TOPIC: What the well dressed dyke will wear Feed

"What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear" at The Museum Of Modern Art

The Museum of Modern Art has a major exhibition called  "Is Fashion Modern?"  Part of the exhibtion covers t-shirts. 

Coordinating with the exhibition, the museum publishes a blog with some wonderful articles. I'm honored that they wanted to know the backstory of my photograph of Alix Dobkin wearing "the future is female" shirt from Labyris Books.  Please read the actual blog...it's got some great essays. I've reprinted mine here.

The future is female t-shirt labyris books worn by alix dobkin photo by liza cowan 1975

The story behind the The Future Is Female graphic T-shirt is well known, both within feminists circles and outside them. In 2015, the Lesbian history Instagram account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y posted a photo of folk singer Alix Dobkin wearing a T-shirt with the logo in 1975, a piece of merchandise from Labyris Books, New York City’s first women’s bookstore. Soon after, the owners of Los Angeles–based boutique Otherwild approached Liza Cowan — the photographer and Dobkin’s then partner — requesting permission to reproduce the T-shirt. The garment and logo have since become an enduring symbol, worn by celebrities and civilians alike. It has also sparked numerous debates about the binary nature of gender and about the necessity for more inclusive discourses in mainstream feminism.

The story of the groundbreaking project that gave birth to the famous photograph is less known, however. As an artist working in the context of separatist Lesbian politics, Cowan was interested in the semiotic power of fashion to communicate identity. Years before costume and dress gained academic validation, Cowan developed a photo essay called “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear,” an exploration of Lesbian dress and its role in the construction of identity. As part of our research for item #044 on the Items: Is Fashion Modern? checklist, the Graphic T-shirt, we spoke with Cowan about the project, the political implications of Lesbian dress, and the proliferation of identity-proclaiming merchandise.

 

You first published your photo series “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear” in COWRIE Lesbian Feminist magazine. Can you talk a little more about what prompted you to work on this and the context in which it was developed?

COWRIE was a small magazine I started in 1972, originally as the newsletter of a women’s group on the Upper East Side of New York City. The group was called Community of Women, and our goal, unachieved, was to start a women’s center to serve the women in the neighborhood. By the third issue, in June 1973, the group had disbanded, but my editorial partner and I decided to continue publishing the newsletter as a magazine for Lesbians, renamed COWRIE Lesbian Feminist.

I had been observing how the women in the Lesbian community — as we called it then — were dressing. In 1972 I was inspired by a wonderful article in Rags Magazine, edited by Mary Peacock and Daphne Davis, called “What Gay Women Wear.”

I began to ask questions about clothing, both to myself and to my friends. I had just come out the year before, at age 21, 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. In those days it was considered trivial, and I was often ridiculed for being interested in fashion. I knew it wasn’t trivial, and I knew that clothing carried a message. I wanted to decipher it.

In the seven-part series, I covered general observations, history of Lesbian clothing — including ancient Amazons — and 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.

My main theory, I suppose, 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 Lesbians — 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.

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 hobble-skirts to corsets, from stiletto heels to beehives, our clothing has confined and constricted us. Lesbians didn’t want to look like men, they wanted to be free — free to move, free to play, free to run, free to work, free to catch the eye of other women, and free to mark themselves as off-limits to men.

Clothing — in addition to being necessary, sometimes fun, and always interesting — 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.

“The discussion I had with my friend [who had asked me why I wanted to look “dykey”] made me start thinking about the Lesbian Look. What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear. And why. I knew we look different from straight women. Is it a clothing style? A hair style? The movement Lesbians that I know, the community that shows up at conferences, women’s dances etc. all tend to dress similarly: comfortable clothes, T shirts, sturdy footwear, hair cut short, tied back, or loose au naturel. Women wear put-together suits, and blazers are always popular. But many of the women that go to bars (at least on weekends) wear outfits straight from Glamour magazine: platform shoes, tube tops, baubles, crimson mouths and plucked eyebrows. These clothes carry quite a different message.”

Cowrie Lesbian Feminist, Vol. 1 #3, June 1973

“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”

Cowrie Lesbian Feminist, Vol. 1 #3, June 1973

In 1975, along with my childhood friend Penny House, I started another magazine called DYKE: A Quarterly. The “What the Well Dressed Dyke” series continued there, but only for one issue. Our inaugural flyer for the magazine has become somewhat famous now, and exemplifies that Dyke look I had been describing in my articles. Decades later, in 2016, the flyer was featured in the book Gay Gotham, by Donald Albrecht and Stephan Vider, who curated the Gay Gotham exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

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 had moved to England and became one of the world’s first supermodels in the ’60s, and we also had other friends whose parents were photographers, fashion editors, or were featured in magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and the like. We thought it would be amusing to do a photoshoot of Dykes as a fashion image. 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.

Penny and I gathered a couple of women to join us in the shoot, including Alix Dobkin as well as Penny’s modelesque friend Val. The photographer’s girlfriend was also in the shoot. 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 ’60s folkies, as were bandanas. Laborers’ outfits, appropriated by middle-class kids, had become trendy again within a subcategory of Dykes who had grown up as Beats and folkies. Penny, Alix, and I are wore 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. Alix and I were wearing workmen’s boots and shoes, another leftie/folkie appropriation that was quite popular among Lesbians. Debbie and Penny seem to be wearing Frye boots, which were all the rage.

