“Strange,” Oscar Wilde commented 118 years ago, on the occasion of his American speaking tour and the reception his frilly, outré outfits were receiving, “that a pair of silk stockings should so upset a nation.” Or maybe not so strange. A pair of stockings, a handkerchief, an open-collared shirt, a particular tie—these and other seemingly insignificant items of clothing have been symbols of struggle and deliverance for over 100 years, from the first stirrings of a gay community to the heady days that followed the Stonewall rebellion.
If Wilde’s name became virtually synonymous with homosexuality in the last years of the 19th century, Radclyffe Hall holds a similar place in the early decades of the 20th. In her quickly banned autobiographical novel, The Well of Loneliness, she describes her heroine Stephen’s struggle with her mother over clothes, circa 1905: “These days there was constant warfare between them on the subject of clothes; quite a seemly warfare, for Stephen was learning to control her hot temper, and Anna was seldom anything but gentle. Nevertheless it was open warfare, the inevitable clash of two opposing natures who sought to express themselves in apparel, since clothes, after all, are a form of self-expression. The victory would be now on this side, now on that; sometimes Stephen would appear in a thick woolen jersey, or a suit of rough weeds surreptitiously ordered from the excellent tailor in Malvern. Sometimes Anna would triumph, having journeyed to London to procure soft and very expensive dresses, which her daughter must wear in order to please her.” A few years later, Stephen had chucked the soft dresses permanently. “She went up to London and chose new clothes at a West End tailor’s . . . she bought twelve pairs of gloves, some heavy silk stockings, a square sapphire scarf pin and a new umbrella. Nor could she resist the lure of pyjamas made of white crepe de Chine which she spotted in Bond Street. The pyjamas led to a man’s dressing-gown of brocade—an amazingly ornate garment.”
Some free-thinkers eschewed conventional shops completely and became by necessity their own designers. In 1934, Pioneer Press described Gertrude Stein (on her own American lecture tour, 52 years after Wilde’s) with a mix of admiration and bewilderment: “Her dress—it was a dress—not a gown or yet a frock—was of black taffeta shot with very dark blue, and cut after a pattern which was neither a cassock nor a man’s lounging robe, but combined the most comfortable features of both. The bit of white neckwear which adorned it suggested the linen bands of the Reformed clergy.”
Wilde and Radclyffe Hall and Stein were wealthy people, financially able to deck themselves with as much flamboyance as they dared. But there were other, simpler items people of more modest means adopted, the wearing of which could serve as a secret signal to fellow travelers. A physician quoted in George Chauncy’s Gay New York describes the situation in 1916 New York: ” ‘Male perverts in New York . . . are known as fairies and wear a red necktie,’ even though, he added, ‘inverts are generally said to prefer green.’ ” Fifteen years later, according to the same book, “a gay man named Thomas Painter . . . counted ‘green suits, tight-cuffed trousers, flowered bathing trunks, and half-lengthed flaring top-coat as distinctively homosexual attire,’ along with such accessories as ‘excessively bright feathers in their hat-bands.’ Dark-brown and gray suede shoes were ‘practically a homosexual monopoly.’ ”
The issue of appropriate dress haunted the nascent gay movement in the early 1960s, a time when the strict separation of the sexes by clothes was still in force, with most American men wearing suits to work, and women restricted to dresses and stockings. In Stonewall, Martin Duberman describes the planning of a series of extremely courageous 1965 demonstrations and the wrangling over what clothing would further the cause: “The group decided that to protest the exclusion of homosexuals from federal employment and the armed services, it would picket in front of the Pentagon, the Civil Service Commission, the State Department, and—to culminate the series—the White House. . . . ” Franklin Kameny, one of the organizers, insisted, over objections, that a strict dress code be enforced for all participants. “Clean-scrubbed demonstrations will get us ahead . . . FAR, FAR faster than court cases. . . . The man in the suit is STILL the overwhelming norm in this country.”
The man in the suit may have been the oppressive norm for most of the country, but for a young lesbian exploring butch-femme life in upstate New York at the same time, his outfit was an object of intense longing. In her novel Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg describes a shopping spree with three drag queen friends in industrial Buffalo: “I had heard stories about butches and their femmes trying to shop for a suit at Kleinhan’s clothing store. But this time Kleinhan’s was in for some discomfort as three powerful queens in full drag helped me pick it out. . . . ‘Earth tones,’ Georgetta turned my face in her hands, ‘because of her coloring.’ ‘No, no, no,’ Peaches said, ‘this is it.’ She held up a dark blue gabardine suit. . . .
“Peaches sighed. ‘It’s funny, seeing you trying on that suit, all excited and everything. I remember my father making me buy a suit for Sunday service. When I dreamed of dressing up, child, it wasn’t no suit. . . . I dreamt about something, you know, tasteful—with spaghetti straps. Kinda low cut,’ she drew a finger across her bodice. ‘I felt like a ballerina in a three-piece suit.’ . . . ‘We have enough money left over to pick out a shirt and tie,’ Georgetta announced. Justine held up a powder blue dress shirt. It was more beautiful than any shirt my father ever owned. The buttons were sky blue with white swirls, like clouds. Peaches and Georgetta settled on a burgundy silk tie.”
Just a few years after that shopping trip, not only the gay movement but the entire country would change the way it thought about clothes forever, consigning compulsory neckties, girdles, garters, nylon stockings, and a host of other garments to the furthest reaches of the closet. Perhaps Feinberg’s protagonist and her fellow shoppers had a sense of this impending liberation, for she ends her account of her afternoon with Peaches, Justine, and Georgetta by recalling that “The salesmen held their heads in their hands as though they all had headaches. Well, better them than us.”