A few weeks ago I approached the blog, Dyke Duds, (which has since changed its name to Qwear ) to interview me about What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear, the series of essays I wrote for Cowrie Magazine and DYKE, A Quarterly. I thought that the young readers of that blog would be interested in what I had written decades earlier. I hope they were.
Sonia Oram, the editor of Dyke Duds/Qwear, edited my original answers so the version that appeared in Dyke Duds was a bit shorter. She has space considerations that I do not, so I've decided to run my orginal answers.
Big thanks to Sonia for being interested in what this old Dyke had to say about clothing way back when.
Q: What topics in fashion did you cover in DYKE A Quarterly?
A: My column was called What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear, and it started in another, smaller, Lesbian magazine I published called Cowrie, which ran from 1973 to 1974. I had just come out the year before, at age 20, and had started to dress like my Lesbian peers. I wanted to know why we dressed as we did, and what were the social and political implications. Mind you, this was decades before fashion, or even culture theory, was considered worthy of study as an academic discipline. Now you can get a PhD in fashion theory. In those days, it was considered trivial. I knew it wasn’t and that clothing carried a message. I wanted to decipher it. My inspiration was James Laver, the only historian I knew of who was interested in the meaning of clothing in terms of social status.
In the seven part series, I covered general observations, history of Lesbian clothing - including ancient amazons- contemporary Lesbian clothing designers, hair and shoes. In every one, I was trying to decipher the political and social consequences and meanings of our clothing choices.
In addition to writing about Dyke clothing for my magazines, I produced a slide show, also called What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear. I made this for the Lesbian History Exploration, a conference that took place in California in 1975. I spent a couple of months taking my camera to Lesbian events, photographing what the women were wearing. I also used photos from biographies of famous Lesbians like Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall, and others of that era, to show the evolution of that genre of Lesbian Style. The slide show is at the Lesbian Herstory Archive in NYC.
My main theory was that contemporary Lesbians didn’t want to look like men - as we were constantly accused of trying to do - but we wanted to look like Dykes and other women-loving-women to invoke the styles of at least some of our foremothers. We wanted to honor our history and to wear clothes that would signal our identity to other Lesbians. It had nothing to do with wanting to look like men.
Why did our foremothers, some of them, dress in men’s clothing? Because of the power and freedom that men’s clothing both symbolized and allowed. Through the ages men have dressed for freedom, for comfort and for power. Women have been forced to dress as second- class citizens and sexual objects. From shoes to corsets, our clothing has confined and constricted us. Lesbians didn’t want to look like men…we wanted to be free, to catch the eye of other women and to mark ourselves as off- limits to men. That’s what I believe to this day.
[I highly suggest reading Esther Newton's classic 1984 essay, "The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and The New Woman" from the journal Signs, Vol. 9 No. 4, The Lesbian Issue. HERE]
Clothing, in addition to being necessary, is about power and class. It always has been. Clothing is deeply symbolic. That is my interest. Writing about clothing was always an intellectual pursuit. I was not interested, or able, to tell women what to wear or where to shop, or what accessories to buy. I wanted to explore the meaning. Always the meaning.
In the first article I mused over why I wanted to look Dykey.
“The clothes I wear help me to know my own power. So does being a lesbian. I love the way I look. I love the way other lesbians look. I’m learning to rid myself of all straight patriarchal values and build my own world. So it’s a combination of clothes and attitude that make a woman identifiable as a lesbian.”
In the second article, I wrote about Morgan Zale and her partner Laura, who designed and made clothes for Lesbians in New York City.
The third article was about ancient Amazon clothing, not just because Lesbians of my generation were obsessed with Amazons as role models, but to find inspiration for contemporary clothing possibilities.
The fourth article was more general history. For this article I went to The Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Costume Institute to talk to head curator, Stella Blum, although the article is not an actual interview. This was before Diana Vreeland made the Costume Institute the hugely popular hit-generating department it became.
Quoting Stella Blum,
“ ‘It took the vicissitudes of World War 1, which forced women into the male world and in turn permitted them activities and freedoms previously denied them, to reduce their costumes to functional simplicity and put a male cast to their appearance. Towards equality with men and to resemble them, in the 1920’s women flattened their bosoms and hips and cut their hair.’ ”
This is me, Liza:
“We know that men, the patriarchal rulers, take what is best for themselves, at least materially, including clothes. So, to dress in “men’s” clothes is not to imitate men (who wants to be a man!) but to wear what is least oppressive. When World War II was over, and women were no longer needed to support the country, the fashion market was flooded with incredible gowns, full draperies and lush fabrics. During the war, materials were severely rationed. This is usually the reason given for the simpler clothes during the war, and for the return of the luxurious post-war fashions. But I know the real reason to ensure that, once again, women would be forced to resume their roles in the all-consuming patriarchal culture.”
The seventh article was about hair, including a short history of hair styles. Hair, like everything else, has social meaning.
“ Melba Tolliver, a black newscaster for ABC-TV, was not allowed to wear her hair in an afro. The network deemed it too militant. It was too threatening. It’s easier to get a job with long hair, or very neatly coiffed short hair worn with appropriate makeup and clothing. It is much safer to pass as a straight woman than to look like a Dyke.
Q: How have you seen these styles evolved and can you draw parallels between the 1970’s Dyke world and the styles you see on Dyke Duds today?
A: Today we have an intellectual phenomenon termed “transmasculinity,” which I think is bullsh*t, and is thoughtlessly applied to Lesbian style. It has muddled the thinking of many an otherwise intelligent woman, and I grieve.
