It used to be a tribal signal but as gay style has moved into the mainstream, the look has become harder to pin down. It’s forcing creatives to really push the boundaries if they want to make a statement
When he was studying at Central Saint Martins, London, in the late 00s, Craig Green wrote his dissertation on the adoption of gay style subcultures by straight men. In the preceding decades, perfumed dandies, dilly boys, mods, skins, clones, new romantics, scallies, fierce vogueing divas and muscle Marys had all been sieved out of their natural habitat on to the high street for brief moments of mass consumption. But by the time Green – currently reigning menswear designer of the year at the British fashion awards – was weighing up his thesis, things had changed. The bears – hirsute, gay men – crowded on the dancefloor of London’s XXL nightclub were barely distinguishable from bearded Bon Iver fans.
A reciprocal shared wardrobe, common across menswear emerged. “When I was younger,” says Green, who was born in 1986, “what I thought of as a very gay look was really a metrosexual thing, a bit Italian, clothes a tiny bit too tight, skinny jeans, tanned, tight T-shirt, worked out. Most of the men who dressed like that were straight. Gay men all seemed to be growing beards, too. It was a less specific time. You couldn’t really tell who was who any more. Had we come to a melting point?”
From the vantage point of the DJ booth in the capital’s Horse Meat Disco, Luke Howard has been well positioned to watch the changing appearance of gay men over the past 16 years. He has noticed something similar to Green. “Lads in a straight club in Sheffield or Leeds don’t look that different from an average crowd we get at Horse Meat Disco,” he says. “These days I can barely tell the difference between straight men and gay.”
At the beginning of last year I started writing a book, Good As You, about the mainstreaming of gay pop culture as gay men headed towards complete equality in British law; roughly, a journey from Smalltown Boy to same-sex marriage that felt personal and lived, but would hopefully reflect a wider shift in the country as the gay culture has come into the light. Across the 30 years I looked at (1984-2014), the sheer number and range of signals that gay men sent out through their personal, often tribal, style fitted a wider emerging narrative, reframing the British gay man’s story from victimhood to a kind of valiant heroism. By the time I had finished the book, a moustache was no longer a moustache, it was part of a suit of no-nonsense sex armour.
“Traditionally,” says Tim Blanks, editor-at-large of Business of Fashion, “gay style was about men who took a lot of care and attention about their appearance.” The Beckhamification of culture that begot the metrosexual ended all that. The most popular gay cultural figures in its slipstream were visibly paying less attention to their clobber than the majority. For Blanks, this is even truer of gay cultural figures now. “Where is gay style now concentrated?” he asks. “[Singer] John Grant’s statement is the most chic, stylish and sophisticated art. But it isn’t visual.” Like the musician Perfume Genius, AKA Mike Hadreas, Grant favours contemplation of the interior life over the exterior.
Yet just as the gay scruff-as-cultural-archetype boomed, a raft of new figures emerged, reframing sexuality and style, both in and out of high fashion. Demna Gvasalia (Vetements, Balenciaga) and Alessandro Michele (Gucci) became the most influential designers of their era by taking – respectively – utilitarian street style and ornate embellishment down strange, pleasingly radical avenues, upsetting the strict tenets of buttoned-up, sartorial menswear. Meanwhile, American designer Rick Owens has looked to the brilliantly extreme edges of performance art, taking inspiration from the purposefully surreal, absurdist and unsettling physical disposition of David Hoyle and Christeene Vale. Things have shifted. “Oh, I could look at [queer experimentalist] Arca 24 hours a day,” says Blanks. “He is phenomenal. His look embodies transgression, intellectual depth, incredible provocation and sensuality in exactly the way Bowie’s and Lou Reed’s did when I was teenage.”
For a young breed of designers, a sense of controlled, thrilling outrage – a sense incubated in gay nightlife – is once more tickling the underbelly of fashion. “You have all those children of Kim Jones,” Blanks notes. Jones, head of menswear at Louis Vuitton, made a path from 90s London gay club culture to the apex of men’s fashion. He was a regular at 90s gay clubs from Kinky Gerlinky to Queer Nation, which he has heavily referenced in his collections. Young designers including Christopher Shannon and Bobby Abley have done their own idiosyncratic takes on that journey, too. It’s a path that can work in reverse, too. In their earliest incarnation, Take That, five straight men from the north-west, were styled to catch the eyes of ritzy gay clubbers at La Cage in Manchester.
Another who trod that path was Green, whose richly specific fashion vernacular feels technically in the lineage of Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. Then there’s JW Anderson’s fruity gender play, putting men in frilly boob tubes and thigh boots during his early years.
As Green was writing his thesis, the young designer Charles Jeffrey was being beaten up in Glasgow for his appearance. An obsessive fan of Southend gothic revivalists the Horrors, he tried to emulate their style on a pocket-money budget. “I wanted the panda eyes and the big black hair but I had to buy winklepickers from Burton and women’s blouses from Primark,” he recalls. Hair was a big thing for Jeffrey, his point of differentiation, the “this is me” moment that many men have traditionally alighted on when they adapt publicly into a chosen gay identity. “I was called a ‘faggot’ and a ‘poof’ for having bright orange hair in what I thought of as really quite an aggressive look. I didn’t see it as being gay at all and I was punched in the face in George Square for it.”
“Gay men have co-opted both masculine and feminine imagery,” says Howard, “in an either/or way as regards their choices of clothes.” This delineation has precedent. “In the late 70s, you had new romantics with their velvet and face powder, which coincided with the clone look – handlebar moustache, muir cap, leather and denim – inspired by construction workers and uniformed personnel.” He thinks the reason these polarities exist might be connected to deeper identity questions. “Boys that grow up to become gay men have often personally experienced or at least witnessed anti-gay bullying, which perhaps then becomes either externalised – I’ll be as flamboyant as I want in my attire and to hell with you all – or internalised: I’ll be more masculine-looking than the most heterosexual men.”
The digital age has complicated personal identity issues for everyone. For many gay men, the closure of bespoke social spaces, as clubs and bars shut up shop, has meant formalising an identity online. “At the Blitz and Taboo,” says Blanks of the legendary London gay clubs, “it was always about not wanting to be stuck at home.” Times change and styles change with them. “Now, it is absolutely all about staying in.” The 2017 gay male archetype could easily be the bearded, topless selfie guy, stomach clenched, puckering up in his bathroom mirror, who routinely clogs the suggestion feeds of gay Facebook and Instagram users.
“What a shame,” Blanks continues. “The notion of community used to be absolute. The internet presents a different sense of immediacy. Your desire is now more important than your style.” In this sense, the most useful arbiter of gay style may be Ernesto Sarezale, the London nightclub fixture who frequently attends, dances and leaves completely naked.
Jeffrey’s Loverboy parties have seen the emergence of a newly radical slant on the club kids who have defined gay culture. “What I love about someone like [Loverboy regular] Harry Charlesworth,” says Blanks, “is that he’s sitting dressed like a southern belle with a hairy chest that Burt Reynolds would be proud of. It’s that visual idea that ties back to the Cockettes.” The revolutionary late 60s/early 70s San Francisco drag ensemble – a template for wild expression – are a touchstone in the gay style story.
“My gay style icon would have to be Sylvester,” says Howard, about the Cockette who broke free from the underground to define the sound, look and spiritual outer edges of disco. “He used his body and the clothes he wore as a way to express his liberation from the oppressive restrictions of heteronormative culture. If only more men, gay and straight, myself included, could be more like him.”
Wardrobe constraints can be further complicated by the thorny issue of sex. “Dress codes are generally about getting laid,” says GQ Style’s editor, Luke Day. “The connecting tissue between all gay subcultures is that you’re generally expressing your sexual preference in some sort of way. We are trying to attract. What we put out there is what we fancy.”
“There are gay men that I like the style of,” says Green. He mentions his former stylist and collaborator Julian Ganio, the fashion director of Fantastic Man magazine. “He wears things really well. It’s quite difficult to look good in denim shorts, a bucket hat and a pair of shearling loafers, but he’s got a magic way of holding himself.”
Ganio himself doesn’t think that gay men’s style has changed much over his time. “It never really does,” he says. “In 30 years’ time, it’s more than likely the leather queens will still wear leather, the bears will wear a plaid shirt and beard and the scallies will wear Reebok Classics with a Ralph Lauren polo shirt.”
Howard thinks the real influence of gay men on mainstream style may not even be on their own kind. “Perhaps, traditionally, gay men have had more time and money to spend on their clothes and bodies, but gay men have arguably had more influence on women’s style and fashion than men’s.” The recent appointment of Edward Enninful as editor of British Vogue would suggest that. As for the question that haunts the debate of gay men and style, Ganio has a simple and succinct answer.
Why are so many gay men designers?
“Because gays are fab,” he says.
Seven key gay styles
Origins: Tom of Finland. Subcultural habitat: The End-Up nightclub, San Francisco. Crossover moment: Tom Selleck as Magum PI, the Village People.
The dilly boy
Origins: The rent boys of yore plying their trade at Piccadilly Circus. Subcultural habitat: Smoking a Virginia Slim louchely under Eros with a Jean Genet paperback. Crossover moment: Bowie, Lou Reed, Christiane F, Suede.
The Vogue queen
Origins: Harlem Vogue balls. Subcultural habitat: A makeshift catwalk on the Chelsea Piers; Paris Is Burning. Crossover moment: Madonna, Malcolm McLaren, streetdance.
The muscle Mary
Origins: YMCA locker rooms and Physique Pictorial magazine. Subcultural habitat: Trade. Crossover moment: Mark Wahlberg for Calvin Klein, David Gandy for Dolce and Gabbana, and David Beckham for Armani underwear.
Origins: Christopher Street. Subcultural habitat: The King’s Arms, Soho, London. Crossover moment: Ted, beard oil, Rag’n’Bone Man.
Origins: All Ralph Lauren concessions, department stores, the north, 80s. Subcultural habitat: Frank Clarke’s 1988 film The Fruit Machine. Crossover moment: The Streets, Skins, Slaves, Hollyoaks.
Origins: The late-60s hippy communes of San Francisco. Subcultural habitat: Falling over, high, on stage. Crossover moment: Kenny Everett as Cupid Stunt, David Walliams in Little Britain.
Good As You: From Prejudice to Pride – 30 Years of Gay Britain by Paul Flynn is published by Ebury Press, £20.
Paul Flynn has worked as a journalist for over two decades. He began writing at City Life magazine in Manchester and is currently the Senior Contributing Editor at Love and a columnist for Attitude and Grazia. He has previously been a contributing editor and writer at i-D, Pop, Dazed, Fantastic Man, The Gentlewoman and GQ Style and has written for the Guardian and Observer, Sunday Express and the Sunday Times newspapers. He lives in London.