PRINT February 1989

Exits and Entrances


NEW YORK TRENDING-MONGERS these days are busily touting the latest phenomenon to emerge from the city’s urban subcultures: voguing. Strictly speaking, it’s a solo dance form, with elements of break dancing, gymnastics, body-building “attitudes,” and, of course, the poses of fashion-magazine modeling (hence the name). The participants are black—and some Latin—gays who belong to “houses,” associations that stage “balls” at which they present their versions of fashion and of the fashion stance. Some houses specialize in brand-name cachet (House of Chanel, House of Saint Laurent); others are based on a particular style of movement (House of Ninja); still others are defined by a population (the House of Extravaganza is all-Latin). At gatherings that begin around four in the afternoon and continue into the next morning, ball participants parade as in a beauty contest for a vocal audience of house members, would-be house members, friends, and the curious public. A performer might wear street clothes, some idiosyncratic ensemble, or a personal version of high fashion; styles run the gamut from imitations of the tough leather and athletic-gear look of bangee-boy (b-boy) street outfits to the show biz glitz of one-of-a-kind stage costumes like those worn by flamboyant entertainers such as Patti LaBelle. Rivalry between these houses is elaborately cutthroat, with the balls ordered by prescribed rules and categories of competition. Makeup, hairstyle, body language, and appropriate attitude as well as costume are scored by a panel of judges. Throughout, an emcee keeps up a running commentary, part fashion show and beauty-contest patter, part educational lecture on the fine points of style. Prizes are awarded in the form of cash awards and huge trophies.

As the performance event it’s now becoming on the club circuit, voguing most resembles the ultimate camp fashion parade. It’s far enough along by now to have broken into discernible schools—hard voguing, ballroom voguing, pantomime, face—but there’s a high premium on individuality. Voguing concocts its values of equal parts fashion commentary, transvestite role-playing, and high school tomfoolery, making it the perfect floor show for New York’s knowing cognoscenti, whether at late-night clubs downtown or the more usual halls in Harlem or Brooklyn. And the predictable double take has already begun: last spring saw the House of Field Ball, an event at the nightclub the World sponsored by Patricia Field’s Greenwich Village boutique, which revels in over-the-top fashion. The store organized its own House of Field, adapting its already out-there clothing to the voguing format. How perfectly post-Modern: fashion gloms onto its appropriated simulacrum and reinvents itself from its own reflected image.

Don’t hold your breath, though, waiting for the magic touch of the cultural mainstream to anoint voguing as this year’s model. The last appointee for that job was hip-hop, an urban and still vibrant subcult with its own lingo, style, and legends, the knowledge of which confers enormous cool upon its white devotees. While no one doubts the well-demonstrated ability of contemporary culture to coopt almost any sort of radical act and convert it into an acceptable commodity, it’s hard to imagine a voguing equivalent of the 1984 hip-hop movie Beat Street, or voguers on the cover of Newsweek. Strictly as movement, voguing is beginning to make headway—it has actually made an appearance on MTV in the video for Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It to My Heart”—but for reasons many and deep, the phenomenon will be tough for the culture at large to swallow entire. Deliberately blurring the line between theater and performance, voguing goes beyond the mere spectacle of outré show-time (although in that respect, it’s in a class unto itself) to raise important questions about race, sex, and the outer edges of social norms. It is performed by triple outcasts: poor homosexuals of color. It is also a utopian, almost visionary enterprise, an arena in which the qualities that make people like the “house children” marginal are magically inverted to make them stars. In sum, voguing is both an art form end a complex social nexus that raises large and loaded questions about culture as we approach the millennium. It’s got a good beat, you can dance to it, but its message would definitely make the Parents’ Music Resource Center’s hit list.

What we might see instead are movies like Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, an in-progress documentary that looks at voguing in its proper context. The rough-cut footage screened so far includes the expected rousing footage of voguing balls, which come off like an unholy combination of pep rally and prayer meeting. There are the contrasts between the bravura turns and the backstage pathos of the dancers’ dreams of stardom. There are explanations of the mysteries of voguing technique, from vocabulary (to compete is to “walk the ball,” and the “house mother” is the group leader) to competition categories (“Model’s Body,” “High Fashion,” “Eveningwear”). All the performers are black or Latin, the settings are apartments and dressing rooms, and the personas a blend of sexes: femme queens (transvestites or transsexuals), butch queens (straight-looking males), and other gradations of gay. Actual life is never completely obliterated by the stage makeup, for voguing’s built-in givens of gender, race, and class make it something other than theater. Behavior not acting, is its medium.

It’s the desire to actually be a role rather than just to “do” one that makes voguing the significant performance form that it is. Appropriately, one of the most important categories is called “Realness,” a highly codified and sophisticated classification in which the participant attempts to create a certain “normality.” As Livingston explains it, “In Realness, femme queens try to pass for ‘real’ women while butch queens compete to duplicate the look of a ‘real’—or heterosexual—man.” Some of her most astonishing filmed sequences show “Executive Realness” and “Schoolboy Realness,” in which people cut off from every advantage and attribute that would give them access to two of our society’s most normative roles instead replicate them perfectly. In costume and poise, these artificial Yalies and businessmen would be utterly indistinguishable from the “real thing” on the campus or in the office. Similarly, any general would salute troops who paraded with the spit-and-polish panache of the voguers who impersonate marines. Every detail is duplicated to the minutest degree, from body language to personality, from clothing to accessories (briefcases, American Express cards, airplane tickets, and Wall Street Journals for the businessmen, letter sweaters and textbooks for the students). In the ball world, however, Realness is not only about appearances but becomes almost a philosophy, a statement of pride from people constantly threatened by homophobia, racism, and poverty. As Livingston says, “At the balls, members of a despised subcult convert the hostility of the church, the homophobes, the middle class, and their families into self-love. Here are trophies that stand for more than beauty or skill: they symbolize the ball-walkers’ inner strength, their very right to exist.” This assertion takes on a special poignance in light of AIDS, from which several house children have died. Another important function of the houses, then, is as a close-knit support group for those threatened by the epidemic.

Like voguing itself, Livingston’s documentary-in-the-works inter-layers the outside world with the artifice of performance, as Fifth Avenue streets, department stores, and a model-of-the-year-type contest are juxtaposed to the inside world of the balls. This underlines the bottom-line questions raised by this subculture: what is authentic in social roles? Who does our culture reward and who does it exclude, and how different are they? What is male, what is female? Can our chromosomal hard-wiring be reprogrammed? Like the best performance art, voguing leads us to deep issues—of esthetics, politics, sexuality—and that’s why this cultural phenomenon is no mere fad.

John Howell writes regularly for Artforum and is the art and dance editor of Elle magazine.