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 Flashback:
Mr. Blackwell Does Haute Queerture

 Flashback:
Mr. Blackwell Does Haute Queerture

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In this article from the January 28, 1992 issue of The Advocate, the man behind Hollywood's worst-dressed list assesses the state of activist fashion in the '90s.

Make no mistake: Closet doors are wide open in the '90s--and every activist's wardrobe, from Gucci to the Gap, tells a different story. Still, in the overall stylistic scheme of things, proper activist fashion boils down to one simple yet complex design dilemma: to differentiate or to assimilate. For the good of the gay and lesbian community's image, is it better to take to the streets in tuned-up leather and latex or in toned-down khakis and cashmere? And on the rocky road to equality for all, does fashion really make a difference?

For years the gay activist fashion focus has been mostly assimilationist; blending in with the smart straight style set has been a political priority. We've all heard speeches that promise gay empowerment if only the community would fit in, play the game, and promote polite pacifism over punk pugnacity. But after California governor Pete "Paraiah" Wilson's venomous Veto of AB 101, a bill that would have banned antigay job discrimination, many say it's a brand-new ball game. And fashion--that mirror of the moment--is stepping center stage in the brouhaha.

The hard-core Calvin Klein-draped contingent still believes in nonthreatening activist wear, while the angry militant faction prefers crass to class any demonstration of the week. In my opinion, the bottom line is queer-clear: Each couture camp, from the dress-for-success gay and lesbian mainstream leaders to the outrageous AIDS Coalition to Unlease Power (ACT UP) and Queer Nation crowd, possesses its own positive and negative fashion facets. Take a gander at the good, the bad, and the downright ugly in contemporary activist wear. In a world hell-bent on making an unforgettable fashion statement, some of those outfits really do speak louder than words.

First up: two powerfully provocative activist groups, ACT UP and Queer Nation. Although their political agendas may be theoretically different, their fashions are, for the most part, equally newsworthy. With attention-grabbing getups ranging from basic postnuclear rags to rarefied space-age drag, these rowdy rebels are causing much more than a mere couture commotion. Not since the Black Panther/women's liberation/Stonewall days has activism mixed fashion and politics to such galvanic effect. Bogged down in Doc Martens just made for marching, tight T-shirts, torn 501s, logoed leather bombers, tacky tattoos, and the occasional nose ring for that fresh-out-of-the-hardware-store savoir faire, these activists have adopted an aesthetically mind-boggling look that grabs the media spotlight with Day-Glo intensity.

Unlike conservative mainstreams who prefer demure dialogue over down-'n'-dirty demonstrations, these fashion faux pas not only dance to a different drummer but also conduct a stylistic symphony all their own. Most of the notes are forgettably flat; others, like ACT UP's stark, simple, and stunning SILENCE = DEATH black-and-pink triangle logo, magnificently bridge the gap between creativity and credibility. By refusing to blend in with the homogenized masses, by donning jaw-dropping duds that spit in the airbrushed face of "acceptable" fashion, and by inventing an indelible look to frame their revolutionary message, ACT UP and Queer Nation activists know that one picture equals a thousand words. People gape, people criticize, but people remember. And if sending a message loud and clear is paramount in today's sound-bite society, then these metal-clad militants are the new masters of media manipulation. Shock sells--and if you don't believe me, just ask Cher.

According to Warren Windsor, a member of both groups' Los Angeles chapters, "We're antiestablishment and couldn't care less what anyone thinks about what we wear. Like the logo says, ASSIMILATE MY FIST."

Well! Somehow I just knew he wasn't related to the duke and duchess with that fashion attitude.

"Besides," Windsor continues, "some of our demo fashion is based on necessity. Our shit-kickers [hard-toed black boots] protect our feet from police horses. Shaved heads keep the cops from grabbing our hair."

I didn't want to ask what the nose rings prevented.

"ACT UP and Queer Nation really have two different looks," Windsor kindly clarifies in an educational tone even Armani would love. "ACT UP is about SILENCE = DEATH. It's a very powerful symbol. Queer Nation is probably a more militant look: black leather jackets, lots of stickers and slogans, bandannas, gender-fucking garb..."

