‘An Introduction to Queer Women's Fashion History’ (Part Two) from ‘That Can’t Be True! (Seattle NOW) by Youth Director of the API, Stella Crouch

The Roaring Twenties was a time of great change in the fashion world and society at
large. At the dawn of the 1920s, the world was still reeling from the First World War. The
conflict, which ended just over a year before the new decade began, had a fundamental
and irreversible effect on society, culture, and fashion. Utility and practicality in fashion
became more normalized especially for women. With suffrage and a greater move
towards gender equality women demanded functional clothing, ones that didn’t limit
their mobility. Hairstyles kept getting shorter. First with the Shingle and then with the
Eton crop. But, like hemlines, as the decade drew to a close, women were starting to
grow their hair longer again. The cloche hat became an extremely popular accessory
that looked best with these short hairstyles. Certain colours were said to mean if a
woman was straight or queer. Different cities had different colour codes for hats. This
concept of the color of clothes being a queer code has and continues to exist around
the world.
The Monocle has a long and very queer history. The invention of the monocle is
normally credited to a German baron, Philipp von Stosch, who supposedly used it to
study antiques in the early eighteenth century. He died in 1757, but by the beginning of
the nineteenth century it had traveled across Europe and was starting to make its way
to other continents. Monocles were invented with a distinctly male style in mind.
Fashions obviously evolve and change meaning and by the end of the nineteenth
century the monocle was beginning its second wave of interest and this time, it was
worn by women as well. In 1898, a London newspaper, The Penny Illustrated Paper
and Illustrated Times, declared that ‘the single eye-glass is the latest fashion among
pretty girls in London’. A Madrid article from 1901 stated that ‘an eye-glass with a single
lens is a sign of both a sophisticated and risque woman’. These examples of writings
about the monocle from the turn of the century demonstrate how it had evolved from
Stosch’s time.
Monocles were a sign of rebellion for young women in the early twentieth century. Many
queer women used the monocle as a way of playing with their gender and sexuality
considering it had been a traditionally male accessory. The monocle offered a subtle
form of protest against contemporary fashion and it’s binary when worn with traditionally
feminine and ‘proper’ clothing and a more obvious resistance when worn with
traditionally masculine clothing. People feared the monocle being worn by women
because it was becoming increasingly popular in circles of young progressive women
especially in universities and in intellectual settings. Some feared that women who wore
them were trying to be men and ‘uproot the family and society’. Many tried to ban
monocles for women in schools and universities as a part of a greater effort to push
women out of education.

There was also a queerphobic or ‘moral’ aspect, as society called it at the time, for
wanting to ban monocles in schools because the monocle was becoming to be known
for its connection to queer people. Some even went as far as to claim that women
wearing monocles was a sin. Lots of places banned women from wearing monocles,
bow ties and ties (also prominent in queer women’s fashion which you can read more
about in part one) in places of business such as restaurants, banks and department
Butch fashion evolved a lot in the early 20th century. Gladys Bentley was a queer icon
of her time being a blues singer, tuxedo wearer and lady lover. In the words of Saidiya
Hartman in her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, ‘Bentley was abundant
flesh, art in motion’. In the words of Bentley herself, from 1952 when she had left the
stage ‘I’m a big, successful star and sad, lonely person’. (Read more about Gladys
Bentley in our third article of June 2021)
During the two world wars and in the early postwar period, women used the energy of
butch to create all sorts of art, literature, music, and characters in film. Those who were
recognizably lesbian and those with less clearly defined sexualities challenged the idea
that strength, authority, and independence are qualities ‘naturally’ bound to the cishet
man’s body.
Films of actresses such as Clara Bow, Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich and Hope
Emerson show how representations of butch style gradually shifted as butch became an
identity and a diverse community. All four performers honed an uncanny ability to hijack
the plot of the film by throwing a punch, lighting a match, or eating a giant stack of
pancakes. However, silent film star and ‘It’ girl Clara Bow had more license to bend
gender and sexuality in the pre-code era. She still received backlash for pushing what
the film industry saw as ‘descent’. She often suggested her own changes to costume,
character and plot in a way that seem obviously queer now. By the ’40’s and ’50’s,
butch women were maligned, often used as minor characters and foils for the
heterosexual love plot. Lauren Bacall expresses butch toughness through clipped
language, precise physical movements (such as catching a matchbook in midair), and
stone butch impenetrability.
Writers such as Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, and Marianne Moore developed a stone
butch style of writing in response to the First World War. These writers used blockage
and absence of emotion to convey the loss and tragedy of the war; simultaneously, they
rejected the nineteenth-century cult of “true womanhood” that bound women to the
domestic sphere.
During WWII many queer women’s pacifist organizations were formed. Many lesbians
found solace in the all-female environment of the United States Women's Army Corps
(WAC), but this demanded secrecy, as lesbians or any LGBTQ+ people were not
allowed to serve openly in the U.S. military.

Some tribes in Southeast Asia have tattoos that communicate individuals gender
expression, identity and sexuality. Many of these tattoo artists are very old and fewer
young tribe members are learning tattoo art. During WWII indigenous women were
disproportionately affected by forced removals from their homes usually to work as
‘comfort women’ (sex slaves) or in extremely low paying labor for the military. This led to
the disruption of many ancient traditions such as tattooing. In many tribes being a queer
women meant you were held in high regard. Queer women were expected to not have
children and therefore become everyone’s ‘mother’ and leader. This meant that a lot of
the time the people with the most leadership and influence were queer women. Tattoos
have long been a part of queer culture.