1970s Lesbian Separatism, Fashion, and the Women of the Left Bank
by Margo Hobbs Thompson, Muhlenberg College
presented at a seminar at The Modernist Studies Association Conference, 2011
Images here supplied by Liza Cowan, not part of original presentation.
Caroline Evans and Minna Thornton propose that fashion spreads break the male gaze’s circuit to allow feminine gazes to linger pleasurably on pictures of women: “Fashion…generates images of women for women, a system of representations that one might suppose to be cut to the measure of female desire” (10; emphasis in original). Liza Cowan analyzed the evolution of lesbian fashion in a series of articles titled “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear” that ran from June 1973 to early 1976 in the lesbian feminist magazines she edited, Cowrie and Dyke. Cowan bucked the tendency among radical feminists at the time to disparage fashion as inevitably an instrument of female oppression, to explore rather its subversive, seductive potential. Fashion spreads, according to several feminist scholars, invite the feminine gaze and also establish “a paradigmatically lesbian viewing position” (Lewis and Rolley, 181). In this paper, I want to sketch my preliminary observations about the interlocking issues of the gaze, fashion, and the representation of sexuality.
Cowan returned repeatedly to the French, British, and American women of the Paris Left Bank before World War II as exemplifying a liberated style to which her readers could aspire. Romaine Brooks’s portrait of Una Troubridge, lover of Radclyffe Hall who authored the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, illustrated an article on lesbian designers that also cited bookstore owner Sylvia Beach and Natalie Barney, as well-known for her a literary salon as for her own writing. Barney had her portrait painted by Brooks in 1920; in it, her talisman is a horse statuette that alludes to her persona, “l’Amazone” in reference to her repuration as a horsewoman, her striking riding habit, and her identification with the mythical Amazons who like Barney rejected traditional gender roles (Crane 154-5). The centerfold of Cowrie 1, 4 (December 1973) incorporated a quotation from Gertrude Stein’s sensual poem “Lifting Belly”: “Cow come out” played on the title of the magazine. The accompanying illustration from a vintage advertisement depicts a vibrant woman with bobbed hair at the wheel of a car. She is dressed in a cap that rolls up at the brim, a coat with dramatic plaid shawl collar and deep cuffs, and snug gloves: she is the height of fashion and modernity circa the 1920s. The juxtaposition of a fashion plate with the Stein poem is apt: Stein took fashion seriously as a cultural expression, an opinion shared by New Yorker correspondent Janet Flaner (Benstock, 110). The following issue (Cowrie 1, 5, February 1974) featured Suzanne Valadon’s The Blue Room (1923) in a double-page spread. It is a painting of a heavy-set, dark-haired woman wearing a camisole and striped trouser bottoms, reclining on a day bed. Valadon’s model is endowed with a life of the mind as the artist represents her with a stack of books at her feet, an abstracted gaze, and a cigarette that suggests thoughtful absorption. There is a tension between mind and body, masculine and feminine in this painting, whose subject is at once odalisque and intellectual.
Suzanne Valadon.The Blue Room
These references posited for Cowrie’s readers a lesbian history, a self-sufficient women’s community, and a style by which lesbians could recognize each other. Cowan shared her interest in the Left Bank circle with other lesbian feminists, who in the abundance of lesbian periodicals that flourished in the 1970s profiled, pictured, cited, or reviewed Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Brooks, Barney, Troubridge and Hall, Renée Vivien, and Djuna Barnes. Talented and stylish women, living in a self-sustaining society of their own, their fascination for Cowan and her lesbian separatist peers is no surprise. I am interested here in drawing out the implications of this perceived connection: there are provocative similarities in their fashion choices, and these encoded a position with regard to sexuality.
Cowrie Magazine, 1973. What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear
In the Brooks portrait of Una, Lady Troubridge that illustrates Cowrie 1, 3, she wears a charcoal jacket, striped trousers, and a crisp white shirt tied with a black scarf at the neck. Troubridge is very slender and gamine with indistinguishable breasts and narrow hips, and the cut of her jacket accentuates her lean limbs and torso. She sports a short haircut that smoothly covers her ears, with sleek bangs. Her accessories are minimal: pearl earrings, a monocle, and two dachshunds. She fixes the viewer with a fierce gaze and unsmiling rouged lips. This portrait and the reclining woman in Valadon’s Blue Room reflect Cowan’s preference for women who reject feminine fashion. It is a selective view of the Left Bank: as Shari Benstock writes, not all the lesbians in Paris wore trousers and cropped their hair. Colette, for example, did not regularly dress that way, although her lover Missy occasionally did, and she imagined a community of women from which the masculine would be excluded (58-9). Cowan favored Troubridge’s look and Colette’s separatist vision of a women’s world.