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.

It was around this time, 1974 and 1975, that Alix Dobkin and I were contacted to do presentations at an event in California called The Lesbian History Exploration. I decided to make my series into a slide show. One of the photos I used was an image I took of Alix wearing The Future Is Female T-shirt from our friends at Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City.

In the series, you explore what you call Lesbian “archetypes,” like the Amazons, but you also discuss certain stereotypes like “haute Dykes.” What was your research process like?

I prepared for the slideshow by taking photos of images in books of Lesbians from a particular era of Lesbian history, mostly American and British expats living in Paris — women like Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall, Margaret Anderson, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Clifford Barney, Sylvia Beach, Alice B. Toklas, Romaine Brooks, Janet Flanner, Renée Vivien, and more. I relied heavily on photos taken by the legendary Lesbian photographer Berenice Abbott. These women had recently earned legendary stature among my Lesbian friends and colleagues.

Then I took photos of contemporary Lesbians, mainly in New York City. I created the categories of fashion expression, “DYKE Schlepp” and “DYKE Finery,” and set about going to every event I could find at the time. For a couple of months I went to many events for Lesbians including dances, workshops, conferences, networking gatherings, concerts, and even a fashion show by Lesbian clothing designer Morgan Zale, whom I had interviewed for COWRIE. I went looking for what women were wearing, and asking permission to photograph them. In that era, there were many such events every month in New York City. I did not go to bars, mostly because the lighting would be terrible.

DYKE Schlep was, as it sounds, our everyday clothing: jeans and T-shirts, pea coats, work boots, denim overalls, sneakers, and Frye boots. Pretty much an up-cycled workman/folkie look. DYKE Finery included the outfits we wore to mostly evening events: jeans, suspenders, blazers, Frye boots, wingtip shoes, and the occasional fedora or tie. The difference between Schlepp and Finery was not huge, as I recall.

There was a section on hair. We tended to wear our hair short, sometimes the very bold shaved their heads. I did it once, just to see what it was like, and so I could document it for the slide show. I also included categories of lesbian accessories, like feminist/lesbian political buttons, which everyone wore, and the ever-present bandana/kerchief, which was tied in many different ways. As I travelled around the country, I continued to add slides and would include them in subsequent presentations around the US.

The last section of the show was about the style evolution of a few Lesbian friends, showing how their looks had changed as they went from girlhood to adulthood. I made slides from the photos in their photo albums and then photographed the women as they were at the time I was putting together the presentation. Most had gone through a period of being heterosexual, which made the whole thing both interesting and hilarious to my audiences. I think only one woman had been a Dyke her whole life, but even she had a marriage of “convenience,” which she had documented and was in the show.

In addition to my live photoshoots, I also did a number of interviews for the COWRIE series. I spent a wonderful afternoon at The Metropolitan Museum of Art with Stella Blum, who was at that time the curator of their fashion/clothing department. I also tried to interview Dietrich Felix von Bothmer, curator of Greek antiquities at the Met when I was researching Amazon clothing. He scoffed at me and told me he would not do my “homework.”

“h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y” and Otherwild took inspiration from your photograph of Alix Dobkin for their first collaborative clothing collection, which gave rise to many Lesbian-history-inspired garments. What are your thoughts on the growing availability of queer identity-proclaiming garments and their popularity? What is the biggest change that you see when you compare this context to the radical Lesbian one in which you came of age?

I don’t know why garments with slogans are popular in general. I never wear shirts with slogans, no matter how much I agree with them. I never have. I don’t enjoy being a walking billboard, and I find it odd that so many women do. The only one in my household who wears slogan shirts is the Rootstein mannequin who lives in my dining room. She likes when people stare at her — it’s her job. If I were going to wear one, I’d wear the T-shirt from Old Lesbians Organizing for Change that says, in simple block letters, “This is what an old Lesbian looks like.” It’s an inspiring message, it’s a fundraiser for a great organization, and it would be really hard to appropriate it.

However, the fact remains that these shirts are now big business. There were plenty of feminist and Lesbian T-shirts, of course, during the 1970s. Enough that DYKE: A Quarterly was planning for a theme-based issue on Lesbian Media, including T-shirts and buttons. But most of the T-shirts of that era were decorated with slogans and symbols from women’s groups, events, or places. Bars, conferences, sports teams, political groups and actions, etc. had their shirts. They were popular, and they were a great way to fundraise. T-shirts commemorated a place, an event, a group, but usually not a free-floating idea. Even the original The Future Is Female T-shirt had the name of Labyris Books on the back.

The point of buying these shirts was to support the places, the women, or events that created them. Sometimes the shirt was a medium for communicating a political action or “zap,” like the day in 1970 when a group of radical Lesbians occupied the stage at a meeting of the Second Congress to Unite Women wearing “Lavender Menace” T-shirts, protesting the exclusion of Lesbians and Lesbian issues from the feminist movement.That was a defining moment in lesbian history, made more powerful by the shirts themselves. This was not T-shirt as commodity. The action and the shirt are entangled.

T-shirts also acted as a way to signal other women. Wearing a T-shirt that said “Amazon Expedition,” for example, was a cue to let other women know that you’d been at that wonderful event, and the word “Amazon” let other women know that you were probably a Lesbian without actually broadcasting a message to everyone.

