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The enduring legacy of sapphic women throughout history is undeniable. Having created some of the most renowned works of literature and art, modern-day fashion lovers are indebted to the cultural significance that queer women have helped to establish.
However, queer women of significant cultural importance, like Frida Kahlo and Virginia Woolf, have often had their queerness diminished or erased entirely through the process of ‘straightwashing’. Such women have been subject to heteronormative historicising and their work as pioneers for the LGBTQ+ community all too easily forgotten. Take, for example, Frida Kahlo, whose openness about her sexuality through her art – which explored sexual pleasure, infertility and her attraction to women – cemented her status as an icon among artists in the LGBTQ+ community. Her rumoured affairs with artist Georgia O’Keeffe and film actresses Dolores del Río, Paulette Goddard and María Félix have been historically overshadowed by her tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera and brief dalliance with Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
By straightwashing queer women in this way, we risk erasing the profound impact that they have had on our understanding of the world, including fashion and style. But with the recent influx of period-inspired aesthetics on TikTok – cottagecore, goblincore, Regencycore, dark academia – modern historical-dress enthusiasts are looking to retell the stories of queer women through clothing. From waistcoats to corsets, puff sleeves to bobs, the popularity of queer historical dress has infiltrated the mainstream and as contemporary queer women embrace different aesthetics and trends of the past, the line from historical to modern queer women is finally being properly drawn.
Eleanor Medhurst is a queer dress historian who runs Dressing Dykes, a blog about lesbian fashion history, and was a project team member for Queer Looks and Queer the Pier exhibitions at Brighton Museum. She tells Refinery29: “Feminine fashions of centuries gone by have been heterosexualised in the canon of fashion history. Our queer pasts have been purposefully covered up but by engaging with the material conditions of historical queer women’s lives – i.e. the clothes that they wore on their body – queer women in the present day can validate their histories and connect with them on a very personal level.”
As contemporary queer women embrace different aesthetics and trends of the past, the line from historical to modern queer women is finally being properly drawn.
The erasure of queerness from history has resulted in the ‘queer aesthetic’ being firmly associated with mid to late 20th and early 21st century trends (think brightly coloured hair and the recent surge in gender-neutral fashion from high street shops). However, a wave of sapphic period dramas like The World to Come and Portrait of a Lady on Fire alongside visibly queer social media personalities has broadened the scope of what queer fashion means for women, though primarily from a white, femme perspective. As fashion writer Rosalind Jana points out, Virginia Woolf has recently undergone a historical transformation by way of a renewed emphasis on her own queer identity and relationships. Ahead of its May reopening, Charleston House, a house, garden, studio and art gallery in Sussex which Woolf frequented with other members of the Bloomsbury group, is hosting events and exhibitions which document and embrace its rich queer history.
“For a long time, the image of a full-skirted, puff-sleeve, 19th-century dress has been miles away from queer fashion (and I think particularly lesbian fashion) in most people’s minds,” Eleanor points out. “However, thanks to recent representations in queer media, such as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack, these fashions might now immediately be associated with women-loving-women. This is an empowering change.”
For many, the resurgence in popularity of historically queer-inspired fashion isn’t surprising. Elements of queer historical dress have long been subtly embedded in fashion trends but 2021 has seen a surge in popularity of influencers drawing inspiration from queer women of the past.
On TikTok, we see accounts such as @feminist_fatale, who prefers “vintage vibes not vintage values”, as a young lesbian reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. For @elle.lexxa, corsets and puffy-sleeved dresses in 18th century style are a way for her to connect to her queer ancestors. The non-binary lesbian @kazrowe is a self-described “sword lesbian” who sports tailored Regency suits which Anne Lister would be proud of. In Liverpool, @eddieandthedead’s iconic dark academia looks give him more than a passing resemblance to Oscar Wilde. On Instagram, accounts like @everylesbianandtheirfashion and @incrediblylouche curate and educate, showing us how lesbians have dressed from centuries ago until now. The lovely @jessicaoutofthecloset also embraces a vintage look for a modern queer aesthetic.
Naturally, Woolf has also been cited as the inspiration behind numerous designers including Alexa Chung, Hades, Preen and Givenchy. Their collections feature sharply tailored suits for women, ruffled shirts – Fendi’s creative director Kim Jones even etched quotes from Woolf’s novels into mother-of-pearl clutches. By way of homage to Woolf’s gender-shifting character Orlando, inspired by her lover Vita Sackville-West, sapphic-inspired fashion is rising in popularity for people of all genders, particularly among those who identify as lesbian, bisexual and often gender-nonconforming. According to Lyst, searches for men’s brooches have risen 76% since January; notable favourites include Loewe’s Anagram brooch and Dior Homme’s Floral brooch. Although largely out of fashion for the last 30 years, men are reclaiming this once ‘ladylike’ item as a symbol of high fashion – just as it was worn by Orlando.