In their 2003 analysis of the modern woman, art historians Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer observed that “the lesbian expatriate crystallized much of what it meant for a woman, in 1920s and 1930s Paris, to be modern: uprooted, mobile, urban, enterprising, culturally ambitious, professionally competent, sexually active, intellectually (and often financially) independent, à la mode—and, finally, visible” (14). Troubridge’s mannish style as represented in the portrait signified these qualities, and had a parallel in straight women’s fashion in the 1920s: la mode garçonne. La garçonne was the title of a popular novel about a woman who has sexual adventures, and demands sexual equality with men as her right. La mode garçonne represented liberation and modernity. (Chadwick and Latimer, 7) Coco Chanel was a proponent of the style, adapting clothing from the (male) British aristocracy and laborers alike (Benstock, 111). Thus a woman in masculine clothing read as modern, heterosexually forward, or lesbian depending upon the context and her audience. The inclusion of sexuality was crucial to Troubridge and her peers: it differentiated them from their 19th century predecessors involved in romantic friendships. Natalie Barney was one who made no secret of her serial romantic entanglements (Crane, 153, 155-6), and sexuality was a crucial aspect of the new generation’s sense of themselves as modern.
What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear Cowrie Magazine.
The most chic straight women adopted male clothing again in the 1970s. Yves St.-Laurent designed a tuxedo for women, called “le smoking,” in 1966. Bianca Jagger wore it in 1972, and Helmut Newton memorably photographed it in 1975 for Vogue. Newton’s image of a woman wearing St.-Laurent’s suit, smoking, in an empty street at night attended by another woman nude but for a pillbox hat with veil, heightens the sexual charge already there in “le smoking.” Other fashionable women of the day, like actress Charlotte Rampling, were photographed wearing clothes purchased from men’s departments or boutiques. Surprisingly for someone so current with popular culture and fashion, Cowan did not make reference to these iterations of contemporary men’s fashion-derived styles. Instead, she referenced historical models who had donned the look of la garçonne and in the process claimed for themselves a sexual identity that was as modern as it was untraditional. Cowrie’s editor promised that by aligning herself with a hidden history of glamorous, sexy, independent lesbians, the reader could discover and represent her authentic self.
The authentic lesbian identity that the historical fashions Cowrie featured did not exclude sexual desire. Contemporary lesbian identities did, when they were aligned with feminist politics. Since 1971, the woman-identified woman had been the model lesbian whose sexuality was downplayed to serve a political purpose: it made straight women activists more comfortable allying themselves with lesbians. Poet Adrienne Rich reformulated woman-identification as a lesbian continuum in 1980, on which any woman could locate herself even if she never acted on same-sex desire. To Cowan’s generation of lesbian feminists, butch-femme role-playing was suspect: butches were taken to be “male-identified” while femmes were gullible narcissists consumed by “the beauty ideal” (Scott, 293). Furthermore, the lesbian butch was a working class identity: it was not only gender politics but class estrangement that made the butch unappealing to a privileged cohort of lesbian feminists (Case, 286). Yet Teresa de Lauretis writes in her theorization of lesbian desire and sexuality that it is difference above all that allows desire to move between subject and object; too much alikeness breeds an absence of desire and, implicitly, lesbian bed death. She observes that the most common sign of lesbian desire “is some form of what is coded as masculinity” because masculinity almost inevitably suggests desire for the female body (de Lauretis, 243). The fetish of masculinity is “the lure of the mannish lesbian,” de Lauretis writes: it resists the loss of the female body, and the prohibition of access to it (243).
By reviving the look of the Left Bank lesbians, Cowan brought sex back to her readers: The man-tailored suits worn by some lesbians in pre-war Paris presented a style that foregrounded the difference so crucial to the expression of desire even as it negotiated butchness. Associating her sense of style with theirs, Cowan promoted her preference for clothes that were both comfortable and expressed creative individuality; she described a suit she had made by a lesbian designer that was made of velour and had a flying horse appliquéd across the back. While eye-catching, it was not designed to attract male attention like the high heels and skirts that Cowan believed literally fogged a woman’s mind and made her uncoordinated (Cowan 1975-6, 21). Garments such as this one were “liberating, physically and psychologically, and…beautiful” (Cowan 1974, 22). The lesbian style, or “dyke fashion” as Cowan preferred, was a sign by which lesbians recognized each other (Cowan 1974, 22).
Style is the preeminent subcultural marker. Referring to fashion, style aligns its wearers with a particular group, distances them from a mainstream trend, and conveys shared values. (Freitas et al., 85) With her articles in Cowrie and Dyke describing the well-dressed dyke, Cowan defined a style that suited her ideal audience. With reference to the Left Bank lesbians, she attributed a history and continuity to that subculture. And with guidelines and exhortations to her readers, whom she imagined to be much like herself, Cowan invited them to participate in a lesbian separatist subculture.
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Case, Sue-Ellen. “Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic.” In Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theatre. Ed. Lynda Hart. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989.
Chadwick, Whitney and Tirza True Latimer, eds. The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
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_______. “What the Well-Dressed Dyke Will Wear.” Dyke 1, 1 (Winter 1975-1976): 20-5.
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Freitas, Anthony, Susan Kaiser, and Tania Hammidi. “Communities, Commodities, Cultural Space, and Style.” Journal of Homosexuality 31, 1 /2 (1996): 83-107.
Lauretis, Teresa de. The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Lewis, Reina and Katrina Rolley. “Ad(dressing) the Dyke: Lesbian Looks and Lesbians Looking.” In Outlooks: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities and Visual Cultures. Eds. Peter Horne and Reina Lewis. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
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