It was not hard to find T-shirts that included words like “Lesbian” or “Amazon” or “Sister” commemorating a march or an event, if you knew where to look, but you’d rarely find a T-shirt without the name of the group that made it, and date of the event. There were, of course, times when you’d see shirts that were just a slogan without a corresponding place or event. One well known photo shows a pair of women wearing shirts, one of which said “femme” and the other “butch,” but I think those shirts were homemade.

The big change came when T-shirts went from being fundraisers, cues, and memorabilia for events or groups to being commodities in themselves. In the past, the only place to buy Lesbian T-shirts, buttons, etc. was at an event, or at a woman’s bookstore. So you were supporting either an event, or a feminist venue, or both. Today, there are only a couple of women’s bookstores in existence. In the past, there were dozens and dozens.

Today, e-commerce and the huge popularity of slogan T-shirts have changed the whole ballgame. Anyone can buy a shirt without ever setting foot into a women’s bookstore or a feminist or Lesbian event. The shirts are are now just free-floating commodities. When you see someone wearing a T-shirt that says “Feminist” or “Love wins,” it does not reference a particular event, group, or even timeframe. It’s just something you bought.

Back cover dyke a quarterly 1977 photo by Irene Young
Back cover, DYKE, A Quarterly. Lesbian t shirts. photo by irene Young

Lesbian History Exploration, 1975. Part 2

 

Dyke a quarterly,  Blue London and anon woman in photobooth 1950's or early 60's
Blue London and unknown woman. Photo booth photo circa late 1950's. From What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear Slideshow, 1975

 

The Lesbian History Exploration was a small conference, held in the Spring of 1975 at a Jewish camp in Malibu, California. It was organized and produced  by Good Taste Productions, a Lesbian collective in Los Angeles. Among the collective were Alice Bloch, Jan Oxenberg, Evan Paxton, Nancy Poore, Jocelyn Cohen, Jan Aura and Nancy Toder.

I can't remember how Alix Dobkin and I heard about the conference, either it was a personal invitation or we saw a notice about it in one of the dozens of women's publications that circulated around the country in that era. We submitted our proposals, and then spent part of the winter preparing for our presentations, which would take place far from our home in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

DAQ dear exploration anthology collective
Dear Exploration...letter from Liza Cowan 1975

 

The Exploration Collective must have sent out a series of questionnaires, which not only did I anwer quite thoroughtly, but I also managed to keep copies of my letters in my posession until 2001, when I donated some of my papers and collections to The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. 

In September of 2012 I visited the Herstory Archives to retreive the slideshow so I could digitize it, and I did manage to digitize much of it. I also retreived a cache of slides from The Lesbian History Exploration, which I'd also taken, but had no memory of ever having, much less having donated to The Lesbian Herstory Archives. Nonetheless, there they were in a manilla envelope with the letters.   Feeling daunted by the idea of scanning so many slides, I stashed them away for a couple of years, until I recently when I was sorting through part of my office and came across the envelope and peeked in. Et, Voila.

Title card from What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear slideshow. 1975. dyke finery. ©Liza Cowan


 


What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear: The Lesbian History Exploration,1975.

Letter from Liza Cowan to the Lesbian History Exploration collective march 22 1975 about the slideshow what the well dressed dyke will wear Dyke a Quarterly

 

 

Early in the Spring of 1975, I was preparing for my slde show, "What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear" for the upcoming Lesbian History Exploration, a small national conference to be held outside of Los Angeles. 

The Good Taste Collective was organizing the Exploration. Here is some correspondence from me, Liza, to the collective. I only saved my responses, not their inquiries.

Snapshots of Liza Cowan and Alix Dobkin 1975 Potter Hollow NY
Alix Dobkin and Liza Cowan, Spring 1976. Three Maple Farm, Schoharie County, NY


 

White Mare Archive to Lesbian Hirstory Exploration

To: Good Taste Productions

From Liza Cowan 3/22/76

Private correspondence

Page 1

Dear Good Tasters,

My slide show is coming along ok, I guess. I took about 200 pictures at the NY Women’s Music Festival, and none of them came out because I didn’t know that the shutter speed had to be at 60 for the flash to be in synch. So consequently I have lost most of my contemporary Dyke fashion slides. I took some pictures at the Lesbian Feminist Liberation/ New York Radical Feminist Lesbian Speak Out, but there was no picture taking allowed inside so I had to take them outside and didn’t get too many. We are going to Washington, D.C in 2 weeks + I’ll get more there.

I think that my first showing will be at the exploration. I wish I had about another year to finish, because I’ll be taking pictures in California + everywhere we go, and it

Page 2

will get better and better. But anyway, it’s good now, too. I will show slides of the Older Lady Dykes (Gertrude, Alice, Natalie, Romaine, Sylvia, Colette, et al) also before and after (coming out, Dykes in drag (in ladies clothes) and contemporary dyke duds. Also I will play appropriate music, and preface the whole thing with a short talk about the power of clothes.

I don’t know how long it will run. I hope it will be at least 15 minutes (I’m very upset about losing all those contemporary dyke slides.)

It will be light and amusing, fun to watch. I decided not to get into any heavy analysis and history because it’s too talkie. I think a slide show should be more fun.

I will need a screen + cassette play back machine. I have a projector.

I’m thinking of changing the name to “How We Look” or “What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear – how we look 1900-1975.

