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‘Unsuitable’ Looks at the Dynamic History of Lesbian Fashion

As individuals, we take fashion and use it as a way to express ourselves: who we are, who we want to be, and who we want other people to perceive us as. For queer people, and more specifically queer women, fashion and clothing has been a way to say “I’m here.” Clothes are our way of setting ourselves apart while also bringing us together.

From Sappho’s violets to monocles to bandanas in your back pocket, queer women have long used fashion as a signal to find their community. And even if they didn’t start that way, certain items are now associated with queer women like overalls, flannels, and cargo shorts. Fashion historian Eleanor Medhurst explores all this and more in her new book Unsuitable: A History of Lesbian Fashion.

Medhurst runs the popular blog and Instagram page Dressing Dykes, which highlights lesbian fashion throughout history. Fashion is something I’ve always had an interest in, and I immediately fell in love with Dressing Dykes because it is so rare that queer women are centered in conversations about women’s fashion.

I had the pleasure of talking with Eleanor Medhurst, who lives in the UK, on Zoom. We talked all things lesbian fashion. Medhurst wore pink, which is her signature color, and true to form, I had on my Autostraddle “Gal Pal” t-shirt. We dykes seem to really love a slogan tee.

Medhurst studied fashion history in college and has a master’s degree in history of design. During her studies, she observed the “gaps” in the history of lesbian fashion and wanted to learn more. While she was getting her degree, she began doing more research on subjects like 19th century lesbian icon Anne Lister and lesbian activist slogan t-shirts. She also worked on the Queer Looks exhibition at the Brighton Museum. Medhurst graduated with her master’s in 2020, and Dressing Dykes was a product of her inability to get a museum job. A year after launching Dressing Dykes, she began putting together the book proposal for Unsuitable.

“At the root of fashion history is a social history,” Medhurst says. “It’s looking at the lives that people led in their social context through the clothes that they wore.” She adds that studying lesbian fashion history clues us into queer history at large.

“Often, those histories are obscured, or they’ve been covered over and they can be quite hard to find or sometimes even outright denied,” Medhurst continues. “So to be able to look at queer histories through the lens of clothes and make connections based on what clothes were there, based on how they relate to other parts of queer history, or even queer culture today, gives more evidence of everyday queer lives in the past. It’s not ‘oh, this one great moment that happened,’ it’s more ‘how did people actually interact with the world and present themselves?’”

Unsuitable is broken into five parts, exploring the ways queer women have expressed themselves through fashion and accessories from Sappho to today. It pays special attention to the 1920s, exploring lesbian fashion from Paris to Harlem. In the time between the end of World War I and the start of World War II, lesbians were thriving in a way they hadn’t before, and fashion was a reflection of that. We all view the 1920s as a time of modern hedonism — speakeasies, short haircuts, fringe, dropped waists, bathtub gin and Gatsby. And all of that was happening in the bustling lesbian underground. Medhurst specifically highlights lesbian fashion in Paris, Harlem, Britain, and Berlin as examples of the kind of thriving life lesbians were experiencing at the time. Berlin gets a thoughtful examination in this section, especially the community of trans lesbians who lived in the city at that time.

“There were apparently 50 lesbian bars in Berlin in 1928 or 29, and multiple lesbian magazines” she tells me. “I really enjoyed looking through them and seeing the everyday aspects of life in this context, particularly in the form of adverts, because in these magazines, there would be adverts for club nights at these clubs in Berlin in the twenties.”

She explains her “favorite” of these nights was at “Ladies Club Violetta, and the night was called Monocle Fest, where every lady gets a monocle for free. And I just thought that’s so fun, because monocles kind of link to other contexts in that time period, especially around Europe.”

Queer life in pre-Nazi Germany is a particularly fascinating time to study because of how robust it was. Personally, I didn’t know anything about that time period until I watched the documentary about the Eldorado on Netflix. It’s fascinating to see a thriving underground of queer life and to be able to point at something concrete to show what life was like almost 100 years ago.

Medhurst shares that if she had to choose a favorite time period that she wrote about, she’d choose the “long 1920s.” She highlights the “fantastic creative endeavors that were coming out of that period, and the people, especially the lesbians and the queer women who were spearheading them.”

“There were fantastic things going on at the time in the UK,” she adds. “British Vogue was edited by a lesbian couple.” I had no idea!

She also points to the 1950s and 60s as another highlight, thanks to the “butch and femme subculture that really came to life” at the time. Those dynamics also get their own space in Unsuitable as they were “a vibrant kind of area in lesbian history.” The book calls the pivot an “interlude” as it takes a deep dive. Medhurst initially explains the butch/femme dynamic in its most basic terms, but then digs more into each identity in its own chapter.

As long as lesbians have existed, they’ve used fashion as a manner of expression and community. But at the same time, the way we dress informs the way society at large views us as well. In the 20th century, there has been more of a blurring between the lines of specifically lesbian clothing and the trends of the mainstream. Some people choose to follow fashion trends, while others hold firmly to the clothing that makes them feel their most queer. In the last few decades, there have been more of those oppositional viewpoints.

“So many different strands of lesbian fashion didn’t actually really gel with each other,” Medhurst explains. “Lesbians were really passionate about the clothes they were wearing and the way they were presenting themselves through clothes.”

She also credits the rise in social media as a way that lesbians are carving out specific fashion identities. “We can take pictures of ourselves all the time — there’s such an intentionality behind what people are wearing in order to express who they are.” But of course, this isn’t a new concept, it’s just far more visible than it had been in the past.

Since fashion is a visual medium, sharing pictures when possible is a huge part of Medhurst’s work. Obviously on social media and her blog, having pictures of the fashion and the people wearing it is crucial to the experience. But using images in a book is expensive, which caused her to be more discerning about images. Unsuitable includes paintings of Sappho and Anne Lister, as well as photographs of the trans lesbians in Germany, Black performer Gladys Bentley, and photos of lesbians at various demonstrations and rallies in the 1970s and 80s. But Medhurst felt relieved that she could create the story without solely using visuals.

“Lesbian history, when it comes to history in general, sometimes you don’t have a photo that says what you’re describing. Sometimes you’ve just got like, someone wrote a letter talking about this outfit, and I don’t have a visual for it,” she explains.

While fashion is deeply personal, none of it exists in a vacuum, and if you read Unsuitable, you’ll realize that we’ve always been here, and our clothing choices aren’t as new as they feel.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 128 articles for us.

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