Oh, dear. Yet despite Queer Nation's "wear whatever turns you on" declaration of fashion independence, its cornucopia of kitsch (hair spray, Ace bandages, frocks, socks, pumps, mustaches, fishnets, latex, tiaras, and ties were all suggested accessories for a recent protest in Hollywood) remains a definite uniform unto itself. Beyond bizarre is the status quo--no pretentious polo ponies or over-the-hill alligators in pectoral sight. And with slogans like BUTCH CHICKS AGAINST POWER-MAD DICKS, QUEER LIBERATION NOT ASSIMILATION, and my favorite, GLAMORIZE DON'T MILITARIZE emblazoned across every square inch of available fabric, classic understatement has hit the skids faster than Milli Vanilli.

Naturally Windsor approves. "Our fashions reflect an outre attitude that's bound to attract not only potential members but to pique the interest of the press too," he explains.

Like I said, this is one smart and savvy group. As for new and noteworthy trends on the homo horizon, Windsor notes that increased "gender-fucking clothes that trash heterosexism" and "piercing as a gay adornment" loom ahead. I can hardly wait. In summing up the collective look for both out-there groups, Windsor says the overall theme is "no business as usual." Touche--the direct-action way.

Speaking of direct action, in Houston the question "Can I give you one of these?" may reverberate from a dark downtown street corner at 3 A.M. or from outside a safely suburban high school football stadium at dusk, but to Brian "Condom Queen" Bradley, the scenic details are irrelevant. However, his dedication to AIDS prevention through condom distribution and education is not. In Bradley's case, differentialist fashion takes on a unique pharmaceutical flair, culminating in condom-based accessories of his own design.

"Fashion has an important place in gay activism," Bradley contends. "It serves as a catalyst for people to hear you. I'll do anything to keep attention on the subject of condom usage."

Bradley, who has tested HIV-positive, fights for the rights of all infected people and often wears homemade condom earrings and a T-shirt reading HIV+, which he feels lends dramatic credence to his safer-sex crusade.

"I want people to know that fact about me," Bradley explains. "If they know I'm HIV-positive, they'll listen. I'm determined to keep the issues out there, and my clothes are a constant reminder."

Although most comfortable in a plain T-shirt, a SILENCE = DEATH button, jeans, boots, and his omnipresent cache of latex lifesavers, Bradley has been known to haul out the proverbial tutu for media-drenched public marches. "Drag will always have a place in the gay rights movement," he predicts. "It really grabs public attention. Remember Stonewall?"

Yes, I do. And so does Ggreg Taylor in San Francisco, the next pit stop on our taffeta-and-tattoo fashion tour.

In the GLAMORIZE DON'T MILITARIZE department, business is hardly usual for drag activist Taylor, whose "glamour assaults" on Golden Gaters make Madonna look positively provincial. Although his closet is a veritable vault of fashion fantasies, encompassing noncategorical styles swirling from mod prim to glorious MGM, Taylor makes clear that he is "no Jim Bailey." This dolled-up diva of drag outreach dismisses the entertainment-oriented illusionist label with a wave of his diamond-circled wrist. He much prefers putting a socially relevant Stonewall spin on age-old cross-dressing, saying, "I'm a postmodern drag queen--everything I do is political."

To Taylor the kind of kaleidoscopic fashion activism he espouses "creates an undeniable queer visibility. When queers are hidden, they become mystified."

In other words, no cozy cashmere cardigans for this rhinestoned revolutionary. "If wearing a sweater is someone's idea of moving forward," Taylor theorizes, "then they've got the wrong idea of what moving forward is."

Taylor believes his "in-your-face, hands-on" activism forces "public officials to deal with the issues"--if, in fact, they not blinded for life by the sheer wattage of his wardrobe. In addition to an Imelda-like fetish for fine footwear ("I've got better shoes than anybody," he defends), he's also environmentally responsible, noting that "the best thing about drag is that it's recyclable. It also differentiates you from the rest of the planet."