[I shaved my head yesterday]

See you soon, love, Liza Cowan


What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear: The Slide Show 1976

In September, 2012, I - Liza - took a trip to The Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City to delve into my own collections. I was looking specifically for my 1976 slide show, What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear. I found it, and brought the slides home to digitize. 

The online magazine Dapper Q, which had interviewed me about Dyke Clothing, had requested some of the slideshow images, should I ever find them, so I sent some along for them to publish HERE

In my interview about What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear in dapperQ, I mentioned that the slides from my traveling slideshow were at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in NYC. Since then, I visited the Archives and borrowed my slides to digitize them.

In 1975 and 1976, I took pictures at various events and places around the country to show to women-only audiences. While I had permission to show the slides in this context, never in my wildest dreams, in the mid 1970s, could I have imagined the internet, or websites like dapperQ. So, I have selected a few images to share in this context, choosing only the women who have given permission or who are famous, or whose identity I think won’t be recognized after all these years. Photos by Liza Cowan unless stated.

 

Alix Dobkin circa 1975 wearing t shirt from women's bookstore Lammas. Photo ©Liza Cowan
Alix Dobkin in a t-shirt from Lammas, a women’s bookstore in Washington, DC. We had all just gotten new haircuts and were happy to show them off.

 

 

Alix Dobkin, 1975. Photo ©Liza Cowan
Alix Dobkin in vest and striped shirt. This was taken on Amtrak, travelling from DC to NYC. Alix is wearing one of the buttons I created, “A You’re An Amazon,” the first line of one of her most popular songs, “Amazon ABC.”

 

 

Alix Dobkin wearing various feminist t-shirts. 1975. Photos ©Liza Cowan
T-shirt collage, featuring Alix Dobkin. Lammas was a women’s bookstore in Washington, DC. “The Future Is Female” - the slogan for New York City’s first women’s bookstore Labyris Books. Amazon Expedition. I can’t remember what this shirt was for, but there was a popular anthology of the same name, published in 1973 by Times Change Press, edited by Bertha Harris, Jil Johnston, Esther Newton, Jane O’Wyatt and Phillis Birkby. I am Woman, a shirt we found at some five and dime store, probably a take off from the famous song by Helen Reddy. Note the props.

 

 

Amy and Phranc at concert in LA. 1975. Photo ©Liza Cowan
Amy and Phranc taken at an Alix Dobkin concert in LA. This concert took place the week after the What The Well Dressed Dyke slideshow made it’s debut at the Lesbian History Exploration outside Los Angeles. In an interview in The Advocate, July 22, 1986, Phranc said: “…then I saw the slide presentation by Liza Cowan [at the Lesbian History Exploration] on ‘What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear.’ It was great: all these women in 3-piece suits. They showed a slide of Liza shaving her head and I thought, ‘This is great.’ ‘I went home and got a total buzz-cut, and just loved it.” Note that Amy is wearing the “A You’re An Amazon button and Phranc is wearing another one of my buttons, “I like Older Women.”

 

 

Liza-and-penny-on-wall-photo-by-alix-dobkin
Liza Cowan and Penny House, posing for the slideshow. I am wearing my favorite wool vest, tie, jeans and green Converse sneakers. Penny is wearing wool sailor pants, a vest and tie, and Frye boots. Photo by Alix Dobkin.

 

Liza-getting-a-shave-photo-by-Alix-Dobkin
Liza Getting her head shaved. Our neighbor, friend, and riding instructor, Dorethea, had a haircutting salon. She was puzzled and amused when I asked her to shave my head. Photo by Alix Dobkin.

 

Louise-and-liza-2-photo-by-alix-dobkin
Louise Fishman and Liza. Louise wearing the now-stereotypical flannel shirt, Liza wearing, again, my favorite wool vest, a bandana with women’s symbols on my neck, and, again, the “A You’re An Amazon” and “I like Older Women” buttons. Photo by Alix Dobkin.

 

Three-piece-suit-by-morgan-photo-%C2%A9Liza-Cowan
Three piece suit by Lesbian designer, Morgan, at a fashion show/tea party she hosted to present her collection.

 

 

Val, wearing vest, tie and jacket. Going to a dance. Photo ©Liza Cowan
V in three piece ensemble at a women’s dance.
title card from slideshow What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear. ©Liza Cowan 1975
Title card from slideshow. Liza self-portrait.




Well Dressed Dyke...Liza Cowan interveiw

 

DapperQ » Blog Archive » Interview with Liza Cowan of Dyke, A Quarterly
screenshot from interview in dapperQ. Transcription below.

 

dapperQ: transgressing men's fashion  is a website/blog about what in the old days we'd have called Dyke fashion. These days there are a whole slew of new words and attitudes applied to clothing and self presentation, most of them having to do with newish ways that people are using gender rather than sex to describe who women are and the ways they go about their business. 

I, Liza, am not a big fan of these new descriptors. My apporach is more traditionally radical feminist, or LesbianFeminist. Women are women, - men are men, and the rest is culture. I've encountered as much opposition as support on this issue. 

Queer "newspeak" describes Lesbians as "boi" "masculine of center" and "transmasculine." I've seen this all over the place, from fashion blogs to Harvard professors. It rankles me. In the following interview, I got to explain why.

Thanks to dapperQ and editor Anita Dolce Vita for reaching out to me for an interview and then for publishing the words I wrote even though they often critique the very words dapperQ uses to describe itself and its readers. Kudos, mes amies.

