For most walking the red carpet at the Met Gala last month, which toasted the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition, the point was to make a fashion statement. But none were more bold than screenwriter Lena Waithe. Her powder-blue suit by Pyer Moss had a sentence emblazoned on the back: “Black Drag Queens Invented Camp.” In a few words, her style statement covered decades and layers of fashion history that have brought us to this moment in the culture.
But Waithe’s suit, which was also pinstriped with tiny lettering of the lyrics of black drag anthems such as I Will Survive and nods to black femme divas, is more than a statement – it’s an exhortation to learn about the complicated layers of queer history that makes Waithe’s statement true.
Elspeth Brown, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, was watching that red carpet, and after years of research about the queer history of modelling for her new book Work! can attest that the declaration is not hyperbole. “It’s key to have an intervention like that as a reminder of the diversity and intersectionality of the queer scene,” Brown says.
“There is a mainstreaming of queer everything,” she explains. “And we’re going to see it a lot in Pride Month. You have much more of an engagement with queer culture by people who do not identify as queer, and there’s much less of a concerned anxiety about it.” But only certain versions of queer culture are taken up and those versions tend to be white and privileged.
Exploring both fashion stills and the history of live modelling that eventually shaped black drag, Brown’s Work! is revelatory because it is intersectional and, arguably, the first comprehensive historical treatment of this lucrative industry, where various forms of influential queerness have been hiding in plain sight.
In gesture, appearance and presence, the fashion and beauty industries have a deeply coded quality. In capitalism, inciting desire with an image is the prelude to consumption and much of that is accomplished with the visual vocabulary and codes that were created at the birth of modern fashion. Whether it’s black femme divas or a seemingly innocuous vintage Vogue photograph, the entirety of fashion culture, along with online and pop-culture discourse, comes from a tangle of consumer desire and sexuality that is rooted in queer forms.
It all begins, Brown says, with Baron Adolph de Meyer, the first fashion photographer hired by Condé Nast in 1913. “I think he’s completely underheralded,” she explains of the very queer father of modern fashion photography. Dubbed “the Debussy of the camera” by Cecil Beaton, de Meyer took celebrity portraits of Vaslav Nijinsky and Josephine Baker and shot the first fashion pictures ever printed in Vogue. His innovation was the merging of artistry and commerce that established the field.
Queer sensibilities and their collaborative creative communities set the tone for fashion images – the photographers, stylists, makeup and hair artists who dominated the production of fashion images for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Town and Country in the United States and Europe.
Another important stop along the way to “Black Drag Queens Invented Camp,” Brown explains, is to look beyond the usual suspects (the models and photographers of accepted history) and challenge the canon often covered by research to explore the counterarchive of image-makers who are queer as in other, or non-normative. By definition, that lens includes black models and the formation of a black marketing industry in the years after the Second World War, with pioneering African-American models such as Dorothea Towles and Helen Williams.
“It’s key to think about the fashion image as a collaborative production that’s designed to produce a set of feelings and emotions and longings in relationship to what’s fundamentally a commodity – it’s for sale,” Brown says. There’s the labour history of that aesthetic work, but there’s also “werk,” she adds, referring to the slang expression of approval for performance used in modelling and drag. “The queer, racialized performance of the sashay, the strut, the stroll. Gender, race and sex become woven together in both representation and performance, as the model produced a form of managed, de-eroticized, public sexuality,” she says of fashion modelling.
Black culture is pervasive within fashion history and pop culture at large, but because of erasure, obfuscated. “The white appropriation of black cultural expressions, that has happened over decades if not hundreds of years,” Brown says.
The history of American popular culture and capitalism is continuously being excavated with new material that includes its original players who were previously invisible. Some of this restoration is possible because of the stories being unearthed that put accepted history into its rightful context. “The digitization of black newspapers, for example, has really transformed the way we can do research as historians and scholars now,” Brown explains. “ProQuest digitized all those African-American newspapers, tiny newspapers in the rural South and all over the country, and that makes it possible to have material come up that, frankly, creates and changes the story.”
To the uninformed, Lena Waithe’s declaration may have seemed glib. But it marks the moment at which the queer subculture that has always been part of fashion and everyday life, but not marked as an influence, got a shout out. And keeping pop culture’s queer catchphrases – from Realness to Yes, Queen – rooted in the history of that resistance is important.
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