Femme Chronology: 1950s Bar Lesbians and 2020s Retro Dykes

Lesbian fashion is, by default, not constrained by a masculine/feminine binary. While some people or styles may find themselves drawn more to one or the other, lesbian fashion in general – much like lesbianism itself – is broad and boundary-breaking. Even more traditional butch and femme fashions are displaced from the “masculine” and “feminine” of heteronormative clothing cultures because, for one, they are worn on the lesbian body. I have mostly written about the more masculine corner of the lesbian fashion spectrum. As my butch fiancée pointed out, this is in part a love letter to her. It is also, however, purely because butch lesbian fashion is easier to find in historical research, when we may often assume lesbianism only from clothing. Those who hid from their homophobic culture are mostly still hidden from us when we look for them now, after all. 

This post aims to highlight femmes who existed obviously, and those who continue to do so. I will be analysing the clothing worn by femme lesbians who were photographed in lesbian spaces; many of these photographs are well-known within lesbian history, because they are some of the few that are unquestionably ours. I want to trace a legacy of femme fashion that begins with women at Le Monocle in 1930s Paris and The Gateways in 1950s London, and continues with their reflection in vintage-wearing twenty-first century lesbians. 

A quote that has for a long time appealed to me is by Black femme lesbian author Jewelle L. Gomez, who wrote an essay for the edited collection Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender. She wrote that “We are in a war for liberation – butches are the front-line troops and femmes are the tactical guerillas.”1 I like this phrasing not just for the metaphor, but for the representation of femmes and their presentation – sometimes overlooked, but powerful for it; able to disrupt heterosexual femininity by hiding their lesbianism in their high heels and then stomping out a space for it; making the lesbian body ‘respectable’ by dressing it in fashionable clothes, when really its respectability was inherent all along. Another quote, this time from Elizabeth Wilson in her essay ‘What Does a Lesbian Look Like?’ is apt: “for a transgressive woman extreme elegance could be the queerest thing of all.”2

Fig. 1: Brassaï. Photograph of lesbians at Le Monocle. Paris, 1932. 

Above is a scene from Le Monocle, a lesbian bar in Paris that thrived during the 1930s. A set of photographs were taken inside the club in 1932 by the photographer Brassaï, who was a friend of the club’s owner, Lulu de Montparnasse. They are incredible to look at as a lesbian historian, but particularly as a lesbian dress historian – so many outfits worn in such a range of ways are on display here. As this post is analysing femmes specifically, I will only talk about a few, but I do want to point out the sartorial atmosphere. A common feature in the outfits photographed is a monocle, which supposedly worked as a code of lesbianism. I think that it is also possible, however, that the lesbians at Le Monocle that evening were consciously showing their affiliation to the club and its lesbian culture by wearing or holding monocles for the photographs. Also, while there is a divide between butch and femme fashions in this image, it is not a rigid one. Some lesbians are in suits and some are in silk gowns, but some of those suits are paired with lipstick or curled hair, along with other personal accessories. There was indeed a language of lesbian fashion present at Le Monocle, but it was not a strict uniform. 

As for the femme fashions, I do believe that as the visual butch/femme binary is not a strict one, it is possible that not all of these women would have necessarily have been femmes. For the purpose of this analysis, however, I will describe them as such. The woman second to the right in the main group wears a light coloured silk dress in a style fashionable for the period, narrow, cut on the bias, glossy and water-like. Her hair is parted at the side and curled into a short bob. She exemplifies the fashionable woman of the 1930s. Another woman dressed similarly is the Black woman in the middle of the photograph, who is looking at her (presumable) lover to the left. Her dress is also a light colour and possibly made from silk, with a bit more skin on show. The last woman in this high-femininine triad stands on the far left, her head-piece matching her frilled, sleeved dress. She wears a floral brooch (or alternately, flowers pinned to her gown). She seems perhaps older than the other women who are wearing more feminine attire, and her outfit is less glamorous. She is still dressed up, however, and looks beautiful and at home in the lesbian space that she is in. 

These images and these outfits are interesting to look at now, in 2020, because I frequently see contemporary lesbian femmes who dress, or aspire to dress the same. In the words of Roxy Bourdillon in her Diva article ‘Vintage Femmes,’ “embracing vintage style connects me with the queer femmes of the past.”3 Vintage femme fashion, for all that it is still feminine, is not quite so “guerilla” as when the same clothes were worn by lesbians when they were originally in fashion. The vintage fashion subculture stretches further than the lesbian community, but it is a stylistic difference that is more noticeable than adhering to current trends. 

Fig. 2: Vintage femme, Roxy Bourdillon. Via Roxy Bourdillon, ‘Style: Vintage Femme,’ Diva. 22nd Aug. 2020. www.divamag.com 

A writer who has notably focused on vintage femme fashion is Ulrika Dahl. In one of her articles, ‘(Re)figuring Femme Fashion,’ she writes that femmes “reflect particular individual and collective histories and cultural legacies.”4 This means that the act of living life and expressing oneself as a femme person (or specifically a femme lesbian) who wears vintage clothing is a reflection of lesbians who came before. It is a call that they can be seen now even when they couldn’t in their own lives and youths, an insistence that lesbian space is taken up by those of us who live (more) freely as well as the memory of those who did not. In another article, ‘White gloves, feminist fists,’ Dahl discusses how “in and around varieties of ‘vintage,’ the femme figure asks us to reconsider normative feminine legacies.”5 These “normative feminine legacies” are legacies steeped in heterosexuality, but heterosexuality has never truly been the norm. Lesbian lives, though they did not always have that name, have existed since time immemorial – this much I know. 

