Why the Future of Fashion is Queer

On the surface, fashion is embracing gender inclusivity, but trans and non-binary representation has fallen, and many queer youths are still afraid of violent reactions to how they dress.

When Australian stylist Blake Sutherland used to commute to Sydney from his suburban hometown, he would get changed on the train. “Where I lived was quite dangerous, so I put on more fashionable clothes after I left my suburb. Then, when I was coming back, I put on a hoodie and pants,” he says. “There’s always a thought that goes into every outfit that I wear that’s like, is this going to incite hate in somebody, or should I wear something that keeps me a little more out of people’s eyeline? It’s one of those things you have to be smart about.”

For many queer youths today, fashion is a vital mode of self-expression, a lifeline even. Yet it continues to be stifled by conservative norms. In the UK’s National LGBT Survey, launched in July 2017 with 108,000 participants,  two out of five respondents said they had experienced an incident of verbal harassment or physical violence because of their LGBT identity. In this context, queerness cannot be side-lined by the fashion industry. People can still be shocked and provoked by what other people wear, making simply walking down the street a danger for members of the queer community who use style to express their identity.

Heather Glazzard

“I wish society was more accepting,” says Chinese model Weimin Li.“You shouldn’t have to be brave to be able to express yourself, but it’s still dangerous. When you’re wearing something that is out of the usual, you get noticed. Not all attention is good attention.”

Up-and-coming brands like Art School and Telfar are pioneering non-binary fashion, but while gender-neutral collections are being released across the industry, most brands continue to play it safe. Truly genderless clothing is still not the norm. “It’s ridiculous that we assign a gender to pieces of clothing,” says Li. “We need exposure [to nongendered clothing] to make it more normal. It helps people come to terms with the fact that they can do what they want, they can dress how they want, and they can express themselves the way they want to express themselves.”

Both Sutherland and Li have been photographed for Queer Letters, an Arts Council England funded project by Heather Glazzard, that aims to give exposure to young queer people and, by extension, how they dress. These intimate portraits aim to, “Put unrepresented people into the light,” says Glazzard. “It’s important that we look beyond the mainstream and look at real queer people.”

Androgyny has been part of mainstream fashion for a long time, but its focus has primarily been on female models with short hair and skinny, boyish figures. Trans men and masculine non-binary people continue to be the fashion industry’s most underrepresented demographic. Izzy Kroese, founder of the @transmascstudies Instagram account, says: “Like it or not, fashion cues are so ingrained in society that they are instantly recognisable as gender markers. This has been used as a tool for survival, or, when given the chance, a bizarre construct for LGBT people to experiment with.” Kroese praises the industry for its progress in casting, but says that, “We need trans masculine creativity out there. It’s good to see trans masculine bodies on catwalks, billboards, and in magazines, but all of the potential for play that comes with getting dressed as a trans masculine person needs to be represented.”

Heather Glazzard

US casualwear retailer Gap was the only brand to cast a transgender man in its Fall 2018 campaign – deafartist Chella Man. Last year, there were no trans male cover stars, but this year both Krow and Finn Buchanan have had their own Dazed covers. Nathan Westling, who came out as transgender on Instagram in March, appears on the cover of i-D magazine’s Summer 2019 issue.

The Spring 2019 shows featured more transgender and gender non-conforming models than ever before, but for Fall 2019 the number dropped dramatically to just 56 (0.77%.) In February, Dazed released its Spring 2019 “Infinite Identities” issue that championed trans and non-binary creatives. On a disappointing note, Ed Razek, chief marketing officer of US lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret, said in a Vogue interview last year that the company would not cast transgender models because it is not part of the “fantasy” (he later apologized). It seems that queer inclusivity is largely being pushed by a youth movement rather than mainstream fashion. There is clearly a divide between brands that prioritizeinclusivity and those that still hold dated notions of fashion as a thin, white, cisgender fantasy.

Queer creativity has been at the centre of fashion since Christian Dior, but now representation needs to be more intersectional. Youth culture magazines shouldn’t be the only platforms for queerness. “Fashion is a really fluid way of being able to express yourself,” says Li. “There’s a lot of possibility.”

And isn’t that what fashion is all about? Exploring new possibilities. Right now, the industry has the perfect opportunity to challenge assumptions about gender and sexuality and to push boundaries by embracing new voices. The future of fashion is queer.

Heather Glazzard

Images by Heather Glazzard for Queer Letters, an ongoing project that documents the queer community and asks questions about representation. Queer Lettersfeatures real people in their homes and gardens. The images are accompanied by written letters from the subjects about their queer identity or with advice to their younger self. Heather’s portraits shine a light on members of a community that have historically had to hide. The series is being showcased in full in Manchester, England, at Caustic Coastal from May 9-11  and in London at VFD on Thursday, May 16.

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