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:: T H E  S E C R E T  P O W E R  O F  L E S B I A N  S T Y L E ::
By GUY TREBAY
New York Times
June 27, 2004



Carole Segal/Showtime


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 women's wear.

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. Chaiken said.

"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 not."

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 slacker cool.

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 motifs."

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 shorter today.

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.






 


The L Word Online has been designed by Oz and Slicey.  Unique images designed by Oz.  Site maintained by Oz & Slicey.  This website is intended to be fun and informative, and was created with respect to show appreciation for the women and men involved in the creation of TV's first real lesbian drama.  This site is not endorsed, sponsored, or affiliated with Showtime Networks Inc., the television series "The L Word," or any person involved in the making of the show.  No copyright infringement is intended.  Images and other borrowed content are copyright their respective owners.  Credit is given where due.  All original content is the sole property of  the creators of The L Word Online copyright October 2003.