Like with Le Monocle, we can look back at femme lesbians from years gone by in pictures from The Gateways, the London lesbian bar that thrived during the 1950s. The butch/femme divide seems even less pronounced than in the earlier photograph from Le Monocle when we look at a photograph taken inside The Gateways in 1953, below. There are less people pictured, and the club catered more to working class women than Le Monocle had – most of the patrons would have had less money available to spend on fashionable evening dresses.6 The clothing of the women pictured is, however, still incredibly interesting to look at. 

Fig. 3: Women photographed at lesbian club The Gateways. 1953. King’s Road, London. 

The main couple in this photograph are not obviously a butch and a femme, and yet on closer inspection there are signs of their individual styles in what they wear. I do want to point out that, once again, we cannot be certain about the butch or femme-ness of this couple. Some accounts of lesbian bar culture in the 1950s and 60s insist that butch/femme was common, while others contest it. For example, an account in Jane Traies’ book Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories recounts how “In the 60s in Brighton, everybody was very butch, very femme, and you had to play along, you know. Then when we got up to London, it got a bit more blurred.”7 I do think, though, that the woman on the right in the couple can be read as femme based on a few clues: the jumper or cardigan contrasts with the shirt and vest of her partner; the scarf around her neck – which, to me, is a very lesbian item – gives a feminine flourish to the outfit; the difference in the lengths of the two womens’ hair, with the femme partner’s being longer. Lastly, the belt that she wears at her waist cinches her figure in a way that we now recognise as distinctly ‘retro.’ It is a stark contrast to the silhouette of her partner, as well as the figure on the far right who, although facing away, appears to be dressed in a masculine-leaning outfit. 

The outfits worn by the women in this photograph from The Gateways were not high-fashion in the 1950s. The 1950s look, as we think of it and dress in it today, would not have been accessible to most of these women. Rationing, post-WWII, ended in the UK in 1954 – a year after this photograph was taken. Dior’s ‘New Look’ may have debuted in 1947, but the flowing skirts that we associate with the 1950s did not reach the streets of England until many years later. When, then, 2020s femmes dress in vintage 1950s fashion, they are not necessarily reflecting the real life lesbians and sapphics who lived their everyday lives in a world that is vintage to us now. That is okay, though; that world was not kind to LGBTQ people, just as it was not kind to people of colour, women in general, and people who existed in the intersections of these experiences. 

A critique of vintage style, particularly when worn by femmes who experience more privilege than others in the present day, i.e. white sapphic women, is that it harks back to a time of (more) racism and imperialism. Dahl considers this in ‘White gloves, feminist fists.’ To simplify her argument, she comes to the conclusion that there are implications of white supremacy in some forms of vintage dressing. Her research concludes that most of the time this is rooted in ignorance rather than malice, but that this does not make it excusable. Near the end of the article she states that:

A femme movement that remains dominated by white femmes and that wishes to be ‘inclusive’ must take the ‘bad’ feelings that such imperialist and racist histories evoke for femmes of colour equally seriously.8

Vintage femme style, for white women, is already reconciling clothing from a not-distant homophobic past with a much queerer (yet not fully liberated) present. It is important to also consider how white queer women were and are not just the oppressed, but also potentially the oppressors. To wear vintage fashion now must not be to long for those years gone by, but to forge a future where we can all be free. Vintage femmes are, by default, political. They claim space and history as lesbian, but this space and history cannot be whitewashed. 

History is so important to the LGBTQ community, and lesbians within that. We need to consistently look back on where we came from, and uncover histories that have gone undiscovered. Part of how we do this is with writing or reading, part of it is speaking and listening to each other, and part of it is in our clothing. I firmly believe that clothing, as tactile, visual, and body-oriented items, can tell so much about ourselves and each other – especially when our voices have been and continue to be silenced. Vintage femme fashion is one of the ways that lesbians can not just weave themselves into history, but also stand out in the present day. 

Thank you for reading this post on Dressing Dykes! If you enjoyed, feel free to follow me on Instagram or Twitter, or leave a tip on Ko-fi.

Endnotes

1: Jewelle L. Gomez, ‘Femme Erotic Independence,’ Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender, ed. Sally R. Munt, (London and Washington: Cassell, 1998) 107.

2: Elizabeth Wilson, ‘What Does a Lesbian Look Like?’ in Queer Style, ed. Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas, (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013) 190.

3: Roxy Bourdillon, ‘Style: Vintage Femmes,’ Diva, 22nd Aug. 2020. www.divamag.co.uk 

4: Ulrika Dahl, ‘(Re)figuring Femme Fashion,’ (2019), academia.edu 

5: Ulrika Dahl, ‘White gloves, feminist fists: race, nation and the feeling of ‘vintage’ in femme movements.’ Gender, Place & Culture 21.5 (2014), 607.

6: Historic England, ‘Lesbian Clubs and Pubs,’ [n.d.]. www.historicengland.org.uk 

7: Catherine, quoted in Jane Traies, Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories, (Wales: Tollington, 2018) 164.

8: Dahl, ‘White gloves, feminist fists,’ 618.

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