sailors was a fever, no less than any Hollywood star imitation trend. This Uniform outfit, including sailor, policeman, fireman, or soldier resembles a pursuit of masculinity, also a kind of stereotype by another meaning. Sexual fetishes became parts of scripts for fantasies that aroused bodies to sexual excitement.
The Stonewall Riot was a remarkable page in the queer history, and also a turning point. Before or during this period, there was an interesting queer entertainment called “Drag Show”, the most famous one named 801 Cabaret show composed of 8 cross-dressing men, who pre-claimed they were men in dress. They talked men jokes, wore high heels and necklaces. They needed to be dressed as outrageous as possible, overdressed, with all the fancy accessories, but wasn’t necessarily to be looked like “Actual” Women. People could tell the difference. They did not need them to be looked like women, as the whole “Trans” thing was just a “Queer” Show for weirdos, had no difference had freak show or circus. But after the Stonewall Riot and The Men Outfit Revolution, everything was redefined. Both cross-dressing and masculine looking gays were out on the streets, as some of them were in dresses, while the others “adopted the most masculine dress signifiers they could find-work boots, tight Levi’s, plaid shirts, short haircuts, and moustaches. Their clothes were chosen to reveal and celebrate the contours of the male body.” The concept of “Masculinity” was redefined, as a man can be soft or tough, and a gay was no longer “woman inside a man’s body”, but only a sexuality that is common for both muscular and feminine men. And also there was more than one options to be dressing as a gay, “who did not want to go so far as to cross-dress, sometimes adopted the most obvious signifiers of female mannerisms and dress: plucked eyebrows, rouge, eye makeup, peroxide blond hair, high-heeled Women’s Shoes blouses. Drag Queens no longer needed to pretend or hide anything, as cross-dressing was no longer illegal, they could wear dress both in public and in private occasion. On the other hand, Gay men also tried to keep their masculine figure by going to the gym, wearing tight basketball jerseys and pants.
All in all, both lesbians’ and gays’ outfits in each historical period were selected to show their identities to other people with the same sexuality, and to hide from those may hurt them for that. Both gays and lesbians went through the confusing phase when they were too eager to prove their identities by dressing as the opposite gender, and finally realized that they were just dressing for themselves, and no certain outfit could resemble a certain gender, which is a stereotype itself. Today, we can no longer define if a man or a woman is gay or not by just observing their outfits. Anyone could wear anything, from white, black, grey to purple and pink, from trousers to dresses.
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- Strayhorn, T., & Tillman-Kelly, D. 2013. Queering Masculinity: Manhood and Black Gay Men in College. Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, 1(2)