Despite the Presence of Gay Men in Fashion, Lesbian & Queer Remain Underrepresented

Gay fashion designer Marc Jacobs arrives at the 2010 FIAF Trophee des Arts presentation at the Plaza hotel on December 09, 2010 in New York City. lev radin / Shutterstock.com

On Friday night of New York Fashion Week at Milk Studios in New York City, designer Becca McCharen debuted the newest collection for her womenswear brand Chromat. This season, Martine Rothblatt, the trans-identified female CEO and highest paid female executive in the United States, served as the inspiration for the presentation. The models that came down the runway in McCharen’s bondage-esque designs were a surprisingly diverse group, featuring transgender models Giselle Xtravaganz and Juliana Huxtable. But, while it was inspirational to see models that are openly trans-identified on the catwalk, why is the visibility of LGBTQ individuals still an anomaly?

“It’s up to designers to design for different bodies, to cast different bodies in their runway shows and their ad campaigns; it’s a domino effect starting with the designer,” says McCharen in an interview with The Huffington Post.

“Chromat has cast several amazing trans women, androgynous women, queer women and men in our runway shows and I hope to see more designers doing the same. It’s exciting to be at the beginning of trends and knowing we have had the power to change both styles and minds.”

While we see award-winning gay designers like Calvin Klein, Christian Dior and Marc Jacobs as the face of success in fashion, transmodels like Andrea Pejic and Ines Rau Linder are just beginning to gain international recognition, and lesbian and queer individuals are almost obsolete in the industry.

In the United States alone, 8 million adults identify as members of the LGBTQ community. Yet, at an event like New York Fashion Week, very few people are included to represent this population of diverse genders and sexualities. The fashion industry is said to reflect the current societal state, but with the politics moving more towards inclusivity of LGBTQ-identifying individuals, such as the approval of non-discriminatory protection in the workplace and the acceptance of gay marriage, many are wondering when fashion will do the same.

From the outside, it can be easy to overlook the under representation of the LGBTQ community, because the fashion industry has been so accepting of gay men. Over the past century, the industry has taken note of their influence in style and welcomed them with open arms. Although there are no concrete statistics, gay men have become an increasingly large part of fashion, acting as style experts and often acting as the face of the industry, as can be seen through the emmy-award winning show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

As Robin Givhan writes in The Washington Post, “The 21st century brought gay men who were crafting traditional styles yet assembling them with more glamour and greater sex appeal. And, wearing them with more confidence.”

 Models walk runway during Fall/Winter 2013 presentation for Marc by Marc Jacobs collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Lincoln Center on February 11, 2013 in New York lev radin/ Shutterstock.com

Models walk runway during Fall/Winter 2013 presentation for Marc by Marc Jacobs collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Lincoln Center on February 11, 2013 in New York
lev radin/ Shutterstock.com

 

A piece in the The New York Times in 2005 explored the discrimination even straight women feel in competition to gay men after designer Tara Subkoff referred to fashion as a “gay man’s profession.” But, over the years it is clear that other members of the LGBTQ community aren’t associated with style in the same way.

According to Anita Dolce Vita the Editor-in-Chief of dapperQ, a queer style website, gay men are the only ones within the LGBTQ community that have historically been credited with an expertise in fashion, which means others in the community have a hard time being recognized for their contributions.

“We don’t think of lesbians and other types of people in the community as being fashionable or being fashion experts. We don’t see them in roles as designers during New York Fashion Week very much or in fashion journalism.”

Lesbian women who have been successful in fashion, like J. Crew’s Jenna Lyons, are the ones that fit into the heteronormative expectations of femininity.  As fashion editor Lizz Rubin says in an interview with Fashionista, “In my experience, the fashion community is open to lesbians and queer women, as long as they are more femme or androgynous. I don’t think the fashion industry is as respectful or responsive to butch women.”

In 2013, fashion historian Valerie Steele curated the exhibition “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk” at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York.  The exhibition presented the significant contributions to fashion from the lesbian, transgender and gay community over the past 300 years that has been largely  left out of history.

As FIT’s site states, “The exhibition traced how the gay vernacular styles changed after Stonewall, becoming increasingly “butch.” The exhibition showed how lesbian style evolved, “moving from the ‘butch-femme’ paradigm toward an androgynous, anti-fashion look, which was, in turn, followed by various diversified styles that often referenced subcultures like punk.”

Ironically, the fashion industry that prides itself on being forward thinking has too often appropriated queer culture as a trend instead of confronting the issue as a shift in cultural awareness. In August of 2012, Style.com featured a controversial article claiming the influx of combat boots was a sign of “Lesbian Chic.” Not to mention, the countless ads featuring scantily clad women posing suggestively, such as Rihanna and Kate Moss’ spread in V Magazine, as a way to exploit lesbianism as a titillation for men rather than a personal choice for lesbian women.

“I don’t think that it is very helpful that fashion plays with gender, but they do so as a trend without recognizing that they people dress and express themselves is not a trend, but their lived experience,” says Dolce Vita. “So I hope that seeing Elliott Sailors and Erica Linder (females who model men’s clothing) modeling menswear as female-identified becomes something we see regularly. “

In order to provide fashion shows for people with alternative gender expressions, LGBTQ events have been stationed all over the country. This year marks the first Queer Fashion Week in Oakland, California, while dapperQ hosts a show annually for the “unconventionally masculine” in addition to several others.

“It’s hard because this type of style isn’t taken as seriously,” Dolce Vita says. “A lot of times when I say we are putting on this type of fashion show, people are very confused by it, they don’t understand the market or how it is representative of style.”

While these events provide opportunities for brands and consumers who aren’t yet accepted in the mainstream, inclusion into events like Fashion Week are important for the LGBTQ community and with an $830 million dollar buying power, the retailers could benefit just as much from this neglected market.

“I think that it is important to be involved in an event such as New York Fashion Week because it is recognition of fashion as an art form. There is a lot of consumerism during Fashion Week, but it is also a nod to the designers,” says Dolce Vita.

“I think it does a disservice to us and to society in general when it is only focused on very gender binary types of style because it sets the tone for artistry and for what trickles down and gets translated into ready-to-wear retail markets.”

For LGBTQ-identifying individuals, representation in the greater fashion landscape begins at events like Fashion Week, where they can be visually represented as part of the market and acknowledge for their contributions to the industry. The hope for people like Dolce Vita, is that the recognition will spread from the catwalk to large retailers.