LINK TO dapperQ

LINK TO INTEVIEW WITH LIZA COWAN

From dapperQ:

DYKE, A Quarterly, a magazine of lesbian culture and analysis that included articles such as “What the Well-Dressed Dyke Will Wear,” was created by Liza Cowan and Penny House in 1975 and ran for six issues. We recently read Qwear’s interview with Cowan and were floored that dapperQ had not yet published a post about DYKE, considering DYKE’s goal of expanding the definition of what it meant to be a “woman,” including in areas of dress and behavior. After taking a look at some issues of DYKE, as well as reading some of DYKE’s fan and hate mail, we decided to have a chat with Cowan to learn more about her venture.

dapperQ: You once said of DYKE, “Our readers, for the most part, found our interest in clothing superficial, classist and apolitical.” dapperQ has received some similar criticism. Can you expand upon why it was and still is important to explore this topic within the context of sexual orientation and gender identity?

Cowan: Many of the readers of DYKE, A Quarterly, which was published in the 1970’s, did not think of fashion as a system of codes to be deciphered, or as a text that could be read. They imagined that clothing didn’t matter, and that, even worse than not mattering, an interest in fashion was only for the upper classes and only for women who had nothing better to do in their lives than to go shopping.  Very few people at that time were interpreting the meanings of fashion. Fashion Studies did not enter the academic curriculum in the US until the 1980’s when the field of Cultural Studies was first introduced.  These days you can get a PhD in fashion studies. I don’t mean fashion design, but the study of the meaning and history of clothing.

Fashion is political. What we wear signifies who we are in terms of our socio-economic class, age, culture, ethnicity, historical time, geographical location, sex, and gender.  If we are native to a culture, that is, if we were brought up in that culture, we know how to read and to obey the rules of fashion, but we don’t usually know how to analyze or articulate them. Lesbians are among those folks who live in multiple worlds simultaneously, and often have to navigate two or more sets of codes. Isn’t that fascinating and important? I think so.

Rather than follow or even break rules willy-nilly, I think we can do a much better job of making personal and collective statements if we understand what is expected of us and why. We can learn to read the codes. Then we can choose to obey, bend or break the rules with more purpose, imagination and clarity.

dapperQ:  In your interview with Qwear, you mentioned that many of your readers may have identified as genderqueer or transmasculine today, but that, while our language has expanded, the fashion aesthetic is similar. At dapperQ, we recognize the rich diversity of our community and understand that how we identify impacts how we perceive, interact, and experience the world. Keeping the vast array of unique experiences in mind, we consciously made the decision to bridge what our founder calls the “transgenderational gap” by focusing on some common ground: fashion. Do you feel that DYKE would have included a wider audience had this new language been available to you back then?

Cowan: Cowrie Magazine – and later DYKE A Quarterly (the two magazines I edited, for which I wrote “What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear “) were written by for and about Lesbians.  It is true that I told Qwear that I supposed that many of us were genderqueer in those days, but what I meant – and I apologize for the linguistic slippage – was that in those days many Lesbians crisscrossed traditional boundaries of “male” and “female” fashion and grooming codes. I did not mean that my readers thought of themselves as anything but women. I did not say that “our language has expanded” because, in fact, I don’t think it has, unless “expanded” means being more confusing and more constricting.

Gender, in my linguistic universe, is a set of behaviors and expectations that are given, forced, inscribed onto female and male bodies. One of my favorite theorists, Lierre Keith, puts it this way: “Gender is not a binary; it’s a hierarchy- global in its reach, sadistic in its practice, murderous in its conclusion, just like race, just like class.”

I don’t like or use the terminology that is so popular these days: transmasculine, genderqueer, masculine-of-center, boi, etc. These are all words and phrases that obscure the fact that women and men are trained by patriarchy to live in constricting, life-denying, soul -sucking, yet totally made-up categorical boxes. It obscures the fact that men, as a class under patriarchy, created these conditions, and that men, as a class under patriarchy, benefit from that pervasive world-view.

Far from expanding our world view, the language of transmasculine etc. has, in my opinion, shrunk it. One of the goals of feminism, certainly of Lesbian Feminism, is to make the category of woman bigger, not smaller. Phrases like transmasculine or masculine of center suggest that woman, as a category, is not large enough, or expansive enough, or elastic enough, to encompass a full range of behaviors, aesthetics, expressions and attitudes.

On the contrary, I believe that whatever a woman does is womanly. If she wears a suit and tie and sports a mustache – she is womanly. If she wields a blowtorch, she is womanly. If she drives a 16 wheeler, she is womanly. If she runs a government, she is womanly.  She may not be “feminine” according to the socially constructed, restrictive gender rules of our contemporary dominant culture, but she’s womanly. To call a woman who identifies as a woman transmasculine or boi or masculine of center is to deny scope and breadth and depth to the category of woman. These words serve to claim as “masculine” the behaviors, occupations, attitudes, fashions and grooming styles that are not only liberating to women, but that women can enjoy, do enjoy, and should be able to enjoy as women.

The traditional Lesbian category of Butch is different from transmasculine or masculine. The traditional Butch Lesbian knows full well that she is female. Her way of expressing her Butch womanliness has an honorable history of its own.

