Go scrounging through the visual imagery that
defines gay women in the popular imagination and the stereotypes are as
predictable in their own way as Carson Kressley is in his, and a lot less
goofy-cute. There is the Miss Jane Hathaway type in tweeds and brogues.
There is the luggage-tanned Dinah Shore Golf Classic gal in a visor and
pleated khaki shorts. There are the softball catcher with her cap turned
backward and the clanking motorcycle mama in engineer's boots. And, of
course, there is Rosie O'Donnell, in boxy suits that look like
advertisements for a Big & Tall store.
It was not long ago that the print and electronic media began registering
the existence of so-called lipstick lesbians, and a phrase like "lesbian
fashion" stopped being an outright oxymoron. When the Showtime series "The L
Word" began in January, it showed that — far from being frumps doomed to
Manolo Blahnik deficiency — lesbians are a powerful presence in fashion, in
both predictable and unexpected ways.
The old stereotypes have not faded. But they have slipped into something
decidedly cool. "I have this theory that lesbians start certain fashion
things," said Stephanie Perdomo, the creator of a new collection of action
figures called Dykedolls, which will be sold on the Internet starting in
July. "I used to go around Williamsburg and see guys wearing wifebeaters,
wallet chains, gas station shirts and trucker hats, and I would think, `We
used to do that five years ago,' " Ms. Perdomo said.
In the mid-90's, at Manhattan all-girl bars like Meow Mix, patrons tended to
dress a lot like Ms. Perdomo's $65 Bobbie doll. They got themselves up in
ironic homage to a form of masculinity that barely exists outside the World
Wrestling Entertainment tour. Bobbie comes with a wardrobe typical of women
who dress like long-haul truckers, who look as though they could give
masculinity pointers to Ashton Kutcher. But butch girls are only part of the
story, as the women on the "The L Word" make plain. The cast, explained
Ilene Chaiken, the show's creator and executive producer, is given
considerable latitude in dressing the characters, and several of its
members, both gay and straight, turn out to be billboards for a sexually
flexible style you could characterize as L. A Tomboy.
The unofficial headquarters for that look is Fred Segal, a Los Angeles
specialty retailer, which is where, as Mayer Rus, the design editor of House
& Garden, sniped, "gorgeous teenage spokes models sell $800 T-shirts
artistically deconstructed by a commune of blind surfers." Perhaps the
sewing skills of blind surfers do attract Hollywood stars of the Brad Pitt,
Jennifer Aniston variety to the store. More likely, they are lured by the
way the store's buyers offhandedly blur the boundaries between men's and
One buyer, Nina Garduno, who is gay, is critical of how narrowly most
women's wear designers define sexiness in dress. "It is not at all that I
cater to gay women or that I want a woman to look like a guy," said Ms.
Garduno, the buyer for Fred Segal's men's wear department, where women
compete with men for the latest offerings. "But a lot of designers miss the
boat on what women want to wear, since sexiness in clothes, for this gay
woman at least, boils down to an innate confidence in sexuality."
It is the confidence, she explained, to pair a "wifebeater T shirt with a
pair of Helmut Lang flat-front pants," the way Ms. Garduno's girlfriend, the
actress Leisha Hailey of "The L Word," does. "So many things come out of an
L. A. gay women's look," Ms. Garduno said. "Whether it's ultimately worn by
a gay woman or a straight woman, straight guy, gay man, bisexual or
whatever, it's really sophisticated, and it's sexy."
Ms. Hailey's "L Word" character, Alice, a magazine writer, also wears a
choppy boyish shag, a hairdo first spotted on women in Hollywood gay bars a
few years back. The celebrity hairstylist Sally Hershberger gave Meg Ryan a
version of the cut, and it was soon adopted by women across the country,
presumably unaware that the style originated among fashionable lesbians.
It is the subtle incorporation of butch and femme dualities — the
traditional poles of lesbian sartorial identity — into mainstream fashion
that most clearly signals the influence of gay women in the garment
industry, a group that few outside the business are aware of. "There are a
lot of gay women working in fashion, obviously, and they approach it as gay
women, and that fashion is then consumed by a much larger culture," Ms.
"What makes their work lesbian fashion?" Ms. Chaiken said. "It's probably
that they are celebrating that play with gender, that provocative style that
pulls from rock 'n' roll, boy icons of the past, the street and the high-end
couture type glamour, but that starts with a lesbian sensibility."
In a business that often seems creatively dominated by gay men, the idea of
lesbians still has the power to startle. "There is this almost total silence
about gay women," said Valerie Steele, the museum director at the Fashion
Institute of Technology.
The cause is not too mysterious, said one top level executive in the beauty
industry, who wished to remain anonymous. "As lesbians, we feel our place in
fashion is tenuous, and so the presumption is perpetuated that we don't
exist," she said.
With men in fashion, the award-winning knitwear designer Liz Collins said,
"it's almost a given that they are gay," whereas lesbians, if they are
thought to exist, are depicted as "independent or strong." Her own
lesbianism is, she said, "an important part of my design inspiration,
because I am more inspired at a gut level by women's bodies than by a cut or
a silhouette, which is probably true of a lot of women designers, gay or
Unlike straight women designers, however, those in Ms. Collins's position
are often forced to contend with the usual prejudices, not least the
intractable dowdiness of lesbian stereotypes. "Some of the most stylish
women are lovers of women, as opposed to lovers of men," Ms. Collins said.
