BACK TO THE FUTURE: DYKE STYLE
Tue, 26 June 2012This article was originally published on Qwear and is republished with their kind permission.
Think back to 1973. Were you born yet? Were you born 10 years later? Can you imagine being out and queer back then? I’m drawing a blank.
That’s why it was so eye-opening when Liza Cowan, one of the founders of Lesbian-feminism, and a trendsetter of the 1970’s Dyke Scene in New York City, reached out to me. She wrote a column called ”What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear,” and founded DYKE A Quarterly a magazine that ran for 6 issues and is currently on archive at The Museum of Modern Art Library in NYC. (You can purchase a magnet to support the archive here.
During our interview, Liza told me that the 1970’s lesbian community’s goal was to expand the surrounding culture’s notion of how women dress and act. Liza reflected that while many of them may have identified as genderqueer or transmasculine today, calling themselves “women” was integral to their empowerment. While our language has expanded since then, our fashion aesthetic has remained strikingly similar! A lot of the styles we wear now are very similar to those in the 70’s, and thrift stores are just as popular now as they were then.
From the first Well Dressed Dyke article, June 1973:
“I know we look different from straight women. Is it a clothes style? A hair style? The movement Lesbians that I know, the community that shows up at conferences, womens’ dances, the firehouse [Lesbian community center] etc. all tend to dress similarly: comfortable work clothes, T-shirts, sturdy footwear, hair cut short or tied back or loose au natural. Women wear put-together suits, and blazers are always popular. But many of the women who go to the bars (at least on weekends) wear outfits straight from Glamour Magazine; platform shoes, tube tops, baubles, crimson mouths and plucked eyebrows. These clothes carry quite a different message.”
Can you draw parallels between the 1970’s Dyke world and the styles you see on Dyke Duds today?
The styles I see on Dyke Duds are not that hugely different from what we’d see on Lesbians in the 70’s…perhaps a bit more preppy (a style I like, by the way.) It seems the outfits you feature would slip into any of our events pretty successfully without looking like time travelers. Is it just that the 70’s are fashionable again? The Dykes I wrote about in the 70’s consciously tried not to overplay their clothing. I used to get mad at women for refusing to dress up for events, because I believed that we owed it to ourselves to show up looking great for each other. What you’d see mostly were jeans, t-shirts or button-down shirts. T-shirts with screen printing by dykes for events or venues were popular.
Frye boots, work boots, converse sneakers were in fashion. Sensible shoes. Shoes you could run away in. There were always lots and lots of bandanas, tied around the neck or the head mostly. In my slide show I divided the lesbian look into two sections: “Dyke Schlep” and “Dyke finery.” They weren’t that terribly different, frankly. Blazers and vests were popular. For a while, it was out of fashion to wear a bra, no matter how big your breasts were, so vests were a good and stylish way to cover up.
The other accessories that you’d always see were buttons - political buttons. I had a business making them, so I was always aware of them, but they were very popular for decorating clothing and bags. I think of them as little billboards.
Where did you used to shop for clothes?
I really don’t know where other Lesbians went shopping. I mainly went to thrift stores and army-navy stores, which was where you could get jeans and work clothes. There weren’t the zillion brands of jeans available now. You could get wranglers, Levi’s and Carharts. That’s all I remember. Some jeans were made for women, with zippers on the side. I loved wool sailor pants, the kind with lots of buttons. You could find those used, along with pea coats, at army navy stores. I bet they don’t even have army navy stores any more. It’s also where you’d get denim work shirts, bandanas, and sensible shoes.
I’d sometimes cruise Bloomingdales looking for clothes, but mainly because that’s where I’d shopped as a kid, and was familiar with it. I’d sometimes shop in the men’s department, which was kind of scandalous, but amusing. Sometimes I’d get cast offs from my father or brothers. My very favorite suede vest was a gift from my dad’s closet. I got some ties from him too. He was puzzled, but generous.
What topics in fashion did you cover in DYKE A Quarterly?
My column was called “What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear,” and it started in another, smaller, Lesbian magazine I published called Cowrie, which ran from 1973 to 1974. I had just come out the year before, at age 20, and had started to dress like my Lesbian peers. I wanted to know why we dressed as we did, and what were the social and political implications.
In the seven part series, I covered general observations, history of Lesbian clothing - including ancient amazons- contemporary Lesbian clothing designers, hair and shoes. In every one, I was trying to decipher the political and social consequences and meanings of our clothing choices.
Let me take a moment to remind the reader that in 1973 there was no internet, no websites or Google searches. All the research I, or anyone, did, was in books or personal interviews. This meant going to the library, writing letters, and finding people to talk to. We had copy machines and typewriters. And telephones. Clothing image sources included fashion magazines, and a few history of fashion books.
What were your main theories in these articles?
My main theory, I suppose, was that contemporary Lesbians didn’t want to look like men, as we were constantly accused of trying to do, but we wanted to look like Dykes and other women-loving-women — to invoke the styles of at least some of our foremothers. We wanted to honor our history and to wear clothes that would signal our identity to other Lesbians. It had nothing to do with wanting to look like men.
Why did our foremothers, some of them, dress in men’s clothing? Because of the power and freedom that men’s clothing both symbolized and allowed. Through the ages men have dressed for freedom, for comfort and for power. Women have been forced to dress as second-class citizens and sexual objects. From shoes to corsets, our clothing has confined and constricted us. Lesbians didn’t want to look like men…they wanted to be free, to catch the eye of other women and to mark ourselves as off-limits to men.
You also made a slideshow of Lesbian fashion. Can you tell us about that?
Yes - In addition to writing about dyke clothing for my magazines, I produced a slide show, also called “What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear.” I made this for the Lesbian History Exploration, a conference that took place in California in 1975. I spent a couple of months taking my camera to lesbian events, photographing what the women were wearing. I also used photos from biographies of famous Lesbians like Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall, and others of that era, to show the evolution of that genre of Lesbian Style. The slide show is at the lesbianherstoryarchives.org in NYC, and I’m trying to get hold of it so I can digitize the slides.
Can you tell us about the Fashion Magazine style image you took for your first publicity flier?
My partner, Penny House, and I had read fashion magazines ever since we were young girls. We both came from upper middle class families in New York City, where fashion and the fashion industry was part of the air we breathed. We had one school chum who moved to England and became one of the world’s first supermodels in the 60’s, and other friends whose parents were photographers, fashion editors, or were featured in magazines like Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, and the like.
We thought it would be hysterically funny to do a photo shoot of Dykes as a fashion image. Dykes — the famously “ugly” and badly dressed. We found a Lesbian photographer who had access to a fashion photography studio. Penny and I gathered a couple of women to join us in the shoot. The now-famous singer,alixdobkin.com was my girlfriend, so of course she came. And Penny’s tall model-esqe friend Val came too. And the photographer’s girlfriend, Debbie, who is now a New York City legislator, was in the shoot as well.
More than anything, though, it is our posture that says “We’re Dykes!” Ladies just did not stand like that; hands on hips, standing squarely on two feet, balanced and ready, staring straight at the camera with no smiles. It would never be unusual to see a group of men with this body language, but a group of women? Highly unusual, and only could be read as Lesbian.