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 (FIT) 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 Friday 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.