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New York museum exhibit explores fashion, sexuality

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

The last of New York's fashion week revelers have drained their champagne glasses, and the seasonal fashion train begins to roll through London, Milan and finally Paris, where the runway presentations wrap up in October. The global search is on for all that is new and different. But one notion remains stubbornly unchanged from city to city, year to year.

The stereotype of the gay designer is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it is often assumed to be a fact. Whether industry insider or casual observer, people often presume that a male designer is gay until he announces himself otherwise. And while there are a host of successful, brand-name women in the industry, lesser-known ones have gone on record about feeling disadvantaged because of decision makers' subconscious belief that gay men make better designers.

There are no statistics about the numbers of gay men in the fashion industry. And, as fashion historian Valerie Steele once noted, “there is no gay gene for creativity.” But the fashion industry has been undeniably more welcoming of openly gay men than other fields have been.

Yet no one in the mainstream has ever tried to examine the impact of homosexuality on fashion, says Steele, who is director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “It had only been done in LGBT centers, and it had only focused on gay imagery in fashion.”

From an academic, historical and cultural point of view: “It's like an open secret,” Steele says. “Gays and lesbians had been hidden from fashion history. We're putting them back in.”

“A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk” opened Sept. 13 at the Museum at FIT and runs through Jan. 4. Steele and co-curator Fred Dennis spent two years researching the extent to which gay men and lesbians worked in the fashion industry and the ways in which their participation shaped aesthetics. By far, however, gay men received the bulk of the exhibition's attention.

The exhibition's most poignant moment — and certainly its ripped-from-the-headlines one — is when it acknowledges the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act. Two understated business suits — one in midnight blue, the other in a slightly lighter shade of navy — represent this summer's upending of DOMA by the Supreme Court. The suits are the wedding ensembles worn by Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and his husband, Jay Inkpen, a freelance producer. The two men were married Dec. 27, 2012 at New York's City Hall — a fact that Kolb tweeted to the world.

Kolb's two-button Rag & Bone suit and Inkpen's midnight-blue one from J. Crew are the epitome of modern American menswear — completely devoid of subversive subtext. The suits, despite subtleties of silhouette and lapel width, are utterly traditional. The fact that a community's journey from red velvet cloaks worn in the shadows, to leather harnesses worn in protest, to transparent trousers worn in defiance finally comes to rest on business suits that would not be out of place if worn on Capitol Hill is testament to the power and reach of fashion itself and the influence that gay men and women have had on it.

The FIT exhibition seeds a conversation about the way in which designers — whether gay or identifying somewhere closer to the middle of the sexual spectrum — have used fashion as a form of self-definition and have wrestled with notions of femininity versus masculinity in their collections. Ultimately, it asks how those machinations have altered the culture at large.

Of course, simply because designers are gay, lesbian or bisexual does not mean that sexuality must be a central theme in their work. Sexuality is not identity. ABut “A Queer History of Fashion” offers examples of occasions when fashion has made memorable statements when words were elusive. Eloquent messages of hope and anger are in the myriad one-of-a-kind garments and T-shirts made in support of AIDS awareness campaigns by designers such as Geoffrey Beene and Franco Moschino. Heart-breaking truth is visible in the emotional work of designer Alexander McQueen, who committed suicide in 2010. He described his fashion as an expression of his inner life.

“Fashion is communication in a way other than speaking,” Steele says. And when people are silenced, whether in New York in the 1950s or Russia today, fashion can be the only way for them to tell their story.

Robin Givhan is a contributing writer for The Washington Post.

 

 
 


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