When I tell people that I am doing my research on the topic of ‘queer fashion’ they mostly respond by saying that it sounds interesting or ‘cool’ but not necessarily knowing what it means exactly. I don’t blame them, even researching the subject myself sometimes I struggle to pinpoint an exact concrete meaning for ‘queer fashion’. Synthesizing all that I have read so far, both academically and in fashion magazines and other industry sources, I have come up with not one unique definition but rather a collection of helpful coordinates. In my own working definition, queer fashion is a challenge to the established gender binary in the fashion industry; at the forefront of diversity discourses in fashion including the representation of trans and gender nonconforming models and creatives; inclusive of discourses on the commodification of LGBTIQ identities, the Pink Pound and the annual merchandise of Pride collections. Queer fashion therefore exists somewhere within the intersections between identity, activism and commerce. Nevertheless, the work of a particular fashion creative or brand may not touch on all the above points, or it may specialise on a particular subtopic or identity group.
I have decided to fight against my urges to divide queer fashion interventions into a hierarchy of ‘real’ and/or ‘good’ —when they come from independent queer designers and small brands or focus mostly on the diversity and challenge to the gender binary aspects— to less ‘real’ and/or ‘bad’ in the case of more commercial campaigns from mainstream brands producing Pride collections. The 1990s and early 2000s saw a surge in publications tackling the idea of the Pink Pound, meaning organizations targeting LGBTIQ communities as ‘new’ markets, including the work of Wardlow (1996), Hennessy (2000), Chasin (2001), and Sender (2004). The current situation, especially when it comes to fashion, is a bit more complex than the first set of ads depicting two cisgender and white gay men in a somewhat homoerotic situation to sell bee. Nowadays most brands that produce Pride collections donate a percentage of their proceedings to existing LGBTIQ charities, and it is becoming more common to enlist the help of LGBTIQ individuals through the creative process and fronting the ensuing campaigns. This does not mean that they always ‘get it right’, or that platforming the voices of LGBTIQ communities lay at the core of their motivations. The past ten years have seen many Western countries passing LGBTIQ friendly legislations like same-sex marriage, and an explosion of queer characters appearing on popular media. Younger generations, including millennials and zoomers, are more likely to have seen the emergence of positive portrayals of LGBTIQ narratives, as well as being more likely to believe that traditional gender norms are outdated. It is proving to be a lucrative business to capture the imagination of younger consumers by speaking their language, which may likely include a preference for a more fluid approach to gender as well as a heightened sense of social justice, be it around issues of climate change or employee exploitation.
The main difference currently is that companies are less likely to get away with presenting lacklustre campaigns that offer a weak corporate attempt at ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusion’ supposed to benefit LGBTIQ communities and gender nonconforming individuals without the inclusion of their actual experiences and bodies. The ensuing social media commentary and academic criticism are fierce. It may be because the imagination of queer creatives is too bountiful to be contained in a grey oversized t-shirt labelled as ‘gender-neutral’. It may be because after witnessing the violence and trauma experienced by queers of colour and transgender people, a couple of uncontextualized happy rainbows feel dissonant and unfulfilling. Yet, even holding these realisations I struggle to label all corporate attempts to reach the LGBTIQ community as ‘bad’ or ‘exploitative’. The truth is that queer fashion creatives are both thriving and struggling. While brands such as Art School, Telfar Clemens, Eckhaus Latta, Chromat or William Dill-Russell are celebrated, and gender fluid spaces such as Verb London and The Phluid Project in New York are described as vital and ‘a long time coming’, it is a struggle for many queer creatives to cope with the financial and emotional challenges of maintaining a small fashion brand afloat. Some queer creatives survive on a blend of working on their own projects and freelancing for other brands in various capacities. Here is where my hope lies, at the possibility of better collaborations which not only benefit the image and bank accounts of mainstream brands, but also fairly compensate and platform the work of the queer and gender nonconformative creatives at the centre of their campaign’s messages and aesthetics. I believe we are past the point where LGBTIQ communities are expectantly waiting for ‘visibility’ from big brands. My research has so far shown that queer creatives know their own worth, and that they are fiercely loyal to brands that resonate with their experiences and politics, but also fiercely critical of attempts that seem insincere.
The fashion industry holds a lot of monetary and symbolic power, and much of its history and successes lie on the shoulders of queer creatives who have not always been recognised or able express their thoughts and craft unconstrained. I believe it is the industry’s responsibility to share those material and symbolic resources with queer and gender nonconformative creatives, especially since their input is so vital in the championing of new aesthetic forms of expression, and in pushing the boundaries of what is legible, beautiful, and desirable. The idea of queer fashion may expand over many possible strands of thought, but at the core it aims to champion the creativity and potential of queer and gender nonconformative individuals. By just existing and expressing themselves freely they will inevitably shake the very foundations of fashion, and hopefully from the wreckage will emerge a fairer and truly more inclusive industry.