Queer folks have been making space for each other and finding ways to track each other down for our entire histories, despite the threat of social ostracization and even legal persecution in many eras of the western history. We communicate our identities (subtly or… less subtly) through aesthetic choices, body language, and even where we go or what we're interested in. Queer Looks is a celebration of the ways that, over the last 130 years or so, queer folks have found to express their identities and exist comfortably in their worlds.

 

Not all the looks on this page are exclusive to queer people, but that's the point: we don't exist in a vacuum. Building a community is a beautiful, collaborative thing, and as people on the margins we have adapted, created, and repurposed what we had to send messages that we would understand but others would not. Similarly, not all the looks on this page were "decided" upon as symbols, like the ace ring was. Many simply arose over time, through trends and shared interest.

This page is meant to be a companion to Queer Looks, a queer lookbook that we Kickstarted in 2018. Here, you will find short explanations of the looks in the book, as well as links that expand on them further. Enjoy!

1892
GREEN CARNATIONS  &  SUNFLOWERS

In the 1890s, Oscar Wilde was the european poster child of the Aesthetic movement. Wilde is cited as the origin of many Aesthetic symbols—some of which, despite the movement’s resistance to deeper meaning in art, grew to be more then just a strange accessory-based phenomenon. 

 

Sunflowers and the green carnation are two such symbols. Wilde was widely known to be—and eventually arrested for being—a gay man, and his followers quickly began to associate the lowercase-a aesthetics he popularized with his identity. Despite his insistence that the green carnation meant “nothing whatsoever,” it became a silent symbol of gay men in the Aesthetic movement and has carried that symbolic weight for over a century. 

 

(Some sources note that Wilde may have just stolen the carnation from Paris, where green was associated with gay men already.)

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VIOLETS
1926

Art by Lauren Dombrowski

Violets have been a representation of sapphic love since, potentially, Sappho herself. In a poem entitled “No Word” (in one translation, at least), Sappho references a lover’s “violet tiaras” just after referencing their "shared gifts to Aphrodite." Violets became an especially present symbol of lesbian love and desire in the west in the 1910s and 1920s due to a scandal around a play called The Captive, where young woman receives a handful of violets from her unseen (female) lover. 

In in the Victorian language of flowers, violets symbolized modesty and the purple violet in particular suggested that the givers’ thoughts were also “occupied with love.” It’s not hard to see how queer folks would grab onto that.

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Art by Telênia Albuquerque

The queer blues divas of the 1920s and 1930s took music—and social norms about gender and sexuality—completely by storm. Many of these incredible African American women (Gladys Bentley, Ma Rainey, Josephine Baker, and more) rejected American norms of subtlety and secrecy with regards to sexuality and instead sang or performed to incredibly raunchy songs that were littered with references to same-gender attraction and the denial of gender norms. Some frequently performed in what would have been considered men’s clothing, wearing sharp suit jackets and crisp top hats.

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QUEER BLUES DIVAS

Art by Val Wise

1930
1930

Art by Dante Luiz

MONOCLE LESBIANS

In 1930s France, the monocle was a de facto lesbian uniform, often worn alongside a tuxedo and cropped haircut—mimicking men’s fashion of the time. Compared to the rest of Europe, Paris was relatively accepting of non-heteronormative sexualities… and the nightclub scene was flourishing. One most famous lesbian nightclubs was named after the fashion trend: Le Monocle was a club run by a lesbian (Lulu de Montparnasse) for lesbians, almost all of whom dressed in sharp suits and wore a single lens over one eye. The surviving photos are absolutely incredible.

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1943
THE WAAC

World War II turned the labor economy of the United States on its head: with the government’s desperate recruitment of male soldiers, more and more women were both needed and able to pursue jobs outside their homes. Eventually, military recruitment expanded to include women, and the Women’s (Auxiliary) Army Corps was founded. Leaving traditional life expectations behind was appealing to many lesbians at the time, and the WAAC became an obvious destination. As the story goes, Eisenhower once ordered one of his sergeants to “ferret out the lesbians” so that they could be dishonorably discharged. Sergeant Nell “Johnnie” Phelps responded by informing him that she would top the list, and be followed by practically every woman on staff… at which point Eisenhower dropped the order.

