Mabel Hampton, Lillian Foster, and Mid-Century Black Butch/Femme

Mabel Hampton and Lillian Foster have left a material, tangible legacy in a way that cannot be said of many in the lesbian communities of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. This is especially true when it comes to Black lesbians, and Black butch/femme lesbians (or butch/fem, stud/fem, etc); verbal histories slip away easily, and marginalised ones get purposefully erased. The lives and love of Mabel and Lillian remains safe in the Lesbian Herstory Archives. We can access photographs and oral history recordings, as well as written histories by the couple’s friend and co-founder of the LHA, Joan Nestle, with just a few clicks and an internet connection. Because of this, in this post I am considering butch/femme fashion in mid-century Black lesbian communities through the lens of Mabel Hampton and Lillian Foster. 

Mabel’s life is the more recorded of the two women, because it is her oral histories that were recorded and kept in the LHA. Mabel’s life is fascinating – a good place to read more about it in depth is Hugh Ryan’s article for Them. Mabel was born on the 2nd May 1902 and died on the 26th October 1989. Her mother was poisoned at a young age (no, I don’t know the details) and she lived with her grandmother for the first part of her childhood. After her grandmother died, she moved to New York to live with her aunt and uncle, but suffered abuse at their hands. She ran away, and was taken in by a family in New Jersey. She said to anyone who asked that her aunt had left her at a park – she knew what was best for herself and her life.1 In the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance, she worked as a dancer and singer, starting with an all-black female ensemble at Coney Island. This was the point when she found the words for her lesbianism.2

Fig. 1: Mabel Hampton, 1919. New York. Black & white photograph. The Lesbian Herstory Archive, Mabel Hampton Collection, New York City, USA. The Lesbian Herstory Archive Educational Foundation. 

Lillian was born in 1906 in Virginia and came from a large family, in contrast to Mabel. She worked for her whole life in “white-owned dry-cleaning establishments,” which, to quote Joan Nestle, was a job that “had its roots in the neo-slavery working conditions of the urban South at the turn of the century.”3 In 1932, Lillian and Mabel met. They were the loves of each others’ lives, and lived together until Lillian died in 1978. Nestle describes the meeting:

The event that changes Ms. Hampton’s life forever happens early on in the [1930s], in 1932. While waiting for a bus, she meets a woman even smaller than herself, “dressed like a duchess,” as Ms. Hampton would say.4

Both of these women had their own lives, but it is their existence as a lesbian couple that interests me here, fashion historically. Photographs of Lillian and Mabel in the LHA’s Mabel Hampton Collection are all categorised as “butch-femme”. There isn’t explicit reference to this butch/femme dynamic in writings about the couple, but there is evidence for it. Part of this is in photographs and the clothes that they wear in them, and part of it is in quotes from Joan Nestle and Mabel Hampton. Butch and femme, during the mid twentieth century – especially in New York – were categories that lesbians knew about and existed within. They were not universal, and not always interpreted the same way, but were about finding community and a sense of self. Mabel and Lillian are an example of Black lesbians from this period, and can help us understand how they navigated butch/femme aesthetics. 

Fig. 2: Lillian Foster, c. 1940s. Black & white photograph. The Lesbian Herstory Archive, Mabel Hampton Collection, New York City, USA. The Lesbian Herstory Archive Educational Foundation. 

Lillian, pictured above, was the femme (or fem) half of the couple. I often come to butch/femme lesbians in history with a sense of doubt about their identity, but I do not want to do that here. Audre Lorde (as explained by Kerry Macneil in her essay ‘Bathroom Lines, Ky-Ky girls, and Struggles’) problematised butch/femme, but especially femme, for Black lesbians. This is because, “As Lorde suggests, a self-identified black femme lesbian may not have been read as such in the 1950s working-class bar scene because constructions of femininities were informed by white patriarchal culture.”5 Femmes were often invisible as lesbians, but Black femme lesbians were often invisible as lesbian and as feminine. The above photograph of Lillian, though, from the 1940s, directly contests this. The way she sits, her pearls, her dress, her perfectly made-up face, all exemplify the unapologetic glamour of the femme who wears femininity only for herself and the women around her. 

Mabel knew this about Lillian. In a short tape recorded for the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Mabel spoke about Lillian, saying two things in quick succession: “Lillian never had no man, she never cared for men,” and “She was a feminine type of woman. She just loved to dress, dress! That was her.”6 She seems to stand out from Mabel in this way. Sometimes a butch or a femme’s clothing would not be too different from each other, and only small sartorial cues or actions would tell other lesbians which “role” someone had. Sometimes butches would have to or choose to wear more feminine clothes than we envision them in. Alix Genter, in her article, ‘Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Butch-Femme Fashion and Queer Legibility in New York City, 1945-1969,’ explains how “butches existed across class and race, and many felt the need to conform to conceptions of normative femininity in certain areas of their lives in order to go unnoticed.”7 On the other side of the spectrum, femmes would sometimes wear masculine fashions for a whole variety of reasons. One of these, to quote Genter again, was “in order to “prove” themselves [as lesbians].”8 

Fig. 3: Lillian Foster and Mabel Hampton, 1976. Lesbian Herstory Archives, Audio/Visual Collections. Via nyclgbtsites.org. 

