The relationship between straight women and gay men in the world of fashion is storied; but where are all the queer women, and what is the industry doing to increase their ubiquity?
Harriet Nicolson, a fashion stylist who’s worked with the likes of Bridgerton’s Nicola Coughlan and musician Maisie Peters (the newest recruit to Ed Sheeran’s record label), was on a shoot last week with a gay couple.
“Whenever I learn someone’s gay, I feel the need to be like ‘Oh! Me too! I’m one of you!’ And so, I was chatting to them and I heard the straight, white male photographer whisper, ‘What the fuck?’ under his breath. It makes you feel so fed up!” she tells Stylist over the phone from her home in north-west London.
It’s a constant, Nicolson, who identifies as gay and has been out since she was 14, says. “Every shoot I’m on, I have to come out again to a different set of people,” she adds. “I think it’s maybe more socially acceptable to be out in the fashion industry as a gay man. Whereas gay women fear the judgement of the fashion industry, because it’s unexpected and not the norm.”
While Nicolson is far from alone in feeling like an outsider in fashion, she is part of a minority that is vastly underrepresented in the industry. Of the 31 designers nominated for the CFDA awards in 2020 – often dubbed the Oscars of the fashion world – none of the seven cis female nominees were openly queer. In her debut book, Everybody (Else) Is Perfect, the former editor-in-chief and fashion director of Nylon magazine, Gabrielle Korn, writes about joining a young female-focused media company aged 23 as an out lesbian and feeling “very tokenised … and really responsible for answering everybody’s questions because I felt like if I didn’t, the queer stories wouldn’t get told.”
The book, released in January this year, is a searing and prescient series of essays, covering everything from Korn’s belief that “magazines pretend lesbians don’t exist” to her nebulous queer aesthetic, which meant she couldn’t be distinguished from first glance ‘as gay.’
“There’s an idea that gay women won’t be interested in fashion because they don’t care as much about how they look, which is just ridiculous,” Nicolson says. “I’m not going to wear what people think I should stereotypically wear because of my sexuality. I’m attracted to women, and I am a feminine person who loves fashion.”
Donna-Marie Mason, a London-based photographer and one half of photography duo The Masons, works with her wife, Maruska. Since the inception of their company in 2018, the pair have shot everybody from Munroe Bergdorf for the cover of Teen Vogue to Naomie Harris and Bridgerton’s Golda Rosheuvel.
Maruska is clear: “In the eyes of the world, gay men are very fashionable and gay women are very butch and have no dress sense and don’t care about fashion and I think that’s really the very outdated – but no less present – idea in people’s minds.”
Simone Niamani Thompson, a model and photographer who splits her time between LA and New York, came out when she was 19. Thompson, who’s most recently lensed Nike’s latest Pride campaign, notes how “there’s a lot of specific homophobia when it comes to lesbians in fashion and I think that comes down to this discomfort surrounding gay women in general.”
For Thompson, the trickiness surrounding queerness in the fashion industry lies not only in sexuality, but also in race. “Feeling othered on set is not only wrapped up in queerness, but it’s also wrapped up in race,” she explains. “Being someone that’s Black and queer, it can feel really hard, especially within modelling, where you lack authority at times over how you’re dressed.”
As a queer person, Thompson says, a visual narrative is important to self-discovery and self-expression but, “as a model, especially a queer one, that’s sometimes hard because you’re paid to be a blank canvas.”
The murky dichotomy of race and queerness is also something The Masons are aware of. Despite never having felt othered or demeaned on set, Donna-Marie, who is of Jamaican heritage, and Maruska, who is originally from Slovenia, are more than aware of the work opportunities they may have unknowingly missed out on.
“We don’t really know how many jobs we haven’t got because we’re queer – or because we’re women, or because one’s Black, one’s white,” Donna-Marie notes. “It’s very much a straight white male-dominated industry, especially in photography, so we don’t know about the jobs that we didn’t get but went to a white male photographer instead.”
Annie Leibovitz, famed fashion photographer and partner of the late artist Susan Sontag, is the only queer woman in the industry that The Masons can conjure up on the spot. Alongside Leibovitz in the decidedly empty queer female hall of fashion fame is Jil Sander, founder of her eponymous brand; Becca McCharen-Tran, founder of New York-based brand Chromat, who’s previously told Teen Vogue that “I’m always looking for more lesbians and queer and trans women of colour in fashion - there aren’t enough”; and former president and creative director of J. Crew Jenna Lyons, who was outed by the New York Post in 2011. “When I first moved to New York, the only gay people I knew were men,” Lyons wrote recently in The Cut. “I didn’t even know any gay women.”
One way to increase the number of queer women working in the fashion industry, and to make the prospect of venturing into the fashion sphere more welcoming, would be to shoot more visibly queer women as part of major fashion campaigns.
There is, however, in the eyes of Nicolson, a fine line between increasing the representation of visibly queer women, and sexualising them. “How do we show that a woman is visibly and openly queer without playing to stereotypes?” she asks. “There’s a fine line between having more queer women in fashion and campaigns, so that young girls can look up to them and feel seen and represented, but then sexualizing them and having them strip off, for example.”
The efforts, according to the Masons, have to be implemented at grassroots level. Donna-Marie, similarly to Nicolson, doesn’t “wear her sexuality on her sleeve,” so how do stakeholders welcome more queer women into the fashion industry without tokenising them? “I’m open about being gay, but if I were, say, going to an interview, how do you do that if you’re not an outwardly presenting gay woman? Do you walk in and say, ‘Hi, I’m queer’? I just feel like queer women are constantly kept by society on a certain level…”
Do the gatekeepers of the fashion industry, which is worth £35 billion in the UK alone, have a responsibility to usher more marginalised queer women into the industry? “Absolutely,” Maruska says. “It feels as though their minds aren’t open. A lot of efforts are being made in terms of diversity, which is great, and we promote and support that 100%, but I don’t see a lot of stuff happening with female queerness.”
Providing more seats at the table for queer women was precisely the aim behind the inception of London Queer Fashion Show, which was conceived in 2017, after its founder, Robyn Exton, felt frustrated over the lack of queer diversity in the fashion scene.
Its creative director, Lucy London, is clear on the need for an exclusively queer space to encourage more queer women into the industry. “Fashion for centuries has been built on the male gaze; there hasn’t been space to magnify the extended talents and strength of queer women,” she says. “I know the lack of representation, where the lack of individualism and the culture of trends seems bland and lacks the rainbow.”
For London, creating London Queer Fashion Show, which shows once a year and exclusively celebrates and showcases queer talent, means “breaking through spaces that have been allowed to so many and denied to us on the simple basis of being a her/her.” In her eyes, London Queer Fashion Show is just one way to create a space where fashion’s queer family can celebrate one another away from the heteronormativity of the industry at large.
Despite the fashion industry having been slow to embrace queer women, Thompson is clear that the tide is beginning to change, however slowly.
“I only started to get bigger jobs recently; as time has progressed, we’ve opened up more lanes for people who aren’t stereotypically this or that – it’s become more inclusive as a whole,” she concludes. “The jobs I’m getting now as a photographer and a model wouldn’t have been available to me 4-5 years ago. We’re in this changing landscape, which is important for the future.”
Images: courtesy of Simone Niamani Thompson, The Masons and Harriet Nicolson.