Whatever clothing a woman wears is feminine, womanly. If I wear something, it is woman’s clothing, because it is mine and I’m a woman, even if it is a suit and tie. A man wearing a dress is wearing man’s clothing, because it is his. I do not think that any item of clothing itself is masculine or feminine, or male or female, except as a symbol of power or powerlessness. So while a style may co-opt, or translate, or borrow even, the article of clothing itself has no sex or gender. The meaning resides in the viewer as well as the wearer. I will never be transmasculine or anything masculine. As a woman, everything I do is womanly.
The styles I see on Dyke Duds are not that hugely different from what we’d see on Lesbians in the 70’s…perhaps a bit more preppy. Looking over your posts, it seems the women and clothing you feature would slip into any of our events pretty successfully without looking like time travelers. Is it just that the 70’s are fashionable again?
The Dykes I wrote about in the 70’s consciously tried not to overplay their clothing. I used to get mad at women for refusing to dress up for events, because I believed that we owed it to ourselves to show up looking great for each other. What you’d see mostly were jeans, t-shirts or button-down shirts. T-shirts with screen printing by dykes for events or venues were popular.
Frye boots, work boots, converse sneakers were in fashion. Sensible shoes. Shoes you could run away in. There were always lots and lots of bandanas, tied around the neck or the head mostly. In my slide show I divided the Lesbian look into two sections, “Dyke Schlep” and “Dyke finery.” They weren’t that terribly different, frankly. Blazers and vests were popular. For a while, it was out of fashion to wear a bra, no matter how big your breasts were, so vests were a good and stylish way to cover up.
The other accessories that you’d always see were buttons - political buttons. I had a business making them, so I was always aware of them, but they were very popular for decorating clothing and bags. I think of them as little billboards.
Q: Where did you shop for clothes?
A: I really don’t know where other Lesbians went shopping. I mainly went to thrift stores and to army-navy stores, which was where you could get jeans and work clothes. There weren’t the zillion brands of jeans available now. You could get Wranglers, Levi’s and Carharts. That’s all I remember. Some jeans were made for women, with zippers on the side. I loved wool sailor pants, the kind with lots of buttons. You could find those used, along with pea coats, at army navy stores. I bet they don’t even have army navy stores any more. It’s also where you’d get denim work shirts and bandanas and sensible shoes.
I’d sometimes cruise Bloomingdales looking for clothes, but mainly because that’s where I’d shopped as a kid, and was familiar with it. I’d sometimes shop in the men’s department, which was kind of scandalous, but amusing. Sometimes I’d get cast offs from my father or brothers. My very favorite suede vest was a gift from my dad’s closet. I got some ties from him too. He was puzzled, but generous.
Q: Can you tell me more about the fashion magazine image?
A: The photo shoot you refer to was for our very first publicity flier. My partner, Penny House, and I had read fashion magazines ever since we were young girls. We both came from upper middle class families in New York City, where fashion -and the fashion industry - was part of the air we breathed. We had one school chum who moved to England and became one of the world’s first supermodels in the 60’s, and other friends whose parents were photographers, fashion editors, or were featured in magazines like Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, and the like.
We thought it would be hysterically funny to do a photo shoot of Dykes as a fashion image. You know, Dykes - the famously “ugly” and badly dressed. We found a Lesbian photographer who had access to a fashion photography studio. Her dad owned it and she was one of his assistants. Her name was Michelle, but I don’t know her last name. I’m hoping that one day she will contact us and let us know who she is.
So Penny and I gathered a couple of women to join us in the shoot. The now-famous singer, Alix Dobkin, was my girlfriend, so of course she came. And Penny’s tall model-esqe friend Val came too. And the photographer’s girlfriend, Deborah Glick, who is now a New York State Assemblymember, was in the shoot as well.
Alix and I were wearing jeans. I had just shaved my head and was wearing a bandana and a blue work shirt…the kind I’d loved since I was a “folkie” teen. Blue work shirts were emblematic of 60’s folkies, as were bandanas. Laborers outfits, appropriated by middle class kids, up trended again by a subcategory of Dykes who had grown up as beats and folkies.
Penny, Alix and I are all wearing vests. Alix and Penny’s were traditional, woolen “men’s” vests, which we used to buy at thrift stores. Mine was blue cotton with tiny white flowers on it… a kind of a vestigial hippy item. Val had on gorgeous tall leather boots with a folded over top. I have no idea where they came from. Alix and I were wearing workmen’s boots and shoes, another leftie/folkie appropriation - that was quite popular. Debbie and Penny seem to be wearing Frye boots, which were all the rage.
I don’t know about Penny’s white scarf. It is typically her style, but was not something you’d see all the time. And we all had short hair. I was bald, but you can’t see that.
More than anything, though, it is our posture that says “We’re Dykes!” Ladies just did not stand like that; hands on hips, standing squarely on two feet, balanced and ready, staring straight at the camera with no smiles. It would never be unusual to see a group of men with this body language, but a group of women? Highly unusual, and only could be read as Lesbian.
To juxtapose this on the seamless paper and studio lighting?? Hysterical, right? We thought so, anyway.
We picked this image from dozens – some of which are viewable on the DYKE A Quarterly website here. Using Letraset press-on letters, I designed our flier, and we sent it out. On the back was the copy describing our project. We had maybe 100 printed at a print shop, and sent them out. Very few exist anymore. If you own an original it is highly collectible. I don’t even have an extra copy to donate to the DYKE A Quarterly collection at the library of The Museum Of Modern Art in NYC.