From Ugly to Chic: Lesbians and Dungarees

Dungarees – or overalls – have lived many lives. The word “dungarees” originally referred to the fabric that was first used for them, which came from the Indian village of Dongri and was named “dungri.” When, necessitated by the industrial revolution and enabled by the British Empire, the fabric was exported to England to be made into workwear, the name “dungaree” evolved. At this point, the dungarees/overalls that we picture today were still a thing of fantasy; the garments being made from dungaree fabric were instead sturdy working trousers.1 The addition of the bib was designed for practicality, particularly for farming and other forms of manual work. While they were mostly worn by men, this changed when women entered the farm and factory floor en masse during World Wars I and II.2

Dungarees in their most basic, denim form, to be worn layered rather than on their own as a fashionable jumpsuit, sprung out of the working world into everyday wardrobes in the 1970s and 80s. At various points, they’ve been in fashion. At others, they’ve very much been out of it. Their most visible life within the last half-century is on the bodies of activists as a practical and symbolic garment. Though the types of activists claiming dungarees as their own vary, one of the most prominent groups is – of course – lesbians. 

Dungarees aren’t just synonymous with the lesbian, but the ugly lesbian. The “ugly lesbian” is a parodic character rather than a reality, though it is an image rooted in truth. Its main references are the lesbian styles and fashions that were most popular during the 70s and 80s with the lesbian feminist movement. Though this is a period of lesbian fashion I’ve written about before on Dressing Dykes, I want to expand on one aspect of it – dungarees – as a connecting strand between those styles and the lesbian clothing cultures of today. 

Fig. 1: Lenora Trussell by JEB (Joan E. Biren), 1977. Washington, D.C. Caption by Lenora Trussell: “For a Lesbian in this society there is plenty to feel angry or sad about. We don’t have power. They can deny us the right to earn a living, to keep our children, to have a place to live, to be open about who we are. In order to survive you have to be aligned with men or be prepared to fight. Sometimes lesbians forget how hard the struggle is but it makes us all strong and it makes us grow.” Via time.com.

So, let’s consider the image of the ugly lesbian, where it came from, and how it relates to dungarees. The idea of “ugliness” or of refusing to conform to feminine beauty standards was an empowering one for lesbian feminists and it was achieved through stylistic choices: the free-growing of body hair, short or shaven haircuts, makeup-less faces and the “dyke uniform” which I have discussed previously, to name a few. Part of this “dyke uniform” was a pair of overalls or dungarees. They seem to have been considered as an archetype of the style, so much so that in accounts by lesbian feminists they refer to the wearing of dungarees as almost comedic or stereotypical. Jo Dunn, who was a lesbian feminist in Leeds in the 1980s, recounts for West Yorkshire Queer Stories how her personal style fit with the lesbian look of the time, saying:

I had curly hair then, which I quite liked having curly hair. […] So, I didn’t, I never had a crop, a crew cut, but like lots of women liked a Sinead O’Connor haircut, but I never did that. But I did have a pair of dungarees for at least two or three years. I had an obligatory pair of Doc Marten boots, which used to go to the Army and Navy store.3

The Doc Martens were obligatory, but the dungarees were just as notable. This is cemented later on in Dunn’s interview, where she notes that “dungarees were definitely a big part of it.”4 Another lesbian from the UK, Silva, who was interviewed for Jane Traies’ book Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories, tells a similar story. She says that “I got the gear, I looked the part. I cut my hair short, I didn’t quite have the dungarees, but almost.”5 Clearly, wearing dungarees was a statement. It was a symbol of lesbianism that was almost too clear, too obvious. This was an association that continued – particularly in the UK and in the British press – for decades after Silva and Jo’s experiences. 

In 2004, Melissa Hobbes, writing an article called ‘My Lesbian Life’ for The Sunday Times, described how she “was devastated” to realise she was a lesbian “because I thought I would have to cut my hair off and wear dungarees.” She continued her line of thinking with the statement: “I never did go for the ugly lesbian look.”6 Here, dungarees are synonymous with lesbianism, and lesbianism synonymous with ugliness. To escape the threat of the “ugly lesbian”, one had to forgo the dungarees – and loudly so, if writing an article about it for a national newspaper is the evidence. 

Fig. 2: “GAY PEOPLE! ALL PEOPLE! IT’S A BEAUTIFUL REVOLUTION,” March on Albany for Gay Liberation, Albany, New York, 14 March 1971. Photo by Diana Davies. New York Public Library. 

Elizabeth Peel’s 2005 research on terminology associated with lesbian, gay and bisexual identities, as recorded in diversity training sessions, also notes dungarees as a lesbian stereotype. One of the words listed by participants for lesbians, among slurs and slang phrases, was “dungarees”. The rest of the words suggest that most of the participants were not particularly well versed in LGBT culture, identities, sexual practices or clothing trends – such as “tranny?” listed under bisexual (complete with a question mark).7 Despite this, dungarees made the list; their presence was widely known outside of LGBT culture. In 2005, once more, the popular image of the ugly lesbian was one clad in dungarees.

In 2006, a student named Tayla posted a question on the online forum The Student Room titled “Are dungarees only for lesbians?” In her post, she expressed that “I’d like to buy a pair of dungarees but I am a bit worried about the stigma attached to them.” She concluded with the sentence “I like them but I don’t want to be labelled!”8 Tayla, clearly, was uncomfortable with being labelled an “ugly lesbian”, even if she didn’t think that dungarees were ugly as garments themselves. Her issue, contrary to Melissa’s in 2004, was that dungarees weren’t for her. To wear them, she risked placing herself in an identity that she didn’t fit into and clearly did not want to be assumed as. 

The media obsession, or perhaps disgust, with dungaree-wearing lesbians in the mid-2000s was still going strong in 2013. That is, at least if we consider a column by Frankie Boyle in The Sun (though in most scenarios such a thing would be the antithesis of historical evidence). In said column, which marked the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK, Boyle writes that “Lesbians will now be allowed to marry – so if I were you I’d invest heavily in companies that make white dungarees.”9 It is a simple, targeted joke, and depends on its readers having a background contextual knowledge that dungarees equal lesbianism. And, as much as I am loathe to admit it, he has a point: I’ve seen photographs of more than one lesbian wedding that included white or cream dungarees, and myself and my wife briefly considered them for our own wedding last year. 

More recently, the persevering concept of the “ugly lesbian” dressed in dungarees has moved to the back burner. I would suggest a few reasons for this. The first is that the efforts of lesbians like Melissa Hobbes, who wrote her Sunday Times article in 2004, have finally paid off. She “rebelled and became a fashionista”, and the majority of lesbian representation in the media followed.10 It’s been noted time and time again that almost all mainstream lesbian representation leans heavily towards the feminine, with the exception of, say, Lea Delaria in Orange is the New Black. As more lesbian characters graced our screens, a new image of lesbianism appeared with them – one most often not wearing a sturdy pair of dungarees. 

Fig. 3: A stock photo of a lesbian couple, where one half is dressed in dungarees. This example is one of many, many such images. Via sciencephotolibrary. 

This is no accident, and leads to my second suggestion for how dungarees have been de-lesbianed: as a purposeful removal from the lesbian feminist political landscape that they originated from. With lesbians entering the mainstream, we have to become palatable to a mainstream audience. While part of this is through the notable absence of butch representation, another is by cleansing us of our political baggage. Being a lesbian is no longer synonymous with being a feminist, or left-wing, or radical in any way – at least if former leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, out lesbian Ruth Davidson, is anything to go by. Dungarees being slowly phased of mainstream lesbian imagery masquerades as the dissolution of lesbian stereotypes like those listed by the participants of Elizabeth Peel’s study in 2005. However, as I explained earlier in this article, some of those stereotypes grew from seeds of truth. To remove them entirely could, perhaps, be considered a removal of lesbian history. 

It is not just that lesbians are no longer seen as the dungaree-wearing menaces that we once were, but also that dungarees are losing their ugly edge. Though they were teetering on the line between trendy and terrible for Tayla the student 15 years ago, if she had wanted a pair today she would have had no issues at all. Dungarees are spearheading the “comfort movement.” Especially in light of the pandemic, working from home and a widespread need for comfort and flexibility, dungarees have become a go-to for many. Comfortable clothing was on the rise even before 2020, though, with companies like dungaree giant Lucy and Yak building their brand on ideals of comfort and sustainability.  This is far from a bad thing, and if more people are finding comfort in the clothes they wear, whatever those may be, then I am pleased for them. However, I have to note that dungarees are far from the only lesbian style staple that has been appropriated from the fashion margins into the fashion canon. Doc Martens and other big boots were once (and often continue to be) “obligatory” in lesbian style, to borrow a word from Jo Dunn’s interview. Even the female venus symbol, once universal in lesbian and feminist organising, has found a new home on the t-shirts and tote bags sold in high street shops. Lesbian fashion, it seems, is always a step ahead.

In the 1990s, there sprung up a phenomenon called “lesbian chic”, defined by stars like KD Lang and Ellen DeGeneres. Lesbians, in very specific circumstances, were fashionable. When I look at dungarees, their lesbian past and their current popularity, I think about a new era of “lesbian chic” – one that, to the would-be horror of those who coined the phrase in the 90s, is defined by dungarees. I think, however, that lesbian dungarees are still one step ahead. Consider an article published on Autostraddle in 2018 by Abigail Armstrong, titled ‘The Care and Keeping of Dungarees.’ In it, she writes about her overall dreams, made real when she was bought a pair by her grandmother. Through constant wear, the overalls slowly fell apart; this is where her story becomes, in my eyes, the most lesbian. She writes how, when the hook from one of the shoulder straps broke, “I grabbed the carabiner off my keys and slipped it into the shoulder strap, and then I was back in business.”11 Despite the efforts of the press, the media and the fashion industry, dungarees or overalls still haven’t lost their lesbian edge. Abigail, with her fixed shoulder strap, can continue to “live [her] best gay life.”12 If a carabiner (another long-term lesbian symbol) assists that, then all the better. Dungarees might now be chic, but we can patch them and fix them and cuff the legs until they push the boundaries of acceptablility once more. I still have hope for the ugly lesbian look. 

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Endnotes

1: Hugo Harris, ‘The History of Dungarees,’ Beyond Retro, 27th March 2019. Beyondretro.com.

2: Riley Smith, ‘A History of Overalls,’ Seamwork, [n.d.]. Seamwork.com. 

3: Jo Dunn, ‘Jo Dunn: Full Interview.’ Interview recorded by Nicola Hargrave, 22nd Jan 2019. West Yorkshire Queer Stories. wyqs.co.uk.

4: Jo Dunn, ‘Jo Dunn: Full Interview.’ 

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

6: Melissa Hobbes, ‘My Lesbian Life,’ The Sunday Times, 17th Oct 2004. thetimes.co.uk.

7: Elizabeth Peel, ‘Effeminate ‘fudge nudgers’ and tomboyish ‘lettuce lickers’: Language and the construction of sexualities in diversity training,’ Psychology of Women Section Review 7.2 (2005): 6.

8: Tayla, ‘Are dungarees only for lesbians?’ The Student Room, 15 years ago [c. 2006]. thestudentroom.co.uk.

9: Frankie Boyle, ‘Lesbian marriage… now’s time to invest in white dungarees.’ The Sun, 26th May 2013. Proquest. 15. 

10: Melissa Hobbes, ‘My Lesbian Life.’

11: Abigail Armstrong, ‘The Care and Keeping of Overalls,’ Autostraddle, 14th Dec 2018. Autostraddle.com. 

12: Abigail Armstrong, ‘The Care and Keeping of Overalls.’

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