FIT’s Fresh Take on History via Monocles, Wigs, and Gowns

1924 short-hair, no-hips “boy” look with the signifying monocle.

1924 short-hair, no-hips “boy” look with the signifying monocle.

FIT’s powerful exhibition, A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, throws open the window on what the curators felt was an untold story, and they’ve done history proud — creating a show and website featuring key clothing, points of view, and socio-political breakthroughs during more than 250 years of LGBT history. Visit before January 4.

If you think you know everything about fashion, peruse FIT’s downstairs gallery (or the website) and see how quickly you learn a new angle, a clue, or an insight from the context in which the curators tell their story – a style, epaulet, pattern, tie, mod look, or detail that conveys entirely new meaning.

Right at the foot of the stairs, you’re confronted with side-by-side late 19th century and early 20th sartorial clues sported by the era’s elegant lesbians and gay dandies – shirt collars and ties and Mr. Wilde’s telltale green carnation.

The suit that Andy had made in Hong Kong in 1956 on his first trip abroad compared to his super-hip King of Pop 1960s uniform.

The suit that Andy had made in Hong Kong in 1956 on his first trip abroad compared to his super-hip King of Pop 1960s uniform.

Entering the main gallery, you’ll meet monocled ladies of 1920s Montmartre posing in the “boy look” that went viral throughout the Twenties. Yes, the short hair and mode de le garçonne was adopted by every flapper in the world, but the curators link these changes to trends first sported in scandalous Parisian same-sex clubs.

The clothes tell story after story of how iconic fashion trends were first incubated within gay subcultures – Gernreich’s unisex caftans in the 1960s, YSL channeling Marlene’s tuxes into his 70s “Le Smoking” looks, leather trends in the 80s, and Versace’s bondage dresses in the 90s.

The mannequins have often been touched up with accessories and wigs to evoke innovators and eras, such as the two wigged Warhols, including his striped T and skinny jeans look that seems so “now”.

Other clothes suggest additional narratives: slinky glamour gowns channeling a gay designer’s obsession with feminine ideals, camp queen adaptation of exaggerated feminine points of glory, pre- and post-Stonewall sartorial identity, and even what people are wearing today for their same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Naomi flaunting Gianni’s 1992 bondage-inspired leather couture.

Naomi flaunting Gianni’s 1992 bondage-inspired leather couture.

So many stories, so little time. The security guards literally had to turn the lights off last Saturday night (when FIT closes at 5pm) because the throngs of captivated museum-goers simply didn’t want to leave with so much yet to absorb – Dietrich’s cross-dressing wardrobe on loan from Berlin’s film museum, a Charles James gown from Doris Duke, a Halston provided by Lauren Bacall, the iconic CK underwear billboard image from Times Square, Larry Kramer’s YSL Rive Gauche suit from the 70s, a Mugler-designed gown for chanteuse Joey Arias, and Ru Paul’s red vinyl…well, outfit.

And we haven’t even touched upon the Versace section filled with his Warhol patterns, studded leather, and Baroque-print fantasies. One fan confided that it was her second time because the visuals, details, and narratives were so much to take in.

If you can’t get there before January 4, check out the clothing, concepts, oral histories, and historic timeline on line and yak about it on Facebook.

From Mr. McQueen’s Plato’s Atlantis collection, 2010.

From Mr. McQueen’s Plato’s Atlantis collection, 2010.

Hear what inspired curators Valerie Steele and Fred Dennis in this 6-minute Culture Beat episode, and go to FIT’s YouTube site to hear what 20 designers, celebs, and academics had to say at FIT’s symposium on the queer history of fashion.

Here’s Simon Doonan of Barney’s (think windows) talking about how gay style had an impact on the 1960s look on Carnaby Street (so, that’s where those flowered shirts came from!), why overt visual influences are not so evident today, and why the next generation needs to learn about the “fallen heroes” of the late 20th century design community.

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