Many of these trends can be linked back to the people who frequented the Sapho 1900 salon, who haunted the streets of fin de siècle Paris in the early 20th century and are largely to thank for our current conception of queer historical dress. During this period, sapphism was considered a brand – sometimes a rather outré one – but there were groups of literary women who embraced the term, creating a very particular style to coincide with the label. The Sapho 1900 scene was comprised of such openly queer authors as Renée Vivien, Gertrude Stein, Natalie Clifford Barney (lover of both Vivien and Radclyffe Hall) and the lesser known Eva Palmer and Liane de Pougy. Renée Vivien in particular had a very distinctive style which combined breeches and trousers with long wool coats nipped in at the waist, worn with men’s shoes not unlike the Dr. Martens we love today.
In her novel The Pure and the Impure, French author Colette describes her experiences of cross-dressing in 1920s Paris, donning “sometimes a waistcoat, and always a silk pocket handkerchief.” A contemporary ode to the waistcoat comes in the form of the increasingly popular sweater vest. As staples of dark academia-inspired fashion, waistcoats and sweater vests evoke the same scholarly intrigue and bookishness that one might expect of university students.
Author and art collector Gertrude Stein, who we’d now likely understand as gender variant, was also partial to a patterned men’s shirt and waistcoat. The ’90s shirts and patterned knitwear all over TikTok surely find their roots here. Jackets which tuck in at the waist that American turned French poet and novelist Renée Vivien might have worn, long wool coats in the dogtooth print favoured by novelist Radclyffe Hall and their partner. And we can see corsets combined with tailored trousers on #birate TikTok à la Mademoiselle Maupin, waistcoats and blazers teamed with sweater vests and knitwear in the style of the film Maurice.
A couple of centuries earlier in the 1800s, author and scholar Anne Lister has also informed what we now consider ‘queer’ fashion. Always quite ashamed of how she dressed, Lister wore all-black, mostly men’s clothing, such as trousers and long tailcoats deemed unsuitable for a woman. She was relentlessly mocked for it in her era. Fiercely proud and protective of her queer identity, she used a passage in the bible to justify her sexuality as natural but does not seem to have linked her dress to her queerness.
Nonetheless her all-black, stiff-collared image has massively informed modern queer fashion; her lovers were largely very feminine women decked out in puffy-sleeved dresses with wide, flouncy skirts. Anne and her lovers might even be considered an early manifestation of the butch/femme aesthetic we see everywhere today. Black was considered unfashionable, Anne’s clothes ill-fitting and undignified, but the breeches and long coats featured in the BBC’s 2019 adaptation of her life, Gentleman Jack, paint a remarkable picture of Anne’s proto-queer style.
However they might identify today, the aesthetics of these queer individuals were undeniably created to mark their difference within a heteronormative society where their lives and loves were unthinkable, illegal.
Sculptor and translator Una Troubridge was famous for cutting a wiry, spidery figure in her three-piece suits with her distinctive bob and monocle. Monocles do not seem to have made a comeback yet but the wire frame holding the glass piece mirrors the preferred lightweight frames of modern queers. Her short bob with above-brow fringe is so popular that a hairdresser at Barberette, London, said that all the young queer women were coming in asking for it, even 60 years after her death in 1963. The bobs and bangs popular among both modern and historical bisexuals were also popularised by Troubridge, Radclyffe Hall’s beau. Hall and Stein’s pixie crops are queer-coded too, while Clifford Barney and Vivien’s tumbling curls echo the cottagecore image that femme queers embrace.
Historical queer style, however, was not limited to androgyny or more tailored fashions. Natalie Clifford Barney, a playwright, poet and novelist and lover of Renée Vivien and Radclyffe Hall, was partial to a puff-sleeved dress with a snatched waist one day, and a pair of tailored trousers and white shirt another. Settling for neither butch nor femme aesthetics, she reclaimed the ‘feminine’ puff-sleeve styles we see everywhere these days for a queer look. The popularity of ‘balletcore’ has also soared over the past month, as fashionistas are lusting over Simone Rocha’s pink satin ballerina flats, tulle, and wraparound tops.
However they might identify today, the aesthetics of these queer figures were undeniably created to mark their difference within a heteronormative society where their lives and loves were unthinkable, illegal. It only seems natural to want to preserve the historical heritage of queer heroines by paying homage to the fashion and styles that they helped pioneer. For many queer folk it’s a way to reclaim their identity and feel proud.
As an expression of gender nonconformity, of loving someone against the norm, these looks inspire how we dress today. They present us with a way of connecting to centuries of queer history that we are told do not and cannot exist.
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