DYKE A Quarterly would not have invited a “larger” audience even if other folks were using “new” language. Our intended audience was always women-identified-women: Lesbians and Dykes (terms we used interchangeably). These days, we have altered our scope somewhat by allowing male scholars to access our archival materials.

dapperQ:  In your 1970s article, “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear,” you stated, “I am confident that there will begin to evolve a true Dyke fashion, just as Dyke music and theater is already beginning to appear.” Today, there exists many blogs about queer, lesbian, dyke, butch, and trans style. In what ways do you think that our fashion has changed? Remained the same? Progressed?

Cowan: When I was writing “What the Well-Dressed Dyke Will Wear” back in the mid-70’s, I was confident that when women wore “men’s” clothing we were doing so not to look like men, not to be read as masculine,  but to look like Dykes.  We did it to honor our Lesbian foremothers who had dressed in “men’s” clothing. We did it so we would recognize each other. We did it to defy the constricting rules of femininity, and we did it to break free from the confining and degrading nature of “feminine” garments.  I don’t think that young Lesbians are dressing much differently these days than we did in the ‘70s.  They are just giving it different descriptors, different names. Also it seems to me that on the whole, young Lesbians are less fascinated by, and less interested in honoring their Lesbian foremothers than we were in the 1970’s. I hope I’m wrong. I hope the young Dykes of today are reading their history, because it’s fascinating and important. Then again, the Dykes of the 70’s are now the foremothers of today’s younger generations,  and there seems to be some new interest in what we did and who we were, which pleases me.

I don’t see anything particularly interesting or unusually imaginative happening in Lesbian fashions. Alas, we have not evolved our own unique style.  I’m not really surprised. Sad, maybe, but not surprised. “Men’s” suits?  By now I find them a bit trite as an idea, though they may be charming to view, and I certainly understand the impulse.  “Ladies” garments?  Also not terribly inspiring as Lesbo wear, although I do love to wear a string of fake pearls to political demonstrations.  I can’t believe that Lesbians wear high heels. In my day you wore shoes you could run away in.  At my age – 63- I’m more driven by comfort than by style, but I do wish there were more imaginative ranges of style for everyone, including straight folks.

 

dapperQ:   In 1976, you created a slideshow of images documenting lesbian fashion that is now at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in NYC. Can you tell us more about these images?

Cowan: I made the slide show “What the Well-Dressed Dyke Will Wear” for the Lesbian History Exploration in 1976. That was a wonderful gathering  of Lesbians held outside Los Angeles featuring presentations by a variety of women including Tee Corrine, Judy Grahan, Jan Oxenburg, Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Alix Dobkin, Elsa Gidlow, Phranc, Margie Adam, Alice Bloch, and other scholars, artists, and activists.

The slideshow is now at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, NY. I will go there later this year to digitize my collections, which are housed there, including the slide show, so stay tuned for it to show up online.

I prepared for the slideshow by taking photos of images in books of Lesbians from a particular section of Lesbian History…women like Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall, Margaret Anderson, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Clifford Barney, Sylvia Beach, Alice B. Toklas, Romaine Brooks, Janet Flanner, Renee Vivien and more. I can’t really remember now because I haven’t seen the slides since the 1980’s. I relied heavily on photos taken by the legendary Lesbian photographer Berenice Abbott.

Then I took photos of contemporary Lesbians, mainly in NYC, where I was living at the time. I created the categories of fashion expression, “DYKE Schlepp” and “DYKE finery,” and set about going to every event I could find at the time. DYKE Schlep is, as it sounds, our everyday clothing: jeans and t-shirts, pea coats, work boots, sneakers and Frye boots. Pretty much an upcycled workman/folkie look.  DYKE Finery included the outfits we wore to mostly evening events: jeans, suspenders, blazers, ties sometimes, Frye boots, wing tip shoes sometimes. And there was a section on hair. We tended to wear our hair short, sometimes the very bold shaved their heads. I did once, just to see what it was like, and so I could document it for the slide show.  The difference between Schlepp and Finery was not huge, as I recall. I also included categories of Lesbian accessories, like Feminist/Lesbian political buttons and the ever-present bandana/kerchief, which was tied in many different ways.  As I travelled around the country, I continued to add slides and would include them in subsequent presentations around the US.

The last section of the slide show was about the evolution of style of a few Lesbian friends, showing how their looks had changed as they went from girlhood to adulthood. I made slides from the photos in their photo albums and then photographed the women as they were at the time I was putting together the presentation. Most had gone through a period of being heterosexual, which made the whole thing both interesting and hilarious to my audiences. I think only one woman had been a Dyke her whole life, but even she had a marriage of “convenience,” which she had documented and was in the show.

dapperQ:   DYKE, A Quarterly is currently archived at the Museum Of Modern Art Library in NYC. Can you tell our readers a little bit about the archives and how they can support it?

Cowan: One evening in 2010, Penny House, co-editor of DYKE A Quarterly, went out to dinner with her friend Milan Hughston, Chief Of the Library and Museum Archives at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Their conversation got around to DYKE, and Hughston expressed an eagerness to have the magazine be part of the collections at MOMA. Penny and I discussed this at length, since our original intention was to have the magazine seen only by women.  We decided that since the collection was historical, not contemporary, we owed it to scholars to make the materials available for research. And, because I am an artist, I actually jumped up and down at the idea of being included in any collection at MOMA. Seriously, what an honor.

