FIT’s Queer History of Fashion Exhibit: Thoughts, Feelings, Critiques

I have so many thoughts about FIT’s Queer History of Fashion exhibit swirling around in my head. I was so, so happy to see that this was a topic that they decided to create an exhibit about. There is so much interesting stuff to delve into and explore when it comes to fashion and queerness that I couldn’t wait to see what their take on it might be.

First I want to start out with the things I liked. I loved the ability to see the beautiful clothes of gay designers that I admire in person, as well as the amazing opportunity to view unusual examples of gender-nonconforming dress. Seeing garments in person is always an incredible experience, as no photo or illustration will properly do them justice.

The trouble with this exhibition was the way that it didn’t choose what topic it wanted to  focus on and ended up being a room full of clothes tangentially related to LGBT people. I truly appreciated the ability to enter a room and see the work of gay designers as well as examples of queer expression in fashion; what I missed, however, was a powerful overall thesis or even an emphasis on smaller themes that would have given it much more instructive value. It also was overwhelmingly focused on white men, with almost no POC represented and extremely few women.

Jenny Shimizu by Mark Sellger

Model Jenny Shimizu, Helmut Red campaign. Photograph by Mark Seliger. One of the few POC represented in the exhibition.

One of the exhibition’s missteps was the choice to sprinkle in the work of gay designers with clothing worn by gay people, as these two categories are entirely different; there is really nothing to suggest that the creations by gay designers are related to a queer design aesthetic and it would take a whole other exhibition to convince me that this was the case. I truly think an exhibition about the rise of the gay designer in the 20th century could have been fascinating– but it wouldn’t really be in the same category as the clothes of Andy Warhol or Jenny Shimizu.

One of my favorite parts of the exhibition was the small section on pre-1910s menswear inspired ensembles, because I felt like they were very evocative of their time and their original owners. Transgressive clothing worn by women could be a category all its own and I would have loved to see all the examples grouped together. I also felt disappointed that the exhibit didn’t include any menswear for women that some recent companies have been coming out with, which was a bit of a gap considering the exhibit went up to 2012.

Jean Paul Gaultier, ensemble with kilt and trousers, The Museum of FIT.

Hoping to find more answers in the book that accompanied the exhibit, I bought it and read it shortly after visiting. However, there was a mixed bag when it came to the content. As someone with a medium level of knowledge on the subject, I did learn a few things, which was enjoyable. But overall, I can’t say that it kept me enthralled or that I would recommend it. One major problem in the book was the fact that there was no essay directly addressing the issue of fashion and gender or fashion and trans* issues, a topic which I think would have been such a rich and interesting subject to delve into.

The most compelling piece was the final essay about activist fashion, and perhaps it is no coincidence that this was the only one written in the first person and dealt with personal choice of self -representation. Maybe it is the result of any exhibition that the subjects appear like animals at the zoo, but I felt a sense of disconnect between the exhibit and lived experience of being queer that made it hard to relate to the sterile presentations of the garments of famous gay people. Honestly, queer fashion doesn’t come from looking at a garment– a garment isn’t ‘queer’ until it interacts with the person wearing it, their sexuality, their gender presentation and their activities.  This may be more challenging that simply presenting garments in a room: but I think that a more directed exhibition that used more photographs and quotations would have gone far in setting the scene. Additionally, the interplay of garments with one another was not necessarily thematic, creating strange triangulations of figures, such as the combination of an outfit worn by Andy Warhol, an example of a Dior ‘New Look’ gown and Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Le Smoking’ suit.

Joyce Culver, “Kings and Queens 3,” 1989

The idea of being ‘queer’ is precisely from the fact that it is different or incompatible with the general community, specifically in areas of sexual preference or gender expression. One issue I had with the exhibit was the way it elided sexual preference and gender expression in the way it talked about ‘queer fashion.’ There is a distinct difference between the two, although of course they are often connected. The way that sexual preference may play into personal appearance depends on a few factors: whether you want your clothes to signal something about these preferences to others or whether you choose to wear (or not wear) certain items specifically because of the gender of the individual you want to attract. Gender presentation, however, is subtly different, as it might have much more to do with dressing yourself to align or conflict with certain conceptions of gendered clothing, either for your own satisfaction or to communicate your gender to others.

Fashion is an incredible tool for self-fashioning and many people find that creating external visible identifiers through style is essential to feeling the way they way and living the way they want. But what I wanted to hear about was the idea and the impulse behind these potentially queer expressions. Or the artistic choices behind the decision to create an androgynous or gender bending collection. Clothing without context is just a pile of fabric, but it is through the medium of an exhibition that this fabric could have been brought to life and understood as part of a larger idea of self representation.

Marlene Dietrich

Clothes as an object do communicate a lot about their wearer– but it is primarily through their details. That would also require a much closer reading of an individual garment (the anatomy of a garment, perhaps) that just isn’t possible in the context of a large room full of mannequins, where much of the clothing is too far away to examine properly.

Clothing and gender is just such an interesting topic, I feel like this exhibition missed an opportunity to really explore the merging and blending of masculine/feminine in fashion, and the opportunity to debunk the notion that it is a fixed set of ideas. I definitely think its possible that I wanted more out of this exhibition than it ultimately would be able to give; but I still would love to have an exhibit that actually addressed these topics in a deeper and more thematic way. FIT can have some kudos for talking about something other museums don’t, but I’m still waiting for the day when the topic of queer fashion will be addressed in a way that’s even more thought-provoking and informative.


  1. I hate gender labels for clothing. It is fabric and if I feel great wearing a plaid skirt and a push up bra or a business suit with boxer briefs what difference does it make my clothing does not need a label. The queer clothing name almost stings me as much as much as being called a drag queen. Let’s just wear clothing and not be labeled mens,womens or queer.

    • Part of me agrees with you– but I think that there is value in acknowledging the bravery and power of people have decided to visually represent themselves as outside the ‘norm.’ Queer to me is a word of solidarity, not a word of exclusion, so I would be sorry to lose it.

  2. Thank you for this well written review as well as the many valid points you articulated so eloquently. While I can’t comment much about the exhibit as I didn’t have a chance to see it, I certainly agree with you that more can be done to “debunk the notion” in real life.

  3. I haven’t had a chance to see it, and so take what I say with a grain of salt. But I have to wonder–in an exhibition on “queer history of fashion”, why was the primary focus on “clothing designed by gays”? What was their position–that being gay changes the way you design clothing? I’m not saying that isn’t or can’t be true, but is that really what they were saying? Because if it is, then they also have to establish that there is a “straight” way of designing clothing, which might be hard–it isn’t as if every gay designer only designs clothing that speaks to their own sexual preferences. Collections usually speak to a lot of things, like abstract concepts of season, color or material, or specific ones like homage to a particular artist. The exhibit would have to work hard to convince me that gays have a tendency to design to their gayness–if that makes any sense. Like, being gay means you only ever think or talk or design about being gay…or something? Or did they only include gay designers whose work specifically addressed issues of gender and sexuality?

    Tell me if I’m missing the point of why they thought they should just slap a bunch of gay designers in a room and call it a day. The idea rubs me the wrong way, just like “history of women’s art” rubs me the wrong way–this whole separation, this idea that having two XXs inherently makes you “art” differently…I get that cultural factors may create some differences, but I see it as an irresponsible and lazy way of addressing those differences to just keep on segregating them and talking about them in another room. Unless their argument is that gay designers get way less recognition than straight ones, and they are trying to pick up the slack–but frankly I would be surprised if that is actually the case. Maybe I’m wrong though.

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