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Our Names Our Selves: Fashion & Homosexuality

by Aastha Jaiswal
0 comment 5 minutes read

All round the 20th century, clothing has been used by lesbians and gay men as a means of expressing self-identity and for signaling to each other.

Male Cross Dressing

Even before the 20th century, the transvestism and cross-dressing among men were associated with the act of sodomy. By the 18th century, many cities in Europe had developed small but secret homosexual subcultures. Also London’s homosexual subculture was based around inns and public houses where “mollies” congregated. Many of the mollies wore women’s clothing as both a form of self-identification and as a means of attracting sexual partners. They wore “gowns, petticoats, head-cloths, fine laced shoes, furbelowed scarves, and masks and some had riding hoods, some were dressed like milk maids, others like shepherdesses with green hats, waistcoats, and petticoats; and others had their faces patched and painted”.

Male homosexuals continued to cross-dress in both public and private spaces throughout the 19th century.


Overt gay men, who did not want to go so far as to cross-dress, sometimes adopted the most obvious signifiers of female mannerisms and dress plucked eyebrows, rouge, eye makeup, blond hair, high-heeled shoes, women’s blouses. In America it was illegal for men and women to cross dress unless attending a masquerade. At least three items of clothing had to be appropriate to the gender. Adopting such an appearance was dangerous, for it was risky to be overtly homosexual. Also by adopting female characteristics and by adhering to strict gendered rules of sexual behavior, queens could attract allegedly “normal,” straight sexual partners. The adoption of effeminate dress codes began to wane with the rise of gay liberation, but has continued to play a role in gay life.

Fashion Industry

Throughout the 20th century, many of the top couture fashion designs were gay, even though social pressure called for them to keep their sexuality quiet if not secret. Indeed, many of the greatest names of 20th century were gay or bisexual, including Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Cristobal Balenciaga, Norman Hartnell, Halston, Rudi Gernreich, Calvin Klein, and Gianni Versace.

As designers took over from traditional tailors and gentleman’s outfitters in men’s fashion, a new gay influence became evident. Because gay men were often more willing to experiment with new ideas, styles, and fabrics in clothing. Moreover, gay men bought clothes that were influenced by and styled toward a gay aesthetic, so their taste influenced fashion in both obvious and subtle ways.


A public performance that involves playing with gender norms and expectations. Often refers to a man who wears women’s clothing (a drag queen), or a woman who wears men’s clothing (a drag king).

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