From Muscle Marys to Dilly Boys: How Gay Fashion Went Mainstream
Article by Maya Vukovska
If you are asked to define the quintessence of fashion in one sentence, what would it be?
The 16th-century philosopher Francis Bacon describes fashion as an attempt to realize art in living forms. Designer Kenzo Takada compares it to eating, and adds, “You should never stick to the same menu.” And the eccentric centenarian and fashion icon Iris Apfel puts it that way, “fashion is about self-expression and attitude.”
As gender rebels, the closets of gay men have always been about self-expression and attitude. In their fabulous world, fashion has gone far beyond its basic functions - it has become their voice-to-be-seen through which they have been able to speak volumes, only without words. Modern times have put gay fashion in the spotlight. Gay men have set trends that slowly but surely have been gaining popularity in the heteronormative society. From disco glamour to hipster, hirsute bears - the straight man is not ashamed anymore to cry it out loud: I’m fuckin’ loving it!
Before Beckham/After Beckham
Back in the day, one would recognize a gay man from a hundred yards: the gay style was all about men who took “too much” care about their appearance. The crossover moment came in the late 90s when the captain of the England soccer team was proclaimed “The New Man”. He was evidently straight, but he wore sarong, nail polish, covered his beautiful body with tattoos, and changed his hair-do every week. In the beginning, all hard-boiled men around the globe were like, what the fuck is going on! And his teammates must have been no less shocked when, in the locker room, David would unpack skin moisturizer and five different hair products. Back then, it was only someone like Beckham who could get away with it, with all that "gayness" going on. Today, he is considered a symbol of the new masculinity - the man who helped change cultural history by slaughtering the image of the macho sports hero.
The Muscle Mary
Beckham’s photo shoot for Armani underwear in 2007, and the one of Mark Wahlberg for Calvin Klein some years earlier are seen as major crossover moments when it comes to gay aesthetics going mainstream. The origins for this notorious gay look we find in YMCA locker rooms and the beefcake magazines of the mid-20th century. The style exemplifies the use of sports and bodybuilding culture as an appropriate cover for homoerotic male images.
The urban lumberjack look took off in the early 2000s thanks primarily to hipster culture. Although it’s believed to be a classic, this look was picked up by the “Bear” community where it acquired a whole new meaning.
The origin of this style is ascribed to Tom of Finland, but it was named after the legendary Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. The "Castro clone look", as it was called back in the day, was associated with traditionally masculine vocations like sailors, policemen, cowboys, and mechanics, and was all about denim, bomber jackets, and tight t-shirts. If you want to get the picture, think Tom Selleck as Magnum and, of course, Village People!
The Dilly Boy
The Britts’ contribution to the transcendent gay aesthetics is the so-called Piccadilly rent boys from the early 1970s - exquisite hermaphroditic creatures with side-whiskers and painted lashes, smoking a Virginia Slim under the statue of Eros, waiting for clients. Their clothing style was copied and brought into vogue by artists like David Bowie and Lou Reed.
(Homo)Sexuality = Fashion
They say gay men come with the creativity gene, that's why nobody can beat gay fashion designers in their game. Of course, there are great straight designers, too, but let’s be honest, gay men understand fashion a little better - maybe because they have succeeded in co-opting the masculine and feminine imagery. Technically speaking, gay designers invented a fashion language, а lingua franca, which is spoken by everybody in the industry today. Calvin Klein and Jean-Paul Gaultier were the first gay designers who pushed the boundaries of fashion towards androgyny. Gaultier put men in skirts and used models who’d model both male and female clothes. He also launched a men’s makeup line, and his example was immediately followed by L’Oreal, Cover Girl, and Chanel.
While the “old-school” designers like Versace, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurant, Balenciaga, and more had to hide their sexuality for a better part of their lives, nowadays, queer brands are popping up like mushrooms, and nobody has to hide shit from the world. The young LGBTQ designers of today are so dedicated to designing gender-free clothing, that one cannot tell the difference between gay and straight anymore.
And, damn it, it feels so-o-o liberating!