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Lesbian "Butch" and "Femme"

Many lesbians also adopted the clothing of the opposite gender. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the adoption of male dress was a means for many women, including many lesbians, to protest the status of women and the roles assigned to women in patriarchal societies.

Until the 1970s, the public image of lesbians was very much centered on masculinity. Elizabeth Wilson observes that "for a lesbian, a hint or more than a hint of masculinity in dress might be less of a challenge to society than a way of simultaneously signalling and defusing the threat of one's identity." As a means of asserting difference and signalling to other lesbians, many women-loving women adopted certain "masculine" markers, such as a collar and tie or trousers.

Not all lesbian women felt drawn to the adoption of male clothing, preferring instead more conventional female attire. Many accounts of lesbian bar life note the prevalence of "butch" and "femme" identities and behavior, where butch lesbians were expected to form relationships only with femme lesbians, and lesbians were expected to identify with one role or the other.

The advent of both the women's and gay rights movements led to a questioning of the stereotyped dress choices that had previously been available to lesbians. Trousers had increasingly become acceptable for women and by the 1960s conventions of women's (and men's) dress had changed considerably. "Androgyny" became a key word in fashion and this manifested itself in various ways. Initially, the move was towards a feminine look for men, but the radical lesbian and gay community rejected this in favor of a more masculine look for both men and women.

The rise of radical feminism entailed a rejection of fashion-forced femininity. A new stereotype was born--that of the dungaree wearing, crew-cut lesbian feminist.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a new diversification in lesbian dress. The breakdown of the old butch and femme divides, the changes instigated in women's dress by feminism and punk, and the increasing visibility of lesbians in public life opened up the debate about what lesbians could and should wear: Were lipstick lesbians hiding behind a mask of heterosexuality? Were "S&M dykes" pandering to notions of patriarchal dominance? How could Black women express both their sexuality and their cultural background?

The Menswear Revolution

During the "menswear revolution" of the 1960s the association of fashion and homosexuality began to diminish. With the rise in subcultural fashions and the dissemination of Carnaby Street fashions around the world, it was suddenly acceptable for young men to be interested in fashion, to spend time and money on clothes and appearance.

But it should not be forgotten that the Carnaby Street fashions developed from a gay style. They were initially sold to a gay, "theatrical and artistic" clientele by a former physique photographer named Vince from a shop near Carnaby Street. John Stephen, who was later to be known as the "King of Carnaby Street," had worked at Vince's shop and produced the clothes faster, cheaper, and for a younger market.

In America, too, a close fitting "European style" was worn primarily by gay men, sold from "boutiques" in Greenwich Village and West Hollywood.

The Move to Masculinity

By the late 1960s gay men throughout the western world had begun to question their position as second-class citizens and their stereotype as effeminate "queens." Along with the demands for equality and recognition, gay men began to address their appearance. There had always been gay men who dressed in a conventionally masculine style, but in the early 1970s gay men in New York and San Francisco looked to the epitomes of American masculinity--the cowboy, the lumberjack, the construction worker--for inspiration for a new dress style.

The clones, as they were known, adopted the most masculine dress signifiers they could find-- workboots, tight Levis, plaid shirts, short hair cuts, and moustaches. Their clothes were chosen to reveal and celebrate the contours of the male body.

"Clone" was an appropriate term as more and more gay men adopted the new masculine look and moved to large cities, where it was possible to live an openly gay lifestyle, often centered around bars, gyms, clothes, drugs, and sex (described eloquently in novels of the period such as Dancer from the Dance [1978] by Andrew Holleran and Faggots [1978] by Larry Kramer).

Some of these clones also developed their sexual tastes by experimenting with sadomasochism. Consequently, they sometimes adopted a "Leatherman" appearance and lifestyle, which involved a strict codification of dress and a new system of signifiers, most notably colored handkerchiefs in a back pocket, specifying particular sexual interests.

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