Mabel and Lillian did not seem to have this problem, being clear contrasts of one another. I’m going to examine their clothing in relation to each other in a couple of photographs that we have of the two together. The above photograph is from 1976 – Mabel would have been 74, Lillian 70. The clear butch and femme aesthetics from the mid-century have lasted into their older age, though adapted with the period; the colours of Lillian’s dress feel very 1970s to me. Lillian is still fully made up, and still following fashions. Mabel compliments her, also wearing colours and patterns, but in the form of a collared shirt. They are, as they were their whole lives, a pair – an obvious couple. Both were proud of their relationship and their lesbianism, and a quote from Mabel from New York City Pride in 1984 exemplifies this:

I, Mabel Hampton, have been a lesbian all my life, for eighty-two years, and I am proud of myself and my people. I would like all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my black people.9

Fig. 4: Mabel Hampton and Lillian Forster, c. 1940s. Courtesy of Joan Nestle and the Lesbian Herstory Archives, via outhistory.org. 

Three decades before, in the 1940s, their butch/femme styles were even more pronounced. This is not necessarily through a change in their personal styles over time, but a change in what was acceptable… and in the 1940s their difference was much more visible to broader society. In the above photograph, Mabel is wearing trousers. This was uncommon even in the 1940s – women’s trousers did exist, but they were largely for casual occasions only. Other than at lesbian bars, often even the most butch women in the 1940s and 50s would not wear trousers, instead opting for tailored (skirted) suits as a masculine form of dressing.10 Mabel and Lillian’s outfits both contrast and compliment one another, as they seem to always have done. Lillian wears a dress with a full skirt, and holds a handbag in front of her. From her clothes to her accessories to her pose, “Lillian always looked like a fashion plate”, as Mabel succinctly described in one of her interviews for the LHA.11

Sometimes fashion is an act of bravery, an act of resistance. In the mid twentieth century, a butch/femme couple who dressed as obviously butch and femme, were making a stand as lesbians. They were out, constantly. Even if they were not read as lesbians, they would have been read as different. In Joan Nestle’s 1981 retrospective on butch/fem she wrote that “Butch-fem women made lesbians visible in a terrifyingly clear way in a historical period when there was no movement protection for them.”12 This was a time before Stonewall, before Gay Liberation, long before same-sex marriage and the tentative rights that we hold as queer people today. Mabel and Lillian, working-class, Black, visible lesbians, had everything against them. What they did have, however, was love – in each other, in their friendships, and in their community. Their clothing and their presentation to the world is a testament to that. 

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: Joan Nestle, ‘Excerpts from the Oral History of Mabel Hampton,’ Signs (1993) 18.4.

2: Hugh Ryan, ‘themstory: Mabel Hampton, Black Lesbian New York Entertainer,’ 25th Oct. 2017, them.

3: Joan Nestle, ‘“‘I Lift My Eyes to the Hill’: The Life of Mabel Hampton” 1902-October 1989: Part 4–the 1930s,’ 27th Oct. 2011, Don’t Stop Talking 2, joannestle2.blogspot.com. 

4: Nestle, ‘I Lift My Eyes to the Hill.’

5: Kerry Macneil, ‘Bathroom Lines, Ky-Ky Girls, and Struggles,’ Journal of Lesbian Studies 1.3-4 (1997): 84.

6: Mabel Hampton (Interviewee), Madeline (Interviewee) and Joan Nestle (Interviewer), ‘Mabel, Madeline and Joan, undated (Tape 1),’ Lesbian Herstory Archives Audio Visual Collections. 

7: Alix Genter, ‘Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Butch/Femme Fashion and Queer Legibility in New York City, 1945-1969,’ Feminist Studies 42.3 (2016): 609

8: Genter, ‘Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” 629-630.

9: Ryan, ‘themstory: Mabel Hampton, Black Lesbian New York Entertainer.’

10: Genter, ‘Appearances Can Be Deceiving,’ 609.

11: Nestle, ‘Excerpts from the Oral History of Mabel Hampton,’ 934.

12: Joan Nestle, ‘Butch-Fem Relationships,’ Heresies 12 (1981), Periodicals from the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Gale Primary Sources, Archives of Sexuality and Gender. 

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