Linking clothing and queerness might ‘boost visibility,’ but it also encourages stereotypes

By Vivi Smilgius

Last Wednesday afternoon, the New York Post tweeted a link to an article titled “‘Dressing like a lesbian’ is the sexy and ‘powerful’ new fashion trend.” 

The image accompanying the tweet featured several photos of female celebrities wearing suits and other menswear-inspired outfits on the street and red carpet. And— horrifyingly— the first sentence of the article reads, “Lesbi-honest, queer fashion is totally in!”

This article underscores a variety of misconceptions about clothes and their relationship with gender and sexuality, most of which are rooted in binary, patriarchal gender roles. The idea that lesbians dress in a masculine way feeds into gendered stereotypes about sexuality itself, including the notion that each relationship should have male and female counterparts (i.e. one of the women in a lesbian relationship should “wear the pants” while the other should be more feminine). It also plays into the stereotype that lesbian women are inherently masculine and gay men are inherently feminine.

Whether conscious or subconscious, these patriarchal beliefs are the reason the Post’s article refers to wearing suits, or adopting a masculine style, as “dressing like a lesbian” instead of “wearing traditional menswear.” But what does menswear mean, anyway?

In the past decade, brands began warming up to the idea of androgynous clothing lines and retailers started phasing out gendered components of shopping. Today’s fashion world retains terms like menswear and womenswear, but some brands have adopted the terms to refer to fit and style rather than target market. Kirrin Finch, for example, “challenges fashion industry norms” through menswear-inspired and size-inclusive androgynous clothing, according to its website.

Society’s newfound appreciation for androgyny in clothes is what Harper’s Bazaar author Jill Gutowitz calls fashion’s sapphic makeover. In an article titled “Sapphic Style Is Going Mainstream,” Gutowitz credits this shift to a “boost in queer visibility,” citing Kristen Stewart’s Spencer press tour and a variety of celebrity outfits including Zendaya’s infamous hot-pink suit.

Gutowitz says the increase in the popularity of “lesbian fashion” has made her more comfortable wearing stereotypically-lesbian clothes without facing backlash or criticism. She also adds that she feels a bit resentful of queer women today who are able to wear such clothes and be deemed “trendy” instead of shameful.

“There’s also a safety in knowing I won’t be called a dike for wearing something I’ve always wanted to wear but was rightfully fearful to do so,” she writes. “Unfortunately, queer people often have to learn to love ourselves after enduring a lifetime of messaging that tells us not to… It feels good to be widely accepted, finally, after decades of feeling the opposite.”

But does labeling certain fashion as “lesbian” mean lesbianism or queerness itself also comes in and out of style? While real-life queer visibility and representation in the media are important in pushing inclusivity in today’s society, deeming certain trends to be queer crosses the line from celebratory to stereotyping. It can reinforce the harmful gender narratives perpetuated for decades.

The Post’s tweet was met with hundreds of snarky replies, many of which included photos of the “power dressing” trend popularized in the 1970s and 80s, which involved similar menswear elements like blazers, trousers, and boxy silhouettes. Journalist Angella d’Avignon wrote an article for The Atlantic in 2017 looking back on the “Power Suit” and its place in 1980s business. She deemed it an attempt by women to both emulate the authority of men in power and escape the sexualization that follows women in nearly every environment, specifically professional ones.

“Defying the male gaze in the workplace and public life took serious negotiating,” wrote d’Avignon. “That negotiation began, in part, with power suits.”

Women used— and continue to use— power suits to gain respect and establish a level of dominance that is otherwise unattainable in male-dominated workplaces. So, the suit as an item of clothing is connected not to sexuality, but to power— a power created and perpetuated by the patriarchy. To decide that women become powerful when they dress the way men are expected to dress is just as inaccurate as deeming a woman sexy when only when she dresses the way lesbians are expected to.

The problem with linking lesbianism to a certain level of high-fashion— not just beanies and flannels, but suits and menswear, too— is that people will inevitably mistake the connection as an invitation to stereotype.

Clothing should accentuate a person’s confidence and convey their personal style. It is not an indicator of gender or sexual preference and need not be praised just because it is unconventional.

Just because Harry Styles wears a dress, for example, does not mean he is pioneering unexplored frontiers of sexuality and self-expression, but rather that Gucci decided to make its archival closet his Love On Tour wardrobe.

That being said, it’s important to recognize that clothing is used as a universal means of expression, especially among the LGBTQ+ community. Clothing is one of the simplest ways for  LGBTQ+ members to escape “gender dysphoria,” the feeling of conflict between one’s identified gender and one’s sex assigned at birth. And, in an even simpler way, everyone likes feeling confident in their own skin— or clothes.