Fortunately we had managed to keep a lot of the collateral materials from the magazine: some letters, including hate mail – mostly about class and fashion – layout sheets, notes, doodles, ads, fliers and whatnot. We had to have them all appraised for museum acquisition.

Meanwhile,The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe College,  asked to have our collection. Ultimately, after discussions with both MOMA and Schlesinger, we decided that MOMA would get copies of the magazine, which is what they wanted, and The Schlesinger would get copies and the rest of the materials. In addition, copies of the magazine are available at the Labadie Collections at the University of Michigan  and at The Lesbian Herstory Archives.

Scholars can make appointments at any of these Libraries to do research. If anyone wants to support an archive, my suggestion is to give money or time to The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, NY, which is seriously underfunded, or to other Gay/Lesbian archives around the US and around the world.

DYKE A Quarterly archive is also available online at www.dykeaquarterly.com, which is a work in progress.

 

 

 


SIDE TRIP: 1970's Lesbian Separatism, Fashion, and the Women of the Left Bank. Margo Hobbs Thompson

 

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.

ValadonSuzanne_BlueRoomSuzanne 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.

What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear,  Cowrie Vol 1 no 3Cowrie 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 vol one no 2, p 11, moregan and laura  . Photo by Barbara Jabaily, text by liza cowan, clothing by Morgan ZaleWhat 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.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

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.

Cowan, Liza. “What the Well-Dressed Dyke Will Wear.” Cowrie 1, 5 (February 1974): 21-2.

_______. “What the Well-Dressed Dyke Will Wear.” Dyke 1, 1 (Winter 1975-1976): 20-5.

Crane, Sheila. “Mapping the Amazon’s Salon.” In Gender and Landscape: Renegotiatinig Morality and Space. Eds. L. Dowler, J. Carubia, and B. Szczygiel. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

Evans, Caroline and Minna Thornton. Women and Fashion: A New Look. London and New York: Quartet Books, 1989.

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.

Scott, Linda M. Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

 


REVIEW OF DYKE, A Quarterly: from Our Right To Love 1978, DYKE is "greatest sinner of all."

 

And women said we were harsh?? 

From Our Right To Love, Ginny Vida, ed
 From Our Right To Love, Ginny Vida, ed. 1978

"Among struggling journalists, wasting copy space is probably one of the most serious offenses there is, and Dyke magazine (Preston Hollow, NY) thus may be the greatest sinner of all. This visually enticing quarterly magazine abuses valuable news space by filling it with trite meanderings on such superficial subjects as dyke fashions and interior decorating. Lacking political analysis (even of dyke separatism) or the talents to express the written word, Dyke, fortunately still a baby in the lesbian publishing world, unfortunately displays the temperment of a spoiled brat."

review by Jackie St. Joan, Esq.

 

The article about "interior decoration" must have been Nesting in No. 3. The article about fashions was What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear in No 1.

I feel vindicated somehow that in the 21st there are entire academic worlds of cultural studies including fashion and geography(which include theories of home,or,as the review calls it,"interior decoration.")

 

Fashion Studies Today History, Theory and Practice - Master of Arts in Visual Culture_ Costume Studies - NYU SteinhardtNew York University, May 2012: Fashion Studies Today: History, Theory and Practice an international and interdisciplinary conference. 

We were ahead of our time. And rather thick skinned, since reviews like the one in Our Right To Love made us laugh more than cry. 

 

Our right to love, ginny vida ed. 1978
Our Right To Love, Editor, Ginny Vida, Media Director, National Gay Task force. 1978

PS: Check out Jackie's gracious response in the comments section below. And here's her website. 

 


DYKE A Quarterly, No. 1: What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear

DYKE A QUARTERLY No 1 p 20

DYKE A QUARTERLY No 1 p 21

DYKE A QUARTERLY No 1 p 22_3

DYKE A QUARTERLY No 1 p 23

DYKE A QUARTERLY No 1 p 24

DYKE A QUARTERLY No 1 p 25What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear. DYKE  A Quarterly No. 1, pages 20-25

 

 

Abridged text in grey italics, comments in black. Click to enlarge page to read it in full.

What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear

By Liza Cowan

 When I was co-editing COWRIE I wrote a series called, “What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear.”  The quotations her are taken from that series.

 

OPPRESSION

“Women have been forced to dress as objects since the invention of patriarchy. Do you object to my saying that women are forced to wear certain clothing? I know some women will say that no one Is forced to wear anything. If women go along with these social/fashion customs, there are just stupid. But this is not true. If you don’t dress the way you are supposed to, you are a social outcast. If you function in mainstream culture you may be fired from your job, kicked out of school, ridiculed by our ‘peers’ and family. It takes great courage to defy your class and sex taboos.” (February 1974)

 

Sometimes I forget how different we’re looking these days. My eye has become so accustomed to our short cropped hair, baggy work trousers, vests, boots ad our direct stares. The other day Alix and I went up to town to pick up Adrian at school. It was the first time we had been there since school opened. Adrian usually comes and goes on the school bus. Her class wasn’t quite finished when we arrived, so we hung out in the hall. Several classes were on their way to the cafeteria, and every kid in that hall stared at us as if we had three eyes, and they were not merely curious. Lots of them were hostile, especially the little boys.

