The appropriation of queer fashion and its impact on queer identity.
With Pride month just drawing to a close, Toronto has slowly started to emerge from lockdown. We’re finally able to swap out our favourite week-old sweats for your favourite going out outfit. We can go out, enjoy the sun, and maybe even start to meet people again.
As someone who’s fairly new to being out, I’ve admittedly endeavoured the quintessential baby-gay experience of accidentally hitting on a straight girl donned in her finest Value Village flannel. It happens, we’ve all been there. So many of us, in fact, that SNL includes this as one of their bits in their Pride month sketch. To quote their eloquently-put punchline: “when did all these straight girls start dressing lesbian?”
Though this moment, along with many of the other painfully relatable jokes made in this video, were hilarious, they have likely been informed by the sudden rise of queer-coded fashion. Lesbian and queer women’s fashion trademarks have suddenly become staples for what’s “in” right now. The gag is, many straight women have no idea this is the case. For instance, a tweet I made a few days ago said: “I wore my tote bag out on my walk today so people can know I’m their new queer neighbour.” My straight best friend promptly texted me, “Wait... does wearing a tote bag= queer?” Sure, everyone has a tote bag these days, but it’s one of the many articles that queer people have claimed as a way to identify ourselves as part of the community.
As someone who’s femme, I’ve struggled with what it means to “look queer” in public spaces, and to find a style that resonates with my identity. Queer style trademarks such as handkerchiefs or wearing a slit in your brows never felt authentic for me. As someone who grew up in a traditional Catholic household, wearing what I had in my closet felt like just another one of the ways I was hiding in one. It took me years to come into my own style (and in many ways, I still am figuring that out), but when brands suddenly started using terms like “cottagecore”, when even straight Gen Zers decided that cuffing jeans and hand-making earrings was the cool thing to do, I had a bit of an identity crisis.
Finding a personal style as a queer person is apart of the transformation we make when finally stepping into our authentic selves. After coming out, the importance of expressing our identity means being able to leave your house and say, yeah, I look like the gayest person in this Freshco right now. The nuance of queer fashion goes beyond rainbow-washed clothing. The curation of personal style as a queer person resonates deeply with who we are, because after a lifetime of curating our style to pass as something you’re not (read: straight) you recognize the power that lies in expressing yourself authentically.
This trend is complicated when we examine the ways queer fashion has been criticized and co-opted historically. For any Millennial queers reading this, it wasn’t long ago that we were fighting to re-contextualize the word “gay” as a term synonymous with “bad, uncool, and undesirable.” Fashion is ever-evolving, and as much as it feels like a small win that lesbian women are suddenly the major influencers of popular fashion, I can’t help but feel the ironic sting of knowing that this discourse still exists in some spaces. The history of appropriating from queer culture (while in the same breath discrediting, disrespecting, and refusing to acknowledge queer culture) is long and ongoing; for example, makeup trends are appropriated from drag culture, and white queers appropriate language from the Black queer community.The harm of appropriative behaviour is not new to us. However unknowingly, this trend only adds to the long list of ways the queer community have been setting the bar for trends and fashion, with little credit.
Queer signalling is a popular trend in mainstream fashion, more specifically subtle signalling such the cuffing of hems, tote bags, flannel, and chains - these are only a few of the coded fashion trends that straight women have picked up on. Though this may seem harmless, the subtlety of these details were created to safely express our identities without putting ourselves in the way of potential harm. Further, for anyone closeted or questioning, these subtle signals are a way to begin experimenting with how to express yourself, and the intention behind these details are highly personal for that reason. Recent events at Hanlans Beach act as a stark reminder of the ways our community still faces violence and hate. I have since been thinking about how important it was for me when I was newly out that I could express my identity in ways only the queer community would recognize. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for some of the rainbow-clad clothing that nearly every major brand pushes for Pride month, but subtle options for expressing who I am are essential in situations where we still fight to exist openly.
The truth is, it's not about the clothes. Not really. It’s about expressing our queerness and reclaiming our self image in ways that make us feel most like ourselves, and looking damn good while doing it. So, to the straight women who’ve been unknowingly dressing like a lesbian: I admit you have great taste. For my fellow queer women who’ve been struggling with finding their style, let me say this: regardless of what you wear, your identity is something no one can take from you. And in that, I hope you find pride, and your power too. Happy Pride month!
PS: The friend who texted me has since exchanged her toted for a purse.