Steven Smith looks at the ever-changing fashions within the LGBTQ scene and considers how our clothes can not only define who we are but can also bring out little prejudices in our thoughts on others, no matter how liberal we think we are.
Okay, clothes are my love. You are free to label me “Material Guy” and I do not apologise for my love of fashion since it is who I am; being turned out well is important to me.
One of the things I thank my parents for is making sure we were always smartly dressed, and that has carried on throughout my life. Clothes are my extravagance and security blanket. If I am going out, it’s a good start to be suited and booted; I feel ready to take on the world.
But as a gay man, I had to give myself a reality check the other day. I was with the stylists, and they were all talking about the suit range Gee Beller produces called ‘Mr Guild’. I was particularly excited because I am lucky enough that he is styling me for an event I am going to. His suits are sexy and so my style. It’s great having a professional touch and a hot guy who wears my kind of look to guide me. It suddenly dawned on me, however, that my choice of clothes over the last few years has either been the ‘quintessential city man’ feel or the Peaky Blinder look that Thomas Farthing rocks.
Now, my style also reflects the kind of fella I really like too – the floppy hair, suited man. I avoid the words “straight-looking” as my partner of 18 years wore that look when we met, as have several other men that I have dated; it just turns me on.
Gee is doing a great job in this meeting as he is dressing me in a sharp suit. Then he utters the word ‘accessories’. “You mean a classic tie pin and handkerchief?” I ask. To my horror, he says “No”. It puts me in a panic as he brings out pins and male brooches.
Against all my beliefs about boxes and judging others, my mouth opens, and I am about to say I do not want to look queenie. But instead, I salvage, “It’s going to be too Liberace on me” followed by, “My features are quite soft, so anything like that makes me look…”
Sparkly, glittery bow-ties, brooches, diamonds and sequins on a man are a huge turn off for me. The James Bond classic black tie is so sexy and a fella who wears that that does not add glitter.
When I see a man in classic black tie, I want to undo his bow tie like a Christmas morning present. I have to avoid the city bars at lunchtime as I get hot under the collar with all the suited guys around. Equally an episode of Peaky Blinders is seventh heaven.
Anyway, I agreed to an elephant pin with a chain off it, which was beautiful; however, I would not wear it again, because it is not who I identify as. I wore the suit and elephant chain broach to TV personality, Lizzie Cundy’s book launch, “Tales from the Red Carpet”, at Tramps Nightclub in London. I was getting a lot of compliments on my suit, and people were asking about the elephant brooch too.
Later, Lizzie ran up to greet me and commented on the elephant. She was an amazing host and made everyone feel equally important at her event. But it was not long before she had to move on. To my horror, as she left, her bracelet entangled in the chains of my elephant, and we were connected. All very funny, but it will be the elephant’s last outing!
Was I being prejudiced? NO, as I am happy for my friends to dress in glitter and diamonds. It is just not who I am or want to be, and in the Politically Correct world we live in, are we still allowed to define who we are through clothes, hair and make-up without judging others?
There is no doubt that the gay scene leads the way in fashion; what we are strutting down the road in this year will almost certainly make its way into high street stores in the next few years.
Many fashion designers, from McQueen to Versace, have been gay. Fashion icons like these are not only creative geniuses, they have brought many people’s fantasies to life. Wrongly or rightly, wearing that designer suit or shirt brings false confidence to many. Or it makes them feel like a star knowing that celebrities wear the clothes of this designer. I remember saving to buy a white Fiorucci boiler suit when I was 16. It felt amazing when I put it on, and when I walked into Bangs club at the Astoria in it, all eyes were on me. I felt a million dollars. Clothes became, I guess, like a drug. I have always been hooked on turning myself out to look my best and keeping an eye on the trends, but I think of it as more about pride and genuine interest in the fashion world.
Clothes define what we want the world to see us as. This is true throughout history; from Marlene Dietrich’s suit in the 1920, clones of the 70s who wore check shirts jeans and tach, to the new romantics, such as Boy George, Phillip Salon and Marilyn, who paraded their fashion in the 80s. More recently the trend has moved towards fetish wear and the XXL apparent straight look. These clothes have all defined how people wish to be perceived.
Clothing is also the area were so many people, including those who think of themselves as broad-minded and downright liberal, can without thinking, discriminate against others. I have heard many LGBTQ people judge others simply on their appearance. During one party I was hosting a young, flamboyant man came along with an artist friend of mine. The reaction to him was not great. “What a queen! How much make-up has she got on?” said two gay men, both active members of HIV charities. I have always liked men who wear make-up. But I am well aware that it threatens some gay men. Marc, the young man in question, was a delight and I dislike judgemental people. He had moved to London in the hope of new life, so I got him a job, and he worked for me for several years.
It is interesting that camp and flamboyant behaviour made the likes of Quentin Crisp famous for their apparent courage. Crisp’s flamboyance saw him strut the streets of London fully made up during the late ’20s and even into the Second World War. To many, this was completely outrageous behaviour. Despite this, Quentin, who claims there is no tall, dark man for us (how wrong can he be?) was arguably the forerunner of the look that artists like Bowie and Marc Bolan emulated in the ’70s.
