Becoming “Her Woman” : Queerness, Style, and Lesbian Community in 1920s and 1950s America
Cadieux, Abigail M.
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The visual language of fashion can make aspects of one’s personality, previously unseen, highly visible in the material world. Norms of dressing have long been interpreted as the critical markers upholding the gender binary. Gender theorist Judith Butler firmly characterizes gender as a performance—that gender is actually something that we do, externally, in the contexts of our day-to-day lives. The realm of performance necessitates the appropriate costume—dressing the part of “woman” is a crucial aspect of adhering to the preconceived binary coherence of female sex and womanness. This thesis will employ a Butlerian perspective on the formative role of clothing in reflecting one’s gender and self-identity, especially in women’s negotiation of displayed queerness. The culmination of a material essence, or self, becomes one of the most significant ways gender gets its bearings in the visual world; it is constructively defined, externally situated, and constantly changing through personal style. The performance, then, requires an active curation of one’s personhood as it literally is displayed in the world.1 Unconventional sartorial choices perform the work of making the self known and challenging hegemonic fashions. Uniquely navigating fashion choices is a hallmark of historical queer positionality. One’s personal style is a landscape for negotiating queer self-evidence in the material world, opening up opportunities for both community and ostracization. In varying degrees throughout the twentieth century, the subversion of sartorial norms carried the heavy threat of harassment and even physical violence for those who dared to stand out. Still, the social implications around choosing how to display ourselves put us into direct conversation with each other in the visual sense—a language that underscores every aspect of American society. The pursuit of “seeing” gender is a paradoxical and often problematic endeavor; no style or cut of cloth absolutely signifies one’s identity or lack thereof. However, gender identity manifests in the material world most often through personal style, as it is a continually shifting, external aspect of self-identity. Queer fashion analysis draws attention to the purposeful forms of embodiment from those on the liminality of gender and sexuality who wished to take license over their presentation. Queer-coded styles have long performed the work of covertly signaling one’s identity within homophobic societies that erase queerness and shove people into “closets.” Viewing women’s fashion through a queer lens proves its complicated nature; while feminine ways of dressing provide women with agency and endless forms of self-expression, the male gaze and gender essentialism influence a significant amount of the display. The co-creation of gender and sexuality as they uniquely manifest for queer women complicates their world of sartorial choices. What does it mean to be perceptibly queer for people who identify as women? This work will consider queer women’s navigation of personal style in community during two paradoxical, formative moments in the twentieth century: the 1920s and 1950s. The two decades—one a zenith of bohemianism and one of postwar conservatism—are moments of reckoning in American history with values around gender, sexuality, lifestyle, and fashion.