If they choose to keep their preferences private, it is because invisibility
can seem preferable to outright discrimination, she added, or else to
"preconceptions about lesbian style that are pretty horrible."
That gay women not only exist but also exert considerable sway has only
begun to be acknowledged. "It's wild, if you think about it, that the woman
who defined how straight women dressed in this millennium on "Sex and the
City" is a lesbian," said Roger Padilha, creative director of the fashion
production company MAO PR.
Mr. Padilha was referring to the designer Patricia Field, whose costumes
often served as uncredited characters on the HBO series. "Go out to the
clubs on a Friday night, and the women are dressed like characters from `Sex
and the City.' " Mr. Padilha said. "Pat brought a lot of dyke sensibility to
the show," he added, citing the do-rags, newsboy caps and the outlandishly
femme jewel-box ballerina outfits that Ms. Field provided for Sarah Jessica
Parker to wear.
Amanda Moore, one of the most successful of fashion models, said, "People
tend to have this image of what gay is, especially when it comes to women."
Since leaving Pensacola, Fla., Ms. Moore has appeared on nearly every
designer runway and remains a darling of photographers and editors. She is
also uncommonly open about her sexuality. "Just because I choose to love
women and don't dress the part of a model doesn't mean that I'm not very
good at what I do," said Ms. Moore, whose own style epitomizes androgynous
If same-sex unions have proved anything, it is that the old stereotypes are
looking frayed. Homosexual social identities turn out to be as plural as
those of any other group. And the day seems not far off when gay style, like
gay radar, will go the way of any other artifact of minority status. "The
gay gene for fashion is like the gay gene for musicals," said Ms. Steele of
the Fashion Institute of Technology. "It doesn't exist."
What does, however, she added, "is the reality that being an outsider
heightens awareness." And, if outsider status tends "to give one access to a
slightly subcultural feel, based on what turns you on," Ms. Steele said, a
style can also emerge from that awareness and then migrate into the culture
at large. The truth of that proposition is well understood by designers from
Seventh Avenue to the Avenue Montaigne.
"Lesbians seem to play with gender roles a lot," Mr. Padilha said. That
playfulness sometimes turns up in unexpected quarters. When Tom Ford hired
the model Eleonora Bose for a Gucci campaign three years back, some
expressed shock at Ms. Bose's biker haircut and masculine way of posing. "A
lot of people criticized the look as a little bit aggressive," Mr. Ford said
at the time. The clothes were "about this masculine-feminine mood," he
explained, and in the butch-styled but heterosexual Ms. Bose he had found
the "personification of what is in the air."
But has it not always been there? A distinct lesbian style, Ms. Steele said,
has evolved markedly through the last century. "In the 1940's, there was a
butch-femme polarization," she said. "In the 60's and 70's it spread more
toward this androgyny that fitted the mainstream feminist look." In the
80's, a prettied-up version of lesbian stereotypes took hold. The 90's were
marked by the emergence of drag kings, whose gender games were quickly
sampled by designers like Jean Paul Gaultier. When the model Erin O'Connor
posed for a Moschino campaign, playing both a flamenco dancer in ruffles and
a toreador with side whiskers, she proved the proposition put forward by Dr.
Suzanna Walters, the director of feminist studies at Georgetown University,
that "sexualities once literally outlaw are now rendered as sartorial
Dr. Walters termed the process the commodification of difference. And the
Moschino design house was hardly the first to work the terrain. The director
Josef von Sternberg commodified difference to sublime effect in the 1930's,
creating in Marlene Dietrich a prototype for the glamour puss empowered by
trousers. It took half a century before there was any consensus about the
lesbian origins of Dietrich's cross-dressing. The lag time would be a lot
Still, the least obvious conclusion to be drawn from the Von Dutch trucker
cap phenomenon might be that it originated among a bunch of gender-obsessed
young lesbians — the prototypes for Bobbie the Dykedoll. "Trucker hats,
wallet chains, cowboy boots and straw Stetsons, all that started with gay
women and was transformed into street fashion," said Rebecca Weinberg, a
former stylist for "Sex and the City." About the last people to get hold of
the look were heterosexual men, added Suzanne Ethier, a Manhattan retailer,
whose vintage store, Rags-a-GoGo, is tube-sock central. "The straight boys
didn't realize that they were rocking a style that originated with a bunch
of dykes," Ms. Ethier said.
It is often like that. Last fall's Paris runway season opened with
Undercover, a label created by the Japanese cult designer Jun Takahashi.
Seated in the front row was Sarah Lerfel, who owns the Right Bank emporium
Colette. Before the show started, Ms. Lerfel was asked if she thought the
tomboy look popular with patrons of Le Pulp, a Parisian women's bar, had not
been having a surprising effect on style. She smiled indulgently.
Then the lights dimmed, the D. J. cued Patti Smith on the turntable, and a
parade of models appeared in slashed jeans, flat shoes and mannish jackets,
clothes that were hip and sexy tough, vulnerable and imposing, just the sort
of stuff one might expect a fashionable young lesbian to wear.