This post was born from thoughts about the stereotypes and signifiers of lesbianism and lesbian fashion. I think that these two things – stereotypes and signifiers – are related, but definitely not the same when placed in the lesbian context. While some things may be and remain stereotypes, they do not always work as signifiers, purely because they are worn by many more people than lesbians alone. One example of this is, of course, sensible footwear. Sensible footwear, or comfortable shoes: the foundations, literally, of many a lesbian’s journey through the world. Photographs, personal stories and jokes alike all attest to this, as do my fiancée’s Birkenstocks and Doc Martens, lined up behind me as I type. A lesbian is not defined by only their shoes, however, as a 1991 opinion piece by Daphne Fox Calgary so aptly explained:
And we do all love women, don’t we?
So that makes us all sisters; those in Hush Puppies, those in high heels, those in black leather boots, those in orthopaedic oxfords, and even those who are presently barefoot and pregnant.1
Why, then, does the image of a Doc Marten-clad foot, such as on the cover of Kate Charlesworth’s Sensible Footwear, continue to ooze lesbian existence so fiercely?
Kate Charlesworth, Sensible Footwear (Oxford: Myriad, 2019).
I think that sensible footwear is representative of lesbian camp because of its journey from the sidelines to the mainstream and back again. This process of re-lesbianing is centred in performance, as well as in a witty, wistful knowingness. To claim sensible footwear as lesbian after it has already been appropriated into heterosexual fashion cultures is to consciously use it to carve out a lesbian space. It is to know lesbian history, and long to know a lesbian future.
In Reina Lewis’ article ‘Looking Good: The Lesbian Gaze and Fashion Imagery,’ she writes the following:
How to look fashionable and move with the changing trends, while still signifying as lesbian? At one time it was relatively easy: you wore whatever you wanted and combined it with big shoes or boots. But then everyone started wearing Doc. Martens and footwear’s lesbian coding was undermined.2
Her article was published in 1997. Two decades later, fashions that originated in various corners of the LGBTQ community have been encouraged to run wild through the fashion landscape, being claimed and worn by whoever likes the look of them. Queer fashion consistently walks a few steps ahead of the heterosexual norm, but our clothing history is no longer ours alone. This means that while queer fashions can still be different and innovative, they are not concrete signposts. They must continue to change to remain ours. The lesbian shoe – the Doc Marten, Birkenstock or hiking boot – now exists as lesbian only in the sterotypical narrative, rather than in reality. They have been subsumed into the mainstream. In the words of Kelly Reddy-Best and Katie Baker Jones in ‘Is this what a lesbian looks like? Lesbian fashion and the fashionable lesbian in the United States press, 1960s to 2010s’: “the mainstream press was a space in which old [lesbian fashion] tropes were reconciled, dismantled, and reconstructed for mass consumption.”3 The lesbian shoe has well and truly been rebranded by the fashion industry.
Saskia Scheffer, First Annual New York City Dyke March, 26th June 1993, New York City, USA. Lesbian Herstory Archive.
The signifiers from lesbian history do not exist as they once did. To reconnect with them and to continue their legacy is, I think, a specifically lesbian performance. We look at photographs such as the one above, taken at a 1993 Dyke March, and we connect ourselves to it – fashions have changed and our marches have become more and more commercialised, but look, there! On the feet of all those marching dykes are sensible lesbian shoes. Perhaps these aren’t the kinds of shoes they would have worn all the time, but when it comes to marching and protesting and presenting a united, lesbian group, the choice to wear them is undoubtably an important one.
Because photographs such as these capture sensible footwear in such a lesbian context, the stereotypical lesbian-ness of it becomes more cemeted. This brings me to camp. Camp is consistently cited to revolve around performance and parody, to be the cumulation of all the humour and jokiness that springs from queer lives. It is also largely associated with queer men. Lesbians are seen less as performers; they are thought more often to be the butt of the joke than its teller. The owners of Instagram account @BUTCHCAMP, in an interview with Dazed, contest this, describing how “In the early days, we were thinking a lot about how historically the butch has been the butt of the joke, when she is clearly as funny and fabulous and the f****t.”4 Lesbians are more self aware than we are given credit. When we continue, now, to wear sensible footwear, we are connecting with our heritage. We are, however, also connecting ourselves to stereotypes of lesbianism. It is to perform the image of “The Lesbian” to those in the know, whether the audience is queer of heterosexual. It is to play the part of The Lesbian but also insist on locating lesbianism within a contemporary setting, stomping out a path between lesbian histories and futures.
Advert for DYKE A Quarterly, c. 1976. Accessed via seesaw.typepad.com/dykeaquarterly.
Something that must not be forgotten in this analysis is the worn element of sensible footwear. It is innately connected to the lesbian body, its presentation, its interractions with the world and its level of comfort. Footwear dictates how we traverse the world – it can be stylish, practical, both or neither. It can give us a limp or a spring in our step. Sensible footwear should, however, always give the wearer comfort, as if it were an extension of the body. This is a concept that appears in Mikaella Clements’ fantastic article on The Outline, ‘Notes on dyke camp.’ She explains:
Dyke camp overlaps with camp in some areas, certainly. But in others it is completely different; it has its own electric vision. If camp is the love of the unnatural, dyke camp is the love of the ultra-natural, of nature built up and reclaimed, of clothes that could be extensions of the body. 5
She continues, saying later on in the article that “Dyke camp clothing is linked intrinsically to the body that’s underneath.”6 Sensible footwear is camp, in one way, because it is a performance of lesbianism. However, it is also camp in its prioritisation of naturalness, of comfort, and of the bodily experience. What this means is that lesbian camp exists when clothing is at its most lesbian: i.e., when lesbian stereotypes are claimed and owned, and when the lesbian who is wearing the clothing is putting her body first and making sure that it is comfortable. Sensible shoes are lesbian camp because of their history and because, while they may not be frivolous, they are uncaring. They represent the determination to stand and march on one’s own two (lesbian) feet, and to not be inhibited in this by the shoes that cover them.
1: Daphne Fox Calgary, ‘Lesbians Wear Comfortable Shoes’ (Opinion), Modern Pink, Jan. 1991. International Gay and Lesbian Periodicals and Newsletters, Archives of Sexuality and Gender. Gale.
2: Reina Lewis, ‘Looking Good: The Lesbian Gaze and Fashion Imagery,’ Feminist Review 55 (1997), 104.
3: Kelly L. Reddy-Best and Katie Baker Jones, ‘Is this what a lesbian looks like? Lesbian fashion and the fashionable lesbian in the United States press, 1960s to 2010s,’ Journal of Lesbian Studies 24.2 (2020), 168.
4: Lexi Manatakis, ‘How @BUTCHCAMP is defining a lesbian camp aesthetic,’ Dazed, 13th Aug. 2019. Dazeddigital.com. The censorship of f****t in the quote my choice.
5: Mikaella Clements, ‘Notes on dyke camp,’ The Outline, 17th May 2018. Theoutline.com
6: Clements, ‘Notes on dyke camp.’