As always, however, if you have money, what is seen as eccentric and outrageous behaviour will go overlooked. Instead, people will embrace it. On the social scene in the 20s were a group called the “Bright Young Things”, pictured at the top of this article. Headed by socialite Stephen Tenant, they were roujed up and high camp, even before the word was around. They were bohemian and the Tabloid Press Darlings. Cecil Beaton (photographer) was mentored by Stephen Tenant, who became the poet Siegfried Sassoon’s lover. The photos of them in drag and wearing Bowie-like fashion are famous. Evelyn Waugh wrote the book Ville Bodies about the group, and it was made into a film, Bright Young Things, directed by Stephen Fry.
Yes, in fashion, history repeats itself, and we are judged by “first impressions” so often.
“Age appropriate” are two words that get my hackles up when it comes to fashion. It is as though we are moved into various boxes throughout life that fit others preconceived ideas of how others should be. Those that do not fit the mould are often labelled “eccentric” or “deluded”, or just get mocked with raised eyebrows.
Let’s face it, as members of the LGBTQ community, we tend to get away with wearing more youthful fashions longer than our heterosexual counterparts. Maybe because we tend to be more inclined to go to the gym and be health orientated you could say the so-called sell-by date expires a little later.
Fashion and choosing what to wear is part of our everyday life. Even choosing not to be fashionable, or not caring, is a choice. As Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, Editor of Runway magazine says, “You think fashion has nothing do with you but carry on down the line and even that lump blue sweater has been selected for you by the people in this room”. Yes, the fashion world does define what we wear as the designer outfits are emulated and the colour choices of the season hit Primark and other high street brands.
The truth is, you don’t have to spend a fortune to look great. Adam, my best pal, and I often raid the charity shops. The green suit I am wearing above at Autism Got Talent cost £10. I learned early when I wore a shirt from River Island to a fashion event, and Hillary Alexander from the Telegraph asked what designer it was and laughed when I revealed it; is often more how you wear it.
What we wear is often one of the first things that people judge us on but is also a way of showing others who we are or how we feel. It can bring out some prejudiced behaviour, as no matter how liberal and non-judgemental we all think we are, you will often hear people trying clothes on and saying, “Does this make me look too camp?”, or “God, No. I look like my mother/father in that outfit”. We are even brought up with the idea that “Check if their shoes are good quality/clean as it tells you a lot about the person”. But surely what we wear is an area where we are allowed to define who we are and are able to say I don’t want to look like that and be prejudiced against.
Equally I have been mocked for my hairstyle and style by gay men, “Get the bouffant cut it looks awful” – and that was from two bald gay men at the gym!
I have other stories relating to exactly this. Bardon and I were going to Black Pride at Vauxhall, and he was taking forever to get ready. He jumped out and uttered the words “Is this age appropriate?” My mouth dropped open and not in a good way. “What age?” I replied. Brandon raised an eyebrow as high as he could due to the Botox and pursed his lips. “28” he replied and turned around to show the bottom of a pair of shorts that would make Kylie blush. I let out a little laugh. It did not go down well. Brandon stopped and looked like he was about to tell me he is dying. “Ok, I’ll be honest with you, and I have never told anyone this. I am 39, and I’ll be 40 next year, and I am planning a big party.” Unless by séance or time travel, Brandon will not be seeing 40 again; it is his 50thnext year. But I just smiled.
But it is worrying how many people are hung up on age and attempt to wear something for a younger person that might make them look older. As much as it’s a youthful choice, it could highlight areas such as sagging, cellulite and sun damage that ages the skin. It’s not so much age appropriate but dressing to give a youthful allure.
What is more concerning is that I did not want to go out with him in those shorts. It’s not that they are too camp or bright, it was that you can clearly see his crown jewels! I gently pointed out that it may be too much.
“Hands were all over me in these at FIRE last week” he snapped. Unfortunately, asking if it was the hands of security or the police removing him got me the reply “BITCH”.
No matter how liberal I think I am, I do subscribe to the philosophy that you can tell a lot about the man by the company he keeps. I have eclectic friends, and they can dress as they like, drag to superhero, but I just cannot do “Look at my cock” outfits.
One of my pals is a former international porn star and never has he turned up in an outfit that says look at my manhood. He has looked sexy, hot and stylish but always slightly understated and I am proud to be with him.
People laugh at the men in the gym who have Lycra on, clearly showing their penis outline. To be honest, it is a bit like someone picking their nose on the train – you try not to look, but you just can’t help it. Mystique has always been more of an aphrodisiac for me. Fashion-wise, you would not see the hot men who train hard at the gym in anything obviously meant to show and display.
Brandon was excited about Black Pride because there would be a lot of other fetish and leather fashionistas attending. Brandon will be off cruising or dancing within five minutes of getting there. So we jumped in a taxi to Vauxhall, him in his micro shorts, and he was happy as can be.
Don’t judge a book by its cover, especially when it comes to the LGBTQ universe and what we wear. Last year I dressed DIVA Magazine publisher and diversity activist, Linda Riley, as a 1920’s Dietrich character, along with actress Denise Welch. The results were phenomenal, and people flocked to tell Linda (who never wears make-up) how amazing she looked. Linda is the first to understand anyone labelling her a butch lesbian, and there was equally some backlash from those who said it was wrong to put make-up on her, as we should be embracing a butch lesbian just as she is.
The wonderful thing about being part of this community, however, is that we are never far from that magical land of Narnia. We can perhaps play dress up for the rest of our lives, no matter what our public persona.