Style and Influence: First Ladies’ Fashions

From the first days on a campaign trail to the final days living in the White House, the First Ladies of the United States have attracted attention in numerous ways. Both historic and modern First Ladies have harnessed the power of fashion to build identity and inform Americans. In conjunction with our exhibition “Making Their Mark,” we present a distinguished panel to discuss and examine the fashions of America’s First Ladies through conversation and photos. Moderated by Tim Gunn, star of Project Runway, panelists include Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology; Lisa Kathleen Graddy, Deputy Chair and Chief Curator of Political History and the First Ladies Collection, Smithsonian National Museum of American History; and Tracy Reese, a fashion designer who has designed for First Lady Michelle Obama. Presented in partnership with the White House Historical Association.

Tuesday, September 30, at 7 p.m. in the William G. McGowan Theater

The discussion will be streamed live on YouTube.

Interview with Valerie Steele, Curator of the Queer History of Fashion Exhibit at FIT

Valerie Steele (from:

Author | Sonny

Our racks of bow ties and closets full of leather dresses might carry an emotional backstory for us, but now academics are also showing an interest in our fabulous wardrobes. The Queer History of Fashion Exhibit at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) is the first major exhibit to focus on the queer community’s contributions to the fashion industry. Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of FIT, together with colleague Fred Dennis, spent over two years researching and collecting pieces for the exhibit, which spans 300 years.

Though I haven’t gotten the chance to visit FIT yet, I had the pleasure of speaking with Valerie Steele about her work. Even though her background in queer fashion and culture is mostly academic, I felt that her words were spot on! Read on for her experience with pulling together the show, as well as thoughts about the term “lesbian chic,” and what makes fashion queer.

All further images courtesy of

Pretty Gentlemen

How did your interest in queer fashion emerge? 

It was my colleague Fred Dennis who came up with the idea of the show. We were just crossing the street, talking about various shows we could do next, and he said, wouldn’t it be cool to have a show about gays in fashion? We realized that no one had done it before on a large scale. A few LGBTQ centers had done shows. Through our research, we found that small center in Switzerland had done a show, but it was more about gay male sexuality than fashion. We were excited to put together the first show that would really highlight the LGBTQ community’s contributions to fashion.

So how did you get started working on the exhibit?

We put together an advisory committee of people who gave suggestions. That was international. Some of them wrote essays, others came to New York and had long sessions, others loaned clothes. We worked for more than two years, identifying things we knew they wanted to have in the show. For example, we knew they wanted the Versace Dress and Jean Paul Gaultier’s sailor outfit. We were surprised at how far back we were able to go. At first we thought it would be a 20th century show, or start with Oscar Wilde. But then we found a lot of research about gay male fashion, and found it was exciting to get to go back that far.

How did you collect the items?

It’s always like a treasure hunt. It’s the fun part, if you’re not too rushed. You just start looking up who might have something; you ask people who were associated with certain people who are still alive. One of our advisors said, you’ve got to get something from The Cockettes.That’s a queer performance group from the 70s. We thought none of them would be alive anymore, but we asked around and followed a trail of emails until we got in touch with one of the members who was able to lend an outfit.

Was there anything you wished you could get that you weren’t able to?

Only one thing. I had wanted to get the Chanel couture wedding dresses from 2013. They were perfectly willing to lend them, but there was a problem with the feathers that they couldn’t get past the food and game administration.

Do you believe that queer male and female designers influenced one another, or did you find that they worked independently?

That’s a good question. It wasn’t so much about influencing each other, but drawing on queer vernacular style. So many queer women wore menswear. Yves Saint Laurent said Marlene Dietrich inspired him when he designed his tuxedo for women. Liz Collins, a lesbian designer and artist in the show did a dress made out of plaid shirts, which is referencing a gay and lesbian style of plaid shirts that goes back to the 1970s.

Marlene Dietrich, Lesbian Elegance

How do you feel about the term “lesbian chic?”

I think it’s a term that is not just a media creation of the 1990s. There’s a book called Paris Gay 1925, which was a series of interviews with French gays and lesbians. They interviewed one lesbian who talked about “lesbian elegance.” They had a style through which they could all recognize each other. Then in the 1970s you’ve got this movement that was anti-fashion. They would wear denim overalls, plaid shirts, Birkenstocks, Doc Martens. People forgot that there had been all these chic lesbians a few decades before. Once it turned around to the 80s or 90s, people took elements from punk, rock and roll styles, and it was more overtly sexy, playing with stereotypes of femininity and masculinity.  

Les Garçonnes, 1920s

The press release talks about “The garçonne look,” saying that it brought 1920s lesbian style into high fashion. Can you tell me more about this look? 

That was the very short hair and boyish or mannish style. Not many pants, but it included skirts and a jacket with a monocle or necktie. Together with the short hair and relatively flat chest, it struck contemporaries as androgynous. A lot of heterosexual women liked it too. The name was taken from a novel La Garçonne, in which the heroine sleeps with another woman.