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Art by Cat Parra

Art by Val Wise

Over the course of the 1900s, pants become more and more socially acceptable for women: early on in performance, where breaking social norms was more expected, then in work contexts, and slowly but surely in public and casual leisure time. In 1920, Coco Chanel designed the first mass-produced pair of pants—riding pants, meant for riding and nothing else, as the marketing made clear—tailored specifically for women. The 1950s saw more and more previously male-relegated fashion tailored for women, and while not only queer women took advantage of those fashion trends, it sure did make things look gayer to our modern eyes. The 1950s also marked the publication of an incredible series of pulp lesbian novels, which… just take a look at the covers.

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'50s BUTCH 
1955

Art by Lauren Dombrowski

LE SMOKING

In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking tuxedo suit was the first suit to earn widespread attention and acclaim that was also tailored specifically for women. Le Smoking was so famous, in fact, that designers continue to riff on the basic design today.

The Le Smoking tuxedo drew from a history of women adapting traditionally masculine fashions to their own ends, and helped pave the way for the minimalist, androgynous menswear of today. In garnering so much popularity, Le Smoking busted through one more barrier and gave women just that much more freedom of expression in public fashion.

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1966

Art by Dante Luiz

In Brazil in the 1960s, what the US thinks of as drag was popularized in Carnival. In the 60s, the practice was becoming more accepted outside of Carnival, and travesti who wanted to were able to live in feminine identities even outside of performances. Rogéria (illustrated in Queer Looks), was Brazil’s first drag star and, over the years, she has continued to be the most well-known travesti name outside of Brazil. 

 

In the ‘60s, travesti culture was characterized by glamor and flair, but due to the 1964 military coup and resulting 20 years of dictatorship, the subculture has faded from the public eye. Due to the changes in the last 40 years, it can be difficult to find accounts about the culture of the 60s.

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TRAVESTI SHOWBIZ FASHION
1967

Art by Fyodor Pavlov

Leather culture has been around since the late 1940s, growing out of biker culture and into gay bars in urban metropolises. These bars were often—if not entirely—a reflection of a rejection of mainstream “moral” standards regarding sexuality and sex itself. Outside of bars, gay mens’ claiming of leather jackets also reflected a reclamation of masculinity, a push back against the idea that being gay was in any way an antithesis to being a man; this is further emphasized by the aesthetic influence of military or police uniforms (as can be seen in the work of Tom of Finland). Leather fashion itself reached its height in the 70s, after Stonewall and before the public chaos of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s. 

 

(A note from Fyodor on the year of this piece: I went with 1973 as the representative year, since it's when the board of the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its official list of psychiatric disorders, the DSM-II.)

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LEATHER FASHION
1973

Art by Telênia Albuquerque

The labrys is a double bladed axe, a tool that we see now as a weapon but is thought to have been an agricultural tool 8000 years ago. The labrys was also a prevailing symbol in Crete, where the Minoans were predominantly matriarchal.

In the 1970s, the labrys became a prominent symbol within lesbian and feminist communities, subtle enough to fly under the radar for those not in the know, but clear as day to other queer folks. It represents solidarity and self sufficiency to those who wear it.

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THE LABRYS
1974

Art by Erica Chan

Y’all, it’s plaid.

PLAID
1995

Art by Cat Parra

In 2005, in a single thread on AVEN (the Asexual Visibility and Education Network), forum members chose and popularized the black ring (worn on the middle finger of the right hand) as an unspoken symbol of asexuality. The ring became more popular over the years, and represents visible solidarity between holders of an identity that is largely invisible.​ Harkening back to roman symbolism, the black represents both internal and external protection.

The black ring has near-overlap with swinger culture, which uses colored rings on specific fingers to show sexual interest and availability. However, some swinger communities have actually asked members to avoid wearing a black ring on their right hand in order to create more room for asexual folks to use the symbol.

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THE BLACK RING
2008

Art by Erica Chan

Unlike the black ace ring, no one decided that enamel pins were queer culture… it just happened. Queer folks are powerful, creative, and legion, and we, by and large, love to support each other and show off each others’ work. Enamel pins allow for that joyous and visible support, and heck, it doesn’t hurt that they’re freakin gorgeous.

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  • We are heartily in the age of the pin queer. So much so, in fact, that I couldn’t find anything written about it! Instead, check out #PinHell on twitter and get you some good, good pins.

ENAMEL PINS & DENIM
2018

© 2018 by Margins Publishing.