Rainbow Capitalism and the Appropriation of Lesbian Imagery

Once again, it’s Pride Month – and rather than protesting the continued mistreatment of LGBTQ people around the world, we are encouraged to consume. Big businesses change their logos to the colours of the rainbow and release Pride “themed” ranges, and this is supposed to placate us, distract from the multiple conglomerates whose profits fund far-right bigotry. The Conservative party, who are in power in the UK, post “Happy Pride Month” and pat themselves on the back for their alleged advancing of LGBTQ rights on the same day that they propose a withdrawal from Stonewall’s – the UK’s leading LGBTQ organisation – diversity scheme. Pride marches are once again unable to go ahead, but celebration and consumption are one and the same; as long as we can purchase, surely there’s no need to protest?

The internet is full of think pieces about the commercialisation of Pride and how awful rainbow capitalism is. In an article titled ‘Companies are back at it with the Pride nonsense,’ Mel Woods writes that “It is a universally acknowledged truth that a corporation in want of some goodwill and cold-hard cash in the month of June will release a Pride collection.”1 Each June this conversation is had again, albeit considering slightly different collections and products and sets of circumstances. I come to this topic as a fashion historian, and as a lesbian. In this post, I want to consider how lesbians, specifically, experience the appropriation of various queer imagery and symbols in mainstream fashion cultures – as well as the ways that we continue to break away from it. I want to consider how the over-acceptance of the rainbow is often akin to no acceptance at all, and how our intricate realities are flattened when they are represented only by colours or symbols with no meaning but profit behind them. 

Original eight-stripe Pride flag, designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978. As reproduced in California: Designing Freedom. Via Phaidon.com. 

It’s not just the 6-stripe rainbow used within Pride-themed clothing collections, but it is the most common, so this is where I’ll begin. The rainbow flag, representative of the LGBTQ community as a whole, was first designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978. The fabric was hand dyed and the original eight stripes stitched together. Each colour had a specific meaning: pink was sex, red was life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight and green for nature. Light blue represented both magic and art while dark blue represented serenity and harmony. Purple, lastly, was for spirit. The flag has taken many forms, and the 6-stripe version that is globally recognised today was known by Baker as the “commercial version.” Even this has moved on – more and more frequently the “progress flag” is now being used, which includes black and brown, as well as the light blue, pink and white of the trans flag, to represent racial and gender diversity. 

The rainbow flag, whatever form it takes, is useful as a symbol. It is useful for recognition and – yes – for celebration. But it was designed to be a flag, one used by queer people in queer spaces. It was not designed to be plastered across shoes or t-shirts for yearly Pride collections, a vehicle for profit and performative allyship. 

This is not to say that queer people don’t wear rainbow garments to signify their queerness, because they often do. I know that I myself own multiple rainbow garments which I wear not just for the aesthetic, but because they’re part of my personal lesbian style. The difference, though, is that these are often incidental. None of the rainbow garments that I own are from a commercial Pride collection. Rainbow coloured clothing that is not from a Pride collection is more likely to have an appealing design, sell better and – usefully for the company selling it – not have any of its profits filtered towards a charity like Stonewall or GLAAD. The rainbow is not reserved for Pride. Clearly, these brands do not respect it as an LGBTQ symbol, but only how they can profit from it. 

I have already mentioned the meanings associated with the colours of the rainbow Pride flag, but these are not the only meanings. As a symbol, it has grown over time, and it carries its history with it. It represents community, battles fought, lives lost and loves gained. It represents identification. But, as explained in a recent article by Melissa Tyler and Sheena Vachhani titled ‘Chasing Rainbows? A recognition-based critique of Primark’s precarious commitment to inclusion’, identification is alienated when it’s sold as a commodity.  They explain:

Equality branding effectively co-opts the aesthetic basis of the affective sense of identification that the rainbow symbolises. […] The espoused, signified commitment to equality becomes conditional, dependent upon the contribution of something of value to the organisation, or the purchasing of a product. […] The scenario becomes less a concern with what Primark can do for the LGBTQ community, and more a case of what its rainbow colours can do for the brand.2

A promotional image from Primark’s 2019 Pride collection/Proud campaign. Via primark.com.

This alienation of identity means that queer existences become de-specified. The rainbow is meant to represent us all, while ignoring the vastly different realities that each queer person faces. Even if different communities are addressed – very occasionally, a Pride collection will include a trans flag as well as the 6-stripe rainbow or (if we’re really lucky) some version of the lesbian flag – it is not our lives and concerns that take centre stage, but rather our purchasing power. 

If LGBTQ people are only relevant when it comes to Pride, our struggles and protests go unheard. UK fast fashion retailer Boohoo is one of the major players when it comes to Pride clothing collections, and in 2019, it was even the headline partner of Brighton Pride.3 The t-shirts in Boohoo’s 2020 Pride collection are vague to say the least. Like the rest of their collection, the main theme is the now-ubiquitous rainbow. One example that sports a more overt message can be seen in the image below, where the word “Together” in script font has been placed over the main text in the t-shirt’s design, which reads: “LOVE. you, me, him, her, they, them, us, whoever. EVERYONE.” 

Pride ‘Together Graffiti Print’ tank top sold by Boohoo. Summer 2020.  http://www.boohoo.com. Web. 2nd July 2020.

This coincides with my research into lesbian t-shirts, such as those worn by the Lavender Menace or to show lesbian-trans solidarity. When t-shirts have been made by and for the LGBTQ community themselves as items of activism and/or self-validation, the message is always clear. Phrases like “LAVENDER MENACE” or “LESBIANS FOR TRANS RIGHTS” have a recognisable, if layered, purpose. In the Boohoo example, though, not only do the words not make a great deal of sense, but the design makes them difficult to read. This t-shirt is not a definitive message of anything. When LGBTQ existence, love and pride is commodified by big brands, they profit through de-specifying our existence. “Everyone” includes straight people. “Whoever” implies that who queer people love does not matter, but as centuries of oppression and violence towards people with non-normative romantic and sexual dispositions proves, it matters very much. When the specificity of queer existence is erased so that a t-shirt can be sold to the highest number of people, queer people are the opposite of liberated. They are stifled. 

Because of this de-specificity – the need to sell to as many people as possible – it’s rare that lesbians are represented in Pride collections. Maybe we’re a bad audience. Maybe we have more taste, and values. Maybe we’re just undesirable and inappropriate, which seems to be the case when, for example, customisable garments in commercial Pride collections do not permit the use of the word lesbian.4 The lesbian flag has changed more times than any other, so maybe we’re too hard to pin down. Yet, other imagery associated with lesbians crop up all too often in fast fashion. 

Venus symbol t-shirt from Monki, 2019. Via monki.com

The venus symbol, which represents women, is used in fashion collections time and time again. It’s a trend that’s cropped up in the last decade or so, hand-in-hand with the commodification of the feminist movement (remember those “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts worn by very much un-feminist public figures?). Sometimes, though, the symbol used is not a lone venus, but a double venus, a long-time signifier of lesbians and women-loving-women. In the case of the t-shirt above, sold by Monki in 2019, we have instead a quadruple venus. It was even in the dark to light pink gradient of the most well-known lesbian flag at the time. It didn’t just appear on t-shirts, either! Tote bags, socks, and a number of other garments sported the same design. 

Aside from the double venus, fast fashion is also fond of using the word “femme” as a feminist-adjacent slogan. “Femme”, recently, has been all but stripped off its lesbian history and meaning, appropriated by heterosexual culture as well as simplified within the wider LGBTQ community to mean only “feminine.” This is not to say that other communities have no right to the term – it is, after all, French for “woman” – but that forgetting its lesbian associations helps no one, and certainly not lesbians. Femme does not just mean feminine; it is a category of being, historically a sexual descriptor as well as an aesthetic one, a partner to Butch that is equal but different. It is a reclaiming of femininity from the role of heterosexual wife and mother and, as Ulrika Dahl explains in her article ‘White Gloves, Feminist Fists’: ““the femme figure asks us to reconsider normative feminine legacies.”5

When lesbian-associated words and imagery are used to sell clothing to the clueless, our history, culture and community is no longer ours. Even when the clued-in buy and wear these garments, seeking to clothe their lesbian body and name their femme identity, the lesbian associations are incidental, unrecognisable to a wider audience. Meaning becomes meaningless, and Pride becomes profit. 

Promotional image for Primark’s Pride collection, 2021. Via primark.com. 

Much as the rainbow becoming synonymous with Pride Month and Pride collections rather than a year-round community symbol, lesbians and other queer people are hindered rather than helped when our visual languages enter the mainstream. To quote again from Melissa Tyler and Sheena Vachhani’s ‘Chasing Rainbows?’: “over-inclusion and exclusion are dialectically interrelated; they are two sides of the same coin.”6 Rainbow capitalism and the appropriation of our imagery is a performance, and it results in nothing good. If we want to celebrate our queer selves through clothing, we do not need the help of companies seeking to, at best, prop up their own image. Our communities are rich with the creativity and skill to fashion our own rainbow wardrobes – and when we buy from each other, it serves to put a roof over the head of another queer person, rather than another car in the garage of a CEO. 

Thank you for reading this post on Dressing Dykes! If you enjoyed, feel free to follow me on Instagram or Twitter or support me on Patreon.

Endnotes

1: Mel Woods, ‘Companies are back at it with the Pride nonsense,’ Xtra, 14th May 2021. Xtramagazine.com 

2: Melissa Tyler and Sheena Vachhani, ‘Chasing Rainbows? A recognition-based critique of Primark’s precarious commitment to inclusion,’ Organization 28.2 (2021): 255.

3: Brighton and Hove Pride, ‘Boohoo and BoohooMAN,’ 2019 Brighton and Hove Pride, 2019.

4: Woods,  ‘Companies are back at it with the Pride nonsense.’

5: Ulrika Dahl, ‘White Gloves, Feminist Fists: Race, Nation and the Feeling of “Vintage” in Femme Movements,’ Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 21.5 (2014): 607.

6: Tyler and Vachhani, ‘Chasing Rainbows? A recognition-based critique of Primark’s precarious commitment to inclusion,’ 250.

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