I Shop therefore I Gay
While I’m all over the WORN blog, my absolute dream would be to get a story in the actual magazine. I entered my internship thinking I had all sorts of ideas, I quickly became insecure that none of them were good enough. WORN only comes out twice a year, so we have to be very strict about what goes to print. I eventually remembered that queer history was the focus of my Masters and that, as the first gay male intern, it would also be good representin’ if I wrote something about gay men and clothing.
So here’s what I’ve got so far, and to help me get moving on it (the pitch is due in October) and to act as a sounding board, I’m going to tell you what I’m thinking.
The stereotype that gay men like clothing and fashion is so entrenched in our culture that we rarely question it, and at times act as though it is somehow biological. Remarkably, the persona of the Oscar Wildean dandy from the end of the 19th century still holds sway. Daniel Harris, in his amazing book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, which heavily influenced the way I think about all this stuff, argued that shopping and clothing was a more economical way of asserting snobbish queer sensibilities than art-collecting or going to the opera, the preoccupations of the aristocratic dandy.
“We have devised an ersatz aestheticism that we cultivate, not only through our involvement with the arts, but through our involvement with department stores, through shopping, the purchase of expensive toiletries, vintage wines, fashionable clothing, and designer accessories like Rolex watches and Ralph Lauren eyewear. The display of our refinement as consumers…easily replaces the display of our refinement as art lovers. In the course of the twentieth century, homosexuals have turned the aestheticism of art and culture into the aestheticism of products, the commodities that spill out of the Macy’s bags constantly swinging from the arms of the urban homosexual, a figure laden with the spoils of his spending sprees, an image that has largely replaced that of the monocled fop twirling his cane and sniffing the carnation in his lapel.”
In the same essay, Harris, like many other scholars, focuses on the desire of gay men to find each other as the motivation for a lot of gay culture. From cruising at bars, dropping cinematic hints (“Are you a Friend of Dorothy?”), and even attending Judy Garland concerts simply as an excuse to “act gay” in public, explanations of gay traditions have often focused on identifying oneself to others, either for sexual or communal reasons. This has also been the case with gay fashion, be it leather and jeans, pink mohair sweaters or the legendary colour-coded handkerchief symbols. (And, okay, I can’t really get into this here, but apparently a houndstooth bandanna sticking out of your pocket means you’re into biting, and if you stick a doily back there, you like doing it in public restrooms! Amazing!)
But what about shopping for one’s self and dressing as a means of asserting identity, as sociologists now think about it? Cara Louise Buckley wrote “In the transition from modernity to post-modernity, the notion of an essential self…has been displaced by a far more fragmented, fluid, and contingent understanding tied to image, style, looks and hence consumption.” So, it’s not so much ‘I Shop therefore I Am’, as Barbara Kruger’s photo has it, as ‘I Am because I Shop.’
Rather than focus on who gay men were trying to attract with their clothing, I would consider clothing, consumption and fashion as an important step in their development of a gay identity, both personally and collectively.
And there’s no escaping the seventies, the decade when queer culture crossed-over, gay politics went mainstream and people were encouraged to come out of the closet en masse. The 1970’s are to gay men what the 1770’s are to American patriots: a founding era whose traditions, style and legacy are still drawn upon today.
In Forging Gay Identities; Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco 1950-1994, Elizabeth Armstrong presents a useful breakdown of the three phases of the gay rights movement: the early, conservative ‘homophile’ activism of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the radical leftist revolution of 1969 and the early seventies, and the ‘lifestyle’ era of the mid-seventies onward, in which homosexuals (mostly white, middle-class gay men) asserted their identity through shopping, clothing, music, clubbing and interior decorating. I would use Armstrong’s framework and place clothing and fashion into the context of 1970’s gay identity formation, arguing that dressing up has been an essential aspect of accepting one’s homosexuality and coming out of the closet for many gay men since.
What I’m still wondering about is whether I should focus mostly on the 1970’s and make it a historical piece, or if all that should be the background leading up to a series of interviews with gay guys now. It might make sense to focus on the seventies, but I would have to do a lot of primary research (scanning every copy of The Advocate from that era, say, for articles about fashion and photos and illustrations of clothing). On the plus side of doing interviews, I off hand can think of twenty gay guys I could ask about clothing, their personal style and their shopping habits, but with no guarantee of useful answers.