October is LGBTQ History Month. A big part of what has made us such a lusciously wonderful community over the past several decades are the fashion designers of past and present that helped put us on the map in the most iconic of ways.
Designers like Cristobal Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Siriano have paved the way for the LGBTQ youth of today to draw inspiration from in order for them to be their own success in the fashion industry.
Now this very important part of our history is being taught smack dab in the middle of The United States. Central Michigan University fashion professor Michael Mamp is teaching a class that is the first of its kind. Called Queer Fashion, the undergraduate course examines the LGBTQ