We're Here, We're Queer, and We Never Left

The queer community is continually told that we’re just now having our moment. While it’s true that we’re making gains in visibility, the connotation--subliminally or not--is that we’ve only just begun to exist in the real world. It furthers the feeling of otherworldliness that so many of us feel regardless of how supportive our surroundings are; our queerness forces us to create our own worlds. In particular, the fashion industry has published countless articles breathlessly chronicling the “rise” of queer fashion, from nonbinary models to gender equal brands, all touted as a new challenge to the bloated fashion houses of old.

As I’ve started to study the history of fashion, particularly streetwear, it’s been interesting to find out that this is not the case. In fact, streetwear, a segment of the industry that has been notably hostile to queer people, was started by a gay Black man. Willi Smith created WilliWear in 1976. That’s a full 44 years ago. Among many firsts, his label was the first to have menswear and womenswear under the same company.

Willi Smith deserves a deep dive of his own that can’t be captured in this one blog post, but he laid a notable foundation that has been downplayed when it comes to the overall narrative of how queer fashion has evolved. In addition to WilliWear, the street fashion of the ballroom and club scenes of the early 80s was heavily influenced by queer people. Those subcultures created safe spaces for queer folks, and even a cursory glance at photos from that era shows clothing full of clashing patterns, big jewelry, overalls, and oversized tees similar to what’s seen in queer street fashion today.

I think celebrating our victories now is important, whether it be Indya Moore opening Jason Wu’s recent NYFW show or a simple Instagram post from someone wearing a dress for the first time. I just wish simply wearing what you want to wear didn’t feel so difficult. We don’t need to start from scratch. Blurring the lines of gender expression through clothing, upcycling, and fucking with who should wear what is nothing new--we’ve just never been able to see that it’s been done before. 

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