And how! Let's face it: In pink sponge rollers and majestic mirrored platforms, Taylor is hard to miss--and, according to his political plan, impossible to ignore.

Back in fashion-frantic Los Angeles, the very stylish Torie Osborn, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, takes a smart middle ground in the couture controversy. Osborn feels activist wear shouldn't be confined to a singular style or rigid dress code. She also has a few qualms about the high profile that demo fashion plays in general. "Gandhi did fine without a fashion consultant," she says with only a tinge of tongue-in-cheek irony.

Ah, yes. But some will say Gandhi wasn't living in the age of Oprah, Phil, and Geraldo.

"Let's let people be who they are," Osborn continues. "When you're building a movement, it's important to be yourself. This shows our pride and creativity."

To Osborn, the key to successful activist fashion is old-fashioned diversity. "If we're going to a civil-disobedience action demonstration," she says, "it's important to see the clergy wearing their collars and to see leadership in suits. We should project to mainstream America that part of our diversity. We're in corporate America as well as on the streets. I don't want a holier-than-thou attitude that says you're not a real activist unless you wear a T-shirt. That's movement-fashion fascism. We have to be more visionary than that."

Yet despite gay and lesbian critics who rave that the New Age radicals are setting the movement back a decade, Osborn is quick to praise ACT UP and Queer Nation for bringing a "harder-edged gay sensibility" to '90s politics. "ACT UP has brilliantly used the media," she lauds. "If it hadn't been for ACT UP, we'd have very little AIDS related government funding."

Across the nation in Washington, D.C., Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the National Gay nd Lesbian Task Force, a political group, adds that ACT UP's effective "visual presentations" via dramatic "posters and symbols" have a potent and memorable political impact.

Vaid also mirrors Osborn's fashion-diversity dogma to a democratic T. She confides that in the office she is all mainstream East Coast "execu-drag. In certain forums this look functions best." Demonstrations, however, bring out the denim in her. The evolutionary process of modern lesbian and gay fashion piques her interest as well. "In the early '80s," she recalls, "we dressed a certain way to identify ourselves to each other. Now in the '90s, we're dressing to show the world who we are."

From what she terms "button-down suit-and-tie activists" to "leather-jacketed, boot-clad" demonstrators, it's an option-packed parade of possibilities Vaid finds creatively and politically appealing.

Business-suited Rich Jennings, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media watchdog group, heartily approves of the new cutting-edge look, although he laments that in these recessionary times, "I only wish I could afford it. It's a lot more fun than what I'm wearing. But I'll have to content myself with an old earring." Call Warren Windsor, Rich--he'll get you a set of safety pins wholesale.

In wrapping up this wardrobe war of who's right and who's wrong, it seems both fashion camps have their merit, working best in concert with one another. Yes, it's hard to march in fabulous Ferragamo flats, but it's also hard to push pens in bargain-basement combat gear.

Assimilators use fashion benignly--artfully blending chic threads to appealing, nonthreatening, and, at times, positive political effect. They're content to let their deeds speak louder than their duds, although a few, I fear, tend to fade into Capitol Hill's heterosexual woodwork. Regardless, groups like the American Foundation for AIDS Research have done gobs of good, and you don't see Mrs. Fortensky tattooing her celebrated cheeks. (Of course Old Violet Eyes doesn't have to--she's a PR queen nonpareil.

Meanwhile, the once-invisible, outside-the-system angry gay activists have demanded attention and succeeded in spandexed spades. Now, however, they run the risk of self-parody-- a definite no-no in cutting-edge politics. The big question is whether they'll evolve beyond the shock frocks or simply continue to pierce themselves into a Swiss cheese-like oblivion. I do hope they're up to the fashion challenge. After all, it takes all kinds to part the homophobic waters.

I think Coco Chanel said it best: "In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different." And acceptance of those wondrous differences, from Melrose glitz to Manhattan ritz, epitomizes the freedom all of us are fight--and dressing--for.

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