PRINT May 1995


the Menswear Closet

FASHION DESIGNERS ARE fashionably out, unafraid of declaring themselves gay. Or so one might believe on reading the April issue of Out, or recent issues of other gay publications like The Advocate or Genre, all of which have run spring articles on fashion designers. Today, clearly, a New York womenswear designer like Marc Jacobs or Victor Alfaro can acknowledge publicly that he is gay. And besides designers themselves, Out included a gay and lesbian fashion power lineup: Interview editor Ingrid Sischy, Council of Fashion Designers of America President Stan Herman, publicist Ed Filipowski, and others.

Candor about homosexuality provokes speculation about a gay “moment” or “sensibility” in women’s fashion, but even in closeted times, a certain noblesse oblige on the part of the industry allowed gay male designers to fuss about and clothe women’s bodies. Menswear presents different problems. In homophobic America, after all, Scott Amedure can be gunned down by Jonathan Schmitz for being his not-so-secret admirer on television’s Jenny Jones Show. The premise of this killing can only be that the straight male body must remain inviolate, spared the homosexual gaze, even the admiring and unreciprocated one. Can such a country welcome gay designers of men’s clothes?

In America, prominent designers are said to camouflage their homosexuality for fear not of stigma in the womenswear market, their primary outlet, but of jeopardizing secondary business in menswear. Meanwhile, most of the important American designers who actually specialize in menswear are apparently heterosexual. The reason gay men are in the minority, I suspect, is that though women may find gay men’s attention unthreatening, men may be as paranoid as Jonathan Schmitz about being dressed or addressed by a gay man. Thus the traditional American menswear designer has either been heterosexual or has chosen to let customers assume he is. The clothes themselves, with their traditional reticence, offer secure heterosexual images. The message is painfully clear: real men don’t pick up the soap if there’s a fashion designer nearby.

There are anomalies, of course, particularly recently. John Bartlett, an out gay man, is working at a high level of accomplishment in menswear, producing brainy conceptual design to considerable critical acclaim. Todd Oldham too is now approaching menswear. There has long been a separate male-fashion business of gay propensity: New York’s Raymond Dragon, for example, and mail-order houses such as San Diego’s International Male, have served a predominately gay clientele. (The phallic emphasis of much of this clothing caricatures hyperjock masculinity.) And in Europe, even designers with major menswear franchises can be openly gay.

“From every B.V.D., let freedom ring,” proclaimed e. e. cummings, who knew that freedom and sovereignty begin with the body and its dress, especially for men. We know that freedom will never ring while men return other men’s admiration by killing them. We may exult in liberated womenswear designers, but the menswear closet is still stuffed, and not with clothes alone.

Richard Martin is curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.