Lesbian Feminist Dress Codes

Today’s article is a reflection on lesbian feminist dress codes. It is not an endorsement of every single lesbian feminist idea or rhetoric, but neither is it a dismissal of the movement as a whole. I’m acknowledging lesbian feminist fashion (or anti-fashion)’s place within a broader lesbian fashion history and asserting that the clothes worn during the movement’s peak in the 1970s and 80s – as well as the ideas behind them – were incredibly important to lesbian community- and self-expression. I am always and constantly a trans ally, and as such I can’t not point out that the transphobia of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (commonly known as TERFs) was incubated within lesbian feminist communities and largely publicised by lesbian feminists. However, this is far from all that these communities were and are. 

That was my disclaimer. The rest of this article refuses to make transphobia the centre of attention, instead focusing on how lesbian power, expression, and ideology inhabited the lesbian feminist body via the garments that clothed it. It’s time to explore the good, the bad and the ugly of lesbian feminist dress codes… but “ugly” here is far from a negative trait. 

Ugliness: something that women are taught to run from at all costs, to literally expend all costs in order to fix, to find and then hide within themselves and look for in others. Ugliness is not just found in the face and the body, but informed by which clothes, colours and trends are worn. Ugliness, as conceptualised in regard to women, does not really exist; it is not the wrong outfit or a round stomach or a lined forehead that equals ugliness, but simply a cruel personality. Perhaps this is a reality that we, as a society, are beginning to accept now. In the 1960s and 70s, however, the women’s movement was only just beginning. Women who did not want to entice men were largely unheard of and to disregard fears of ugliness was not a small feat. Yet many feminists, lesbian feminists among them, made the decision to do so. 

Bettye Lane, ‘Christopher Street,’ Christopher Street Liberation Day March, 1978, New York City. Catching the Wave, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. Catchingthewave.library.harvard.edu 

In Jane Traies’ 2018 book Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories, one of the interviewed lesbians, Silva, recounts how she found herself when she found lesbian feminist politics and aesthetics. She declares that “I could be myself and be a lesbian”, and continues by describing how:

Of course, I got the gear, I looked the part. I cut my hair short, I didn’t quite have the dungarees, but almost. I looked like a lesbian, and all the women I was going out with looked like lesbians. They had short hair – and we didn’t wear makeup then, didn’t wear high heels. I’d been a very femme girl, very pretty, totally into clothes; and for me that was also part of it, because men always used to go for me because I was such a pretty girl. For me not to have to look like that, and still be a sexual being, was really important. I could cast all of this away and still be sexual, and there were other women like me.1 

Silva describes how she “was such a pretty girl”, implying that her new aesthetic of short hair and “almost” dungarees was the opposite – in other words, ugly. For Silva, though, ugliness wasn’t a defect, but a tool for liberation. Similarly, in 1971 an American feminist wrote a piece for the Iowa City journal Ain’t I A Woman, in which she describes her decision to cut her hair short. She wrote that “When I walk through the commons, I feel much less on display.”2 This woman may not have been a lesbian, but her proximity to deliberate ugliness aligned her with lesbian feminist goals. Here, “ugliness” describes an alternative to expected (hetero-)feminine beauty standards. By becoming ugly, these feminists – lesbian or other – were removing themselves from the male gaze’s field of vision. 

If ugliness in clothing and style was, then, an alternative to hetero-feminine beauty standards, does that make lesbian feminist fashion masculine? In theory, no it doesn’t. In historian Betty Luthor Hillman’s 2013 article on gender presentation in the women’s movement, she describes how terminology of “gender” versus “sex roles” was used by women’s liberationists “to argue that differences between men and women were socially created, rather than natural components of biological difference.”3 Hillman explains how this related to (lesbian) feminist clothing:

By adopting what would come to be known as an “androgynous uniform” (or, for lesbians, a “dyke uniform”) – often consisting of jeans, button-down work shirts, and work boots, often without makeup and bras, and sometimes with short hair – these women’s liberationists and lesbian feminists visually displayed their political goal of creating a society free of gender distinctions, defying expectations that men and women ought to “look different” from each other.4

While this is perhaps a slightly different stance than that which queer feminist activists take on fashion today, its root is the same: abolishing gender difference as the source of oppression. To me, it feels like a precursor to the likes of the 2018 Xenofeminist Manifesto, which declares the need for ‘gender abolitionism’, described as: “the ambition to construct a society where traits currently assembled under the rubric of gender, no longer furnish a grid for the asymmetric operation of power.”5 

However, the Xenofeminist Manifesto makes a point that slipped away in lesbian feminist theory, which is that “the notion of what is ‘gendered’ sticks disproportionately to the feminine.”6 When we seek androgyny, it is all too often femininity on the chopping block, even if it was not the target or indeed the reason for gendered oppression. This was, perhaps, the case with the jeans and button-downs of lesbian feminism. Even so, without those jeans and button-downs and the theory and activism that went along with them, newer ideas such as those in the Xenofeminist Manifesto might have never existed at all. 

Dyke Thanksgiving, 1981, Ontario, Canada. The Lesbian Herstory Educational Foundation, the Lesbian Herstory Archive. 

(Lesbian) feminist fashion was intended to be a tool for liberation, just as it was for Silva, who I quoted earlier. Consider that androgyny was new, at least in the Euro-American context that I am analysing today. Women wearing trousers was, to some, still shocking; this was activism worn on the body. In my work, I assert time and time again that lesbian clothes allow us to speak when our voices are silenced, and lesbian feminist fashions are another example of this. Still, there was a point when these fashions – the “dyke uniform”, as quoted by Hillman – were instead doing the silencing. 

In 1981, Joan Nestle wrote a piece for the journal Heresies called ‘Butch-Fem Relationships.’ In it, she reintroduced the personal, political and erotic power of Butch-Fem relationships to a lesbian feminist audience who had shunned and forgotten them. She wrote that “The irony of social change has made a radical, sexual, political statement of the 1950s appear today as a reactionary, non-feminist experience.”7 Butch-Fem (or butch-femme) had not disappeared since its heyday in the mid-century, but it had become less popular. Even before the lesbian feminist movement fully formed, this deterioration had begun. Consider how butch lesbians were vilified relatively early on in the women’s movement: a British lesbian publication named Arena Three received letters demanding that women wear feminine clothing to their affiliated meetings, and a motion passed at the August 1964 meeting announcing that “this house considers the wearing of male attire at MRG meetings is inappropriate.”8 This was a far cry from the Butch-Fem culture that thrived in lesbian bars. 

These meetings weren’t the only ones that enforced a rigid dress code. Over the next twenty years, divisions only grew in lesbian feminist fashion. Silva, telling her story for Now You See Me, recalled how “I talked about those ‘lipstick lesbians’, and looked down on feminine lesbians, and all those labels we used to give one another… I remember in those days you could not wear a leather jacket in the GLC-funded Gay and Lesbian Centre.”9 Lesbian feminist fashion, founded on ideals of androgyny and political ugliness, was the style favoured by those on one side of the “lesbian sex wars”. A leather jacket, as I have described in a previous post on this blog, was the main identifying garment of those on the other. Leather was associated with SM dykes, and was very much not included in lesbian feminist dress codes. Fashion may have been a tool for recognition and activism, but it was also a reason for division. 

Lesbian Strength and Black Lesbians march at Lesbian and Gay Pride, London, 1987. Photofusion/REX/Shutterstock.

Butches, femmes, and SM dykes weren’t the only lesbians who didn’t conform. Black lesbians and other lesbians of colour often held issue with lesbian feminist principles because the lesbian feminist movement was largely a white domain. The dress codes associated with lesbian feminism were also seen as not reflecting the sartorial reality of lesbians of colour.10 To quote the Combahee River Collective Statement from 1977, the lesbian community on the whole did not consider the “multilayered texture of Black women’s lives.”11 We can see this described in Audre Lorde’s ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House’, in which she asked “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” and answered, “it means that only the most narrow perimetres of change are possible and allowable.”12 

When (white) lesbian feminists started to realise that their activism had limits imposed by their lack of racial analysis, things began to fall apart. In Kathy Rudy’s 2001 article ‘Radical Feminism, Lesbian Separatism, and Queer Theory,’ she reflected on this time, writing that “Drawing our attention to racism meant putting us white lesbians in the role of oppressor, a role with which we had no experience or history.”13 Racial inequalities in the movement, combined with the friction with SM dykes and butch-fem debates resulted in a growing disillusionment with lesbian feminism, and consequently the lesbian feminist aesthetic or “dyke uniform.” 

Lesbian feminism had its problems, and so did the clothes associated with it… but no matter what they were wearing, lesbians were vilified by someone. The fashion of lesbian feminism, in being associated with lesbians, angered many non-lesbian feminists. Lesbians were a threat to the women’s movement – or in the words of famous feminist author Betty Friedan, a “lavender menace.”  When lesbian feminists claimed the uniform of “flat shoes, baggy trousers, unshaven legs and faces bare of makeup”, it meant that heterosexual feminists who wore similar clothes ran the risk of being labelled as lesbian.14 To some, this was massively undesirable. 

The dress codes of lesbian feminists created a community. It was not perfect, but it was important. For decades – centuries, even – lesbians have used clothing to recognise one another, but never before had it been on such a mass scale, or related so strongly to political as well as sexual identity. Moving out of the 1980s and into the 1990s, lesbian style grew more and more diverse, less recognisable, and often valuing choice and personal style over community and feminist principles. This was fine, of course; lesbians should be allowed to dress however they want to. If that includes “bright new colors on my face and nails and body” and “long hair and makeup”, as one lesbian argued for instead of the then-popular “dyke uniform”, then great!15 

Despite this, as a fashion historian I hold the dress codes of lesbian feminism in high regard. Even though its wearers may have been appalled that I’m referring to it as “fashion” at all, I think that it’s a vital chapter in lesbian fashion history. It turned fashion on its head, making clothes at once a statement and an anti-adornment. Even if I’m currently wearing my hair long like the woman quoted above, or if I often wear makeup and dresses or skirts, these choices are freeing for me as a lesbian because they are not the only choices. The dyke uniform is always there when I want it. 

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: Silva, quoted in Jane Traies, Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories (Wales: Tollington, [2018] 2019), 183.

2: “Notes on Cutting My Hair,” Ain’t I a Woman? 1. 11 (1971), 2. 

3: Betty Luthor Hillman, ‘“The Clothes I Wear Help Me To Know My Own Power”: The Politics of Gender Presentation in the Era of Women’s Liberation,’ Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies 34.2 (2013), 161.

4: Hillman, ‘“The Clothes I Wear Help Me To Know My Own Power”’, 162.

5: Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto, (London: Verso, 2018) 55.

6: Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto, 55.

7: Joan Nestle, ‘Butch-Fem Relationships’ Heresies 12 (1981), Periodicals from the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Gale Primary Sources, Archives of Sexuality and Gender, 22.

8: Quoted in Rebecca Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500, (Oxford: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007) 156.

9: Silva, quoted in Jane Traies, Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories, 184.

10:  Inge Blackman and Kathryn Perry, ‘Skirting the Issue: Lesbian Fashion for the 1990s,’ Feminist Review 34 (1990), 68.

11: The Combahee River Collective, ‘The Combahee River Collective Statement,’ (1977) How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017) 20.

12: Audre Lorde, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House, in Your Silence Will Not Protect You, (UK: Silver Press, 2017) 90.

13: Kathy Rudy, ‘Radical Feminism, Lesbian Separatism, and Queer Theory,’ Feminist Studies 27.1 (2001), 201. 

14: Blackman and Perry, ‘Skirting the Issue,’ 68.

15:  ‘Letters,’ Cowrie 1.5 (1974), 11. Quoted in  Hillman, ‘“The Clothes I Wear Help Me To Know My Own Power”’, 167.

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