People crack jokes about dungarees when you mention the concepts
of 'lesbians' and 'fashion' but for me, the big one was always
blazers. Blue blazers with brass buttons worn over crisp shirts,
possibly with the collars turned up. A chunky lighter, a man's
watch and a gait like Monty just returned from the Battle of El
Alamein. Ah, those were the days.
It is easy to understand why lesbians have abandoned their coded
outfits of old. As Reina Lewis, a Professor in Fashion Studies at
the London College of Fashion points out, the evolution of lesbian
dress is inevitably related to what is happening in the
'In the 70s and early 80s lots of lesbians wanted to reject
dominant models of femininity - this was not just about asserting
that women could find other women attractive who were not
conventionally 'pretty' - but also because many lesbians were
involved in, or influenced by, the women's movement and the
anti-consumerist ethos of many feminists.'
Slaves to fashion
Today, politics have become more diversified (watered down, some
would say), so young dykes are just as likely to pledge their
allegiance to the politics and dress sense of the latest Shoreditch
electro band as they are to the imperatives of butch or femme.
Reina Lewis asserts that even lesbians who claim to be uninterested
in fashion are still slaves to the trends that are trickling down
off the international catwalks.
'We might think that the staples of the lesbian butch look have
not changed much in the last 40 years - jeans, belts, men's
watches, T-shirt or man's shirt, short hair, men's shoes, etc. But
the versions of these items that you see in the bars or clubs today
are very much this season's version. For example, jeans in the mid
80s were baggy, worn scrunched in at the waist with oversize
T-shirts tucked in. But now, after more than a decade of
body-conscious form-fitting clothing, most lesbians (butch and
femme) wear skinny T-shirts and this year's jeans.
Britain's top heterosexual fashion bunnies have a pretty glamorous
idea of what lesbians wear.
Sara Buys, fashion features editor for Harper's Bazaar says she is
pleasantly surprised whenever she hangs out at the Candy Bar in
London. 'I think they all look like Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry
- short hair, good trainers, really slim and tall with boyfriend
She declares that any savvy straight girl knows that lesbians no
longer wear dungarees but adds that lesbians still seem to be into
'sensible shoes' in the form of chunky boots or good trainers. 'I
can't remember the last time I saw a fashionable lesbian struggling
in Jimmy Choo high heels - that's just not the look they go
Young dykes are likely to pledge their
allegiance to the politics and dress sense of a new Shoreditch
electro band electroband bband as they are to the imperatives of
butch or femme
Interestingly enough, she points out that current fashion is
focusing heavily on a 'lesbian silhouette,' i.e. it is trying to
get straight girls to dress like dykes. Dykes, that is, as
translated through the eyes of gay boy fashion designers.
Karl Lagerfeld, for instance, created a photographic campaign for
Dom Pérignon Champagne this summer, which has Claudia Schiffer
dressed as a 'tomboy', as he euphemistically calls it - black suit,
white shirt, black tie, slickback hair. The giveaway that she is no
real 'tomboy' is that she is wearing black opaque tights (black
tights, yuk!) under her trousers. Where Karl has been quite clever
in his styling is the way he has got Claudia sitting - not neatly
cross-legged but with her right leg hooked at 45 degrees over the
left leg, the ankle of the right resting defiantly on the knee of
the left. This subtle touch suggests that looking like a lesbian is
more about intangibles such as posture and attitude than it is
Meanwhile, so-called 'biker chic' will be all over the shops this
autumn, and this July's US Vogue featured an article about
masculine looks for autumn called 'How to Borrow from the Boys'.
But in these days of such heightened gender sophistication, you
have to ask one question: borrowing from what kind of boy?
Like biological women who decide they want to adopt a male gender,
fashionable women do not necessarily want to model themselves on
Stan Ogden from Coronation Street. Similarly, the 'boy' that a lot
of fashion designers are pointing women towards is not by the kind
of rugger bugger who spends his Saturday nights down the pub
farting and telling smutty jokes.
Bronwyn Cosgrave, author of Made for Each Other: a History of
Oscar Dressing, believes that 'there is more of a cross-dressing
angle going on. I'm thinking Giorgio Armani's Prive collection
which debuted in Paris at the July couture shows and which was
based on David Bowie.'
Rebecca Smith is a gay woman and the art director at Lula, a hip
new fashion mag for kids with a queer sensibility, as well as a
designer for high fashion magazines such as Vogue and Elle. She is
not particularly wowed by the current hullabaloo with girls wearing
boy's clothes. 'The androgynous look has always been around,' she
says with a shrug. 'I mean, come on, Marlene Dietrich and Madonna.
But what I have noticed is how boys dress like girls too in their
ultra skinny tight jeans, so everyone almost blends into one.
You're not sure if they are a boy or girl until you cop a
The skinny look
Likewise, current high fashion means that you often can't tell the
straight girls from the gay girls. Sara Buys describes this new
androgynous look as a 'modern Patti Smith kind of vibe.' She adds
that it is 'definitely worn by plenty of straight girls so
boundaries are blurring.' Key items include things like an Ann
Demeulemeester white shirt, Acne black jeans, a tailored Stella
McCartney black jacket, a Rick Owens skinny leather jackets,
anything from Noir and a pair of Yves Saint Laurent boots.
The word 'skinny' keeps cropping up. Alas, skinny is very
fashionable right now and ironically, as all fashion bunnies know,
it is more important to have a skinny body than to have a
fashionable outfit. The quest to find looser shapes without looking
old- fashioned is just as hard for dykes as it is for straight
women. But the good news for dykes is that daring eye contact and a
confident gait (including Monty just back from El Alamein) are more
important than being in fashion when it comes to scoring in a night
Maybe looking like a lesbian is more
about intangibles such as posture and attitude than it is about
Personally, I think transvestitism is the way ahead. Femininity -
in the Marilyn Monroe or the Shirley Bassey sense - is a
masquerade, whether it is a man dressing up to play the part, or a
woman. Reina Lewis says that at Tart, the women's salon she hosts,
she likes to do the female drag queen thing by wearing very high
heels. She explains that she aims for a 'theatrical presentation of
my femme-ness, rather than trying to make it look "natural".'
Heels are sexy because they give you a posture that makes you look
powerful and vulnerable at the same time. Indeed, the most killer
lesbian look of all is the black suit worn with high heels (Hedi
Slimane suit and Christian Louboutin black 5- inch patent stilettos
to make you the true bitch of the ball).
Everyone goes on about how Helmut Newton's women - naked chicks in
dagger heels or chicks in black suits and stilettos - are a male
fantasy. Well, of course they are - but they are also a perfect
lesbian fantasy because you can make the image real. Most straight
girls aren't butch enough to pull off that dominatrix vibe. Cycle
to your destination with the heels in your bag if you can't afford
a taxi, put them on in a doorway and then walk into the club with a
well practised walk that combines a perky Marilyn Monroe and a
drunk Courtney Love.