 

Ordinarily we would have let the boys know that it was past due time for them to be castrated. Especially me. I hate little boys and I love to make scenes. However, we were in Adrian’s school. She’s five years old and has no choice about where to live or go to school. We know how heavy the other children in that rural public school could make it for her. At least in the city there are bound to be other children whose parents are weird, but here in the country everyone is pretty much the same except for the Lesbians, and Adrian is the only child in our Dyke community. Clearly nobody in that school had ever seen the likes of us, two stompin’ Dykes, trained in the streets of New York City. So we had to act like “Mommie and Aunt Liza” (or whoever I was saying I was that day.) We were wearing the wrong costumes to play that part. It’s way past time when we might want to pass at Adrian’s school. We’d never be able to pull it off, anyway. The last time we put on Ladies clothes Alix looked like Jan Morris. I guess our solution at school is to keep a low profile and hope for the best.

The following is commentary by Liza Cowan, written for this archive in 2011

Thirty five years later, I'm amazed by how much has changed yet so much has stayed the same.

Clothing

When I wrote these essays in the mid seventies, I didn't have the vocabulary to write cultural  theory about clothing. I hadn't been to college yet, but more than that, cultural studies didn't really enter the academy until the late seventies.  The idea of reading clothing as text was barely developed, and an interest in clothing was considered feminine i.e. devalued.  It's no wonder that my theory was simultaneously rudimentary and passionate. That said, I'm proud that my colleagues and I understood that examining clothing in the context of power was a worthy endeavor. We believed the feminist credo: the personal is political. Our readers, for the most part, found our interest in clothing superficial, classist and apolitical. 

 

From Our Right To Love, Ginny Vida, ed on DYKE A Quarterly, fashion, home decorating

From Our Right To Love, Ginny Vida, Ed. 1978

"This visually enticing quarterly magazine abuses valuable news space by filling it with trite meanderings on such superficial subjects as dyke fashions and interior decorating. Lacking political analysis(even of dyke separatism) or the talents to express the written word, DYKE, fortunately still a baby in the lesbian publishing world, unfortuneately displays the temperment of a spoiled brat"



These days there are some excellent  blogs about clothing and theory. For example, see Worn Out, a scholarly and beautiful blog. Universities offer cross disciplinary classes and conferences on the politics of fashion. We wer just ahead of our time.  

Daily Life Of a little Dyke family in rural New York circa 1975

Alix Dobkin, her daughter, Adrian, and I were living on a farm in the tiny hamlet of Preston Hollow, Schoharie County, New York. Partly back-to-the-land, partly Lesbian Separatist, we had  moved there from New York City in 1974 with another Lesbian couple.  There were a few other Lesbians who lived somewhat nearby. Penny lived there in the summers. We were the only Dykes with a child. We were the only Jews. None of our neighbors were even divorced. We were in a new territory without much of a map.  We were terrified that our neighbors would be vicious. The first time it snowed I cried. We had never lived outside of New York City.

We did try to be good neighbors; we kept our place tidy, waved to folks on the road and chatted with people at the hamlet's one market and post office. It turned out that the neighbors liked us well enough. They thought we were strange, but likable. They cared less that we were Lesbians, and more that we kept our property tidy and we were friendly, so word got out that we were OK. Or OK enough for them to be neighborly. We were Lesbians, but we were their  Lesbians. Some became friends.

At age five, Alix's daughter Adrian was in kindergarten. Maybe first grade. She took the bus from Preston Hollow to Middleburg every day. It was a 45 minute ride. None of the other parents knew usexcept by town gossip.  Sociable by nature, Adrian nevertheless only made friends with a few of the children who lived down the road.

Adrian remembers that her teachers singled her out to be mean to, and the other children, but for a few, were not allowd to play with her. But it wasn't only the rural parents - the ones from the city could be just as bad. It was, in fact, a city friend's mom who was the most homophobic and vile to little Adrian, who came home one after one weekend in the city with her Dad, crying, "Andrea's mom says we can't play anymore because you are hobos."

"What??"

"Hobos. Andrea's mom says you're hobos and I can't play with Andrea?"

"Do you know what a Hobo is?

"No, but she thinks you're bad."

It took us a few minutes but we figured out that we were homos. Homos. We explained to Adrian that homo was a word for same sex couples like us. And that Andrea's mom was an idiot. But our theories and explanations didn't make Adrian's life any easier for her. She longed to be treated as if she were normal. Her moms were happliy not normal. All The choices were fraught with consequences.

In a year or so Adrian moved to New York city with her dad, then subesequently they moved to Woodstock, NY an hour's drive south of us, soon followed by Alix, then by me. We had separated as a family, but only in the traditional heteronormative sense. In the Lesbian sense we remained very much an enlarged and engaged family. And Woodstock was full of weirdos: artists, hippies, musicians...so being a Hobo wasn't such a big deal.

Adrian grew up into a wonderful woman: smart, talented, kind, beautiful. She has a terrific family; a husband, three gorgeous kids, doting Grandmas Alix and Nancy down the road, and a bevy of faithful long - term friends. She's the best.

The comment about little boys: I was being dramatic. I hated how boys were raised with the assumption of gender power and it showed all over their bodies, their posture, their clothing, their play. Castration? We lived in farm country, and it was an easy metaphor. It was a castration of the Phallus=symbolic in the Lacanian, theoretical sense, not the actual body. Castration in fact? No. Of course not. I was angry - not delusional.

 

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