If you’ve been reading Dressing Dykes for a while, you might have noticed that it’s been quiet here for the past couple of months. While I’ve been posting more frequently on Instagram and TikTok, full articles take a lot of time and research and my time has been taken up by spreading the history of lesbian fashion elsewhere. That is, if you weren’t already aware, I’ve started the process of writing a book on the topic, which takes quite a lot of time. I also, in the beginning of March, attended the Lesbian Lives conference in Cork, Ireland, and this is what got me thinking about the article you’re reading now.
Various lesbian conferences have been dotted through my research for a while, especially when it comes to lesbian fashion in the 1980s. If I research knitting conferences appear, as in the oral history interview of Lesley Pattenson, a lesbian knitter and knitting pattern designer. In her video interview recorded by West Yorkshire Queer Stories, she talks about knitting at lesbian conferences:
I suppose that knitting is another very practical skill that a lot of women already had, so maybe it was a resurgence of knitting. But I remember a lot of conferences that I went to, there were, we would be sat in a workshop and there would be this background sound of the click-clack of knitting needles.1
Lesley Pattenson, knitted jumper, design inspired by National Lesbian Conference 1981 logo. c.1980s. Collected by West Yorkshire Queer Stories. Leeds Museums and Galleries, Leeds.
Perhaps the act of knitting itself is not enough to qualify “fashion”, but we have to consider what kind of things these lesbian knitters might have been making. Above is a jumper knitted and designed by Pattenson, inspired by the logo of the National Lesbian Conference 1981. Pattenson might not have knitted this specific jumper at a conference, and yet its design still innately links it to lesbian conference culture. Lesbian conferences were a place to share ideas within a lesbian community. Sometimes, these ideas would be about lesbian imagery and symbolism, like the triple-venus and the lighting bolt here, which Pattenson says represented “lesbians together”, which “as a group, can be powerful and strong and bring about change.”2
Symbolism so often finds its way into the lesbian wardrobe. This is as true in the conference setting as it ever is, as knitters stitch venus symbols into being in the crowds of conference halls, or other lesbian listeners tuck a pamplet with an interesting design into their bag for later. It’s a continuing legacy, with lesbian knitters in the 80s walking a path that my own wife, Lilith, followed 40 years later as she sat beside me at Lesbian Lives and knitted. Yarn is, however, not the only way that symbolism finds its way into the lesbian conference via our clothed bodies.
Blue cotton t-shirt printed with the Star of David and the double venus, above the words “Birmingham Conference 1985”. 1985. Glasgow Women’s Library t-shirt collection, LAIC Box 3. Glasgow, Scotland. Personal photograph by the author.
The t-shirt in the photograph above uses two symbols – the Jewish Star of David and a double venus or double woman symbol – along with the words “Birmingham Conference 1985.” The design has been printed, quite possibly as a one-off, unique t-shirt or as a very small run for conference attendees. The letters have been added separately to the symbols, maybe painted by hand with stencilled letters. It was made with care and intent, with the purpose of creating a specific message: affiliation with the ‘Birmingham Conference 1985’, a Jewish lesbian conference held in Birmingham in the UK in February 1985. The conference and its meaning would have been carried around on the wearer’s body, and then into their own wardrobe and eventually the LAIC archive at Glasgow Women’s Library where the t-shirt is now housed. The symbols are connected, overlaid by hand to create the meaning of “Jewish Lesbianism”. To wear a t-shirt such as this to the conference and outside of it meant to be proud of the conference’s aims and of a Jewish lesbian identity. It meant to be part of a community – part of a Jewish community within a lesbian community, an intersection that is too often erased. Clothing is visible, material, present, and with examples like this it speaks with every fibre against erasure.
I now want to paint a portrait of the clothing culture at the Lesbian Lives Conference in March 2022. I’m imagining this like an archive, a snapshot of lesbian fashion history for a future that has not yet come to pass. While there, I considered documenting the outfits in photographs, but I was swept up in the papers I listened to and the conversations I had, so I hope that a description will suffice.
Lilith and Eleanor in their Doc Martens at Lesbian Lives 2022. Cork, Ireland, 5th March 2022. Personal photograph by the author.
Doc Marten boots are such a contentious part of lesbian culture, met with cries of “but I’ve never owned a pair!” almost as often as the thick-soled boots do stomp through lesbian space. Frequently, now, the people wearing Docs aren’t lesbians, or queer at all. Still, Lesbian Lives was full of them, with low-cut oxfords and high-topped boots the instruments that echoed lesbian footsteps across courtyards and university foyers. Often they were black, other times cherry red, other times (as in my own outfits) pastel pink. The theme of colour stretched from footwear upwards, with dykes wearing vibrant pink, as well as numerous hairstyles dyed in shades of purple or blue. More often than coloured hair, though, were crops: carefully tousled short haircuts in a style passed down from lesbian to lesbian, undercuts and fully shaven heads.
Knitwear, like in the 80s, was everywhere – even if fewer lesbians were actually knitting than they might have done in conferences gone by. Turn around in a panel and you’d see a jumper here and a sweater-vest there, often complete with brogues and glasses in an academic kind of ‘lesbian chic’ that never quite made the cover of Vanity Fair. Some attendees had packed for the day with a practical backpack and a sturdy water bottle placed at their side. Others had the now-infamous Flying Tiger rainbow tote-bag slung over a shoulder, with the stapled papers of the conference programme poking out of the top. Scattered throughout the room, in a variety of colours and prints, were lesbian t-shirts; some affiliated with a queer organisation or project, others more abstract, printed with words like “dyke” or “queer solidarity smashes borders”. Look closely and you’d see badges pinned to jackets, perhaps with the design of the sunset lesbian flag that’s made its way into the mainstream since its invention in 2018. And everywhere were jeans and scarfs, jackets and masks, garments made for practicality and for purpose just like those championed in lesbian feminist spaces.
As a lesbian fashion historian, the setting of the lesbian conference is a blessing. To share research, yes, but to witness and luxuriate in a clothing culture that is real. At Lesbian Lives, keynote speaker Susan Stryker said that “history is not the past, it is a story we tell in the present.”3 When we wear clothes – any clothes or, sometimes, none at all – we are part of a story that has been told with fabric, haircuts and jewellery for generations. In a space where we are together, like a lesbian conference, that story is retold among one another. The language of lesbian fashion is alive, and it continues to write history with every outfit worn.
1: Lesley Pattenson, ‘Lesley’s Jumpers’, interview recorded by Chris Newby, 1st March 2019. West Yorkshire Queer Stories, wyqs.com.
2: Pattenson, ‘Lesley’s Jumpers’.
3: Susan Stryker, keynote speech, Lesbian Lives Conference, 4th March 2022. Cork, Ireland.