You can count me among those who adored seeing Jaden Smith in a dress, because he looked hot, and fuck you, Trump America. As for my own style, I truly wish I was the hipster who broke your gaydar, but I mostly just identify as broke, and my fondness for Uniqlo ultra-stretch men’s chinos is mostly about how they are skinny in the leg and roomy in the waistline. So what attracts a white, straight, middle-aged woman to young queer fashion of color? Could it just be a craving for…more?
Never tiring of the role fashion plays in dismantling gender constructs, I showed up for “Ungendering Fashion,” a discussion offered last Thursday by the Museum of the City of New York. Moderated by the well-known fashion and culture blogger Anita Dolce Vita, the panel included leading queer fashion writers and designers: Luna Luis Ortiz, photographer, HIV/AIDS activist, and expert of ballroom culture; Peche Di, the founder of Trans Models New York; writer, speaker, activist and model Ryley Rubin Pogensky; and Sara Geffard, founding editor of A Dapper Chick.
Reflecting on the ways that fashion opens up new possibilities for self-expression, all agreed that the queer push is leaking into the mainstream. I love to hearken back, as Anita brought up, to the danger “women in pants” once posed to the American family. Reflecting on the long history of gendered-fashion defiance, panelists recollected images of Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich in their suits, and Peche reminded everyone how Coco Chanel took her personal-style cues from her husband’s wardrobe, because who gets through a day of doing anything interesting in a big skirt? Luna’s observation amused me the most, since he and I both date back to the eighties: Remember the earring? No one today is beating up the boys who wear them, but Luna’s type used to “get popped in the eye” for such a thing. This has been going on forever, but always starting in the queer underground, and fashion has always been the voice for breaking boxes.
Nearing that intersection where fashion, race, class and gender converge, Anita wonders what androgyny really looks like. Is it multi-hued, as Luna remembers from the balls, where there were “hundreds of genders and expressions,” or is it the firm “either-or, can’t tell” category that Ryley knows first-hand from the modeling world? Women may claim the space of white male power by presenting “dapper,” but what is the power of feminine attire? Anita was encouraged to see Jaden Smith in his dress on as prominent a platform as GQ. But she was discouraged to then read the comments, which were “80-90% negative.” Sara observed that femininity is not a fixed concept, citing other cultures where “dresses” are commonly worn by men. In our culture, she decries the “strange fear of gender reassignment” via what we put on.
In fashion, without even speaking, you are starting a conversation, and perhaps challenging more than you even intend. Culture inevitably creeps from the underground to the mainstream, and Luna remembers the “children of the ballroom” who “made anything out of anything” only to see their originality walk the runway without them while others got rich. Sara is honored to have a partnership with GQ Magazine as a “menswear influencer,” and even if she still loses opportunities to cis white men, she is glad to be in a position to support and inspire youth. Peche relishes seeing “differences bloom,” and “flowers as beautiful as they want to be.” It is generally agreed that queer style has an emancipating power beyond fashion and even beyond the queer community.
Ryley encourages us all to mix it up, and I’m all ears: “Ascribe to what you ascribe to,” he says. If you like getting your nails done, then do it. Wearing a suit and tie today does not mean you can’t wear a dress tomorrow. “Validate yourself first, and other validation will follow.”
This event took place at the Museum of the City of New York as part of their series Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture, which explores the queer creative networks that sprang up in the city over the 20th century. Join them for a series of programs that reveal this often hidden history and celebrate the power of artistic collaboration to overcome prejudice. Follow these voices: @sarageffrard @inbetweenthebun @pechedi @lunalens @anitadolcevita