The subversion of gender expectations is queer in itself, but what queer attributes can you tell us about Katherine Cornell’s lavender dress and Madeleine Vionnet’s dress?

It’s partly a question of highlighting who the players were. We now know that Katherine Cornell was a lesbian and Madeleine Vionnet was almost certainly bisexual, and inspired by beautiful women through their fashion. 

So it sounds like it’s not so much about the item itself, but who was wearing it.

Well, it’s about who designed it, who wore it, or the context. Lavender was a color associated with queerness.

One of the issues raised through my readers and femme friends is that, if you’re a feminine queer woman, it’s hard to be recognized by your own community. Do you have any thoughts about that? 

That’s been an issue for a very long time. It’s very clear that lesbians and gay men have had to conceal their sexuality for safety reasons, but they also had to reveal it enough so that they could find each other. Over the course of that, dandyism became important to both lesbians and gay men. On the one hand, it’s masculine and seems straight, but if you carry it to an extreme, it becomes almost a parody of itself and become a function of queerness. Oscar Wilde had a great line where he talks about the “dangerous and delightful distinction of being different.”

Dandies and Aesthetes

How would you recommend queer women with feminine presentations express their queerness if they aren’t interested in the dandy look?

It’s gotten much more loose, and very much a generational thing and it changes constantly. Younger lesbians are taking tricks on what their friends are wearing. There seems to be a lot more diversity among lesbian style today than among gay male style today. I think a lot of gay men are emotionally invested in being fashionable, whereas a lot of lesbian women are interested in creating a look for themselves. There seems to be less investment in high fashion. Although when Hedi Slimane started designed menswear for Dior, a lot of so-called “power lesbians” started buying his suits in their size.

A Queer History of Fashion: From The Closet To The Catwalk at The Museum at FIT runs though January 4th, 2014. View more on the exhibition website. They are also holding a free symposium with an international array of scholars, authors, designers, and curators November 8-9. I will be there!

FIT's Queer Fashion Symposium: Highlights From Day 1

Author | Sonny

“What is queer fashion?” is the question I spend most of my days trying to answer, and what brought me to New York for the Queer History of Fashion Symposium as part of the Queer Fashion exhibit at the FIT. The academics, designers, story tellers, and humorists I saw today all had a perspective to share. And I was excited to see so many people of all ages joining the discussion.

Simon Doonan, designer and creative ambassador for Barneys New York told the story of coming to the states from London in the 70s and not being allowed a green card because he was gay. He said that for him and his counterparts, marginalization caused creativity. He used the term “creative rage" and believed that marginalization from being gay affected his work. I enjoyed this explanation coming near the beginning of the symposium, because marginalization was largely what queerness meant to me when I was first coming out as a kid. But now it means so much more too.

James Gager of MAC Cosmetics talked about MAC’s interest in helping people be themselves, only “a little more beautiful.” He’s done campaigns with several gay and drag icons, including RuPaul and K.D. Lang. It seems to him that queer fashion is based around self expression.

John Bartlett, known for his rugged American designs, showed us images of his work and inspirations. Some of his work stemmed from the bear style (burly gay men with lumberjack and campy outfits). He also showed us images celebrating the male body. I took away that gay fashion for him was a celebration of men and being male, and appreciating the male body. 

Dr. Monica L. Miller explored Janelle Monae’s tux. It’s a uniform that challenges expectations of gender and sexuality, a container for her energy, a garment that blurs class lines, a challenger of notions of blackness, a superhero uniform, armor, among many other things. I took away that the tux is queer because of its history and the empowering message it sends when Monae wears it. It seems that for Monae, what makes it queer is just as much about race and class as it is about gender and sexuality.

In conversation, Steele asked Fran Lebowitz (who I now understand to be the funniest woman alive), “Why are there gay fashion designers?” to which she replied, “Are you serious? Why are there straight designers?” Her timing sent the audience into ruptures of laughter. She continued, “Wait… really? You’re an educator!” As a humorist, she didn’t explicitly tell us what she meant, but somehow I got it. Fashion is all about self expression, and as queers who’ve spent much of our time hiding our identity, self expression seems like the next best step. And what better way to do it than through close contact with beautiful people walking the runway?

Hal Rubenstein’s “Do Gay Clothes Have More Fun" lecture was as lively as the title. He believes that any clothes worn by a gay person are gay clothes. As he put it, clothes in stores aren’t any gayer than the hooks they’re hanging on, but as soon as they’re in his closet, they are gay. He believes that great fashion is about dressing from the inside out. “This leather feels sensational,” he commented as he showed off his leather ensemble by his friend Gianni Versace. So to him, gay clothes are about… being gay, and loving being gay. Expressing oneself from the inside out. He pointed out that Versace’s construction inside the clothes was just as good as the outside. Seducing people. He believes that you don’t have to spent $1,500 on a silk shirt to seduce people (but soft fabric certainly helps).

So I have some answers to my question: Queer fashion is creativity stemming from marginalization, subverting norms, self expression, and simply being queer. But like most wonderful things, I’m also sure that the more I attempt to answer this question, the more questions I’ll have! Tonight I’m getting together with Anita Dolce Vita of dapperQ and Winter Mendelson of Posture Mag to film a little vid talking more on the subject. So keep your eyes out for another post tomorrow, and a video later on.

Related posts: Interview with Valerie Steele, Curator of the Queer History of Fashion Exhibit at FIT

A Queer History of Fashion: From The Closet To The Catwalk at The Museum at FIT runs though January 4th, 2014. View more on the exhibition website. The second day of the symposium takes place tomorrow from 9 to 5.
Corset Books 50% off

Quick announcement:

  • The Long Island Staylace Association (LISA) has a Book Nook
  • It’s a small online store that sells almost exclusively corset-related books
  • They can no longer compete with Amazon, so they’re closing down
  • This means you get 50% OFF all in-stock books
  • Here’s a picture of Valerie Steele for fun:
    External image
Taschen Books "Fashion Designers A-Z" Event

Last week, I DJ’ed a very awesome event for Taschen books that was held at their gorgeous Beverly Hills location. Who really needs a reason to party, but in this instance the reason for the champagne popping and bleu cheese mousse crostini munching was to celebrate a new collector’s title, “Fashion Designers A-Z.”

When I arrived, I was given my very own copy, and a choice of one of 5 custom designer fabric-wrapped covers. Very tough decision considering some of my options were Prada and Stella McCartney. I went with the classic Missoni stripes. The book is 654 pages and about 3,000 pounds, I could baaaarely lift it, it is so enormously fabulous.

Valerie Steele, the chief curator of The Museum at FIT and also author of this book, was on hand to sign copies. During the party she gave an entertaining talk with Joseph Katz, a very charming, dapper, and hilarious stylist.

My sister, Valerie Steele, Joe Katz, and me shooting the shit before the party. I wore a really springy striped Opening Ceremony dress and Pour la Victoire heels.

Got to play tunes from an ice cave loft above the store. Was very tight!

I had a blast with the Taschen folks, and feel very honored to play some tunes for them!

Here’s what the book looks like in it’s acrylic case. It’s available for purchase at Taschen or at Barney’s.

(photo credit: Dalmiro Quiroga)


Some individuals act so damaged. So broken and aloof. For fear of what? The individual who has truly lost everything loves with all of their heart and has no fear of it breaking. These souls fear nothing. They have already been run through the deepest tunnels of sorrow. They have seen the darkest side of the moon. You cannot even tell what they have been through. It is excruciatingly difficult to even glance a glimmer; they are quite secretive really. So for individuals to act so….affected….it just looks….yeah.

”In academia, fashion is frivolous, sexist, bourgeois, materialist and beneath contempt,” Valerie Steele said. But one day in 1978, she was taking a seminar on European history when a classmate gave a presentation on the Victorian corset, questioning whether or not it was oppressive. The proverbial light bulb went on. ”I could have this new field in cultural history, in material culture, and study gender, sex and social psychology in fashion,” Ms. Steele said. That seminar led to her doctoral dissertation, which turned into her first book, ”Fashion and Eroticism,” published by Oxford University Press in 1985.
…..The exhibition was also the setting for the Metropolitan’s “Party of the Year”, on the night of December 9, where guests of honor were Galliano and Diana, former princess of Wales, who wore Galliano’s inaugural design for Dior. Tickets for the dinner party cost $1,ooo per person; those who came for just the drinks and dancing paid $140 each. In the crush to enter the dance party, one woman stepped on the hem of another woman’s dress and tore it. “You bitch, you’re ruined my $7,000 dress!”, screamed the victim, who punched the other woman in the face. Their escorts stood awkwardly aside, while the two women fought on the entrance stairs.
—  Exhibition Review: Christian Dior, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Valerie Steele. Fashion Theory, volume 1 issue 2.

MoMu’s blog pointed me towards an article that recently came out in German Elle about 6 fashion curators and their exhibitions.  The usual heavy-hitters were featured: Valerie Steele (MFIT), Kaat Debo (MoMu), Akiko Fukai (KCI), Oriole Cullen and Sonnet Stanfil (V&A), and Pamela Golbin (Musée de la Mode et du Textile Paris).

What I would really love to see would be an article about the up-and-comers in the fashion/textile curatorial world. People like Karen von Godtsenhoven (MoMu), Colleen Hill and Jennifer Farley (MFIT), Paola di Trocchio (National Gallery of Victoria) and Susan Brown (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum).
Fashion School 101: Valerie Steele Weighs In

The chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology talks fashion scholarships and taking clothes seriously.

Valerie Steele is one of the most coveted people at FIT. She is fabulous, knowledgable (the woman went to Yale), and a walking fashion encyclopedia. She curates some of the best fashion exhibits in the industry and runs one of the most unique places a college campus could ever have. 

This week, Harper’s Bazaar interviewed Ms. Steele to get insights on her opinions about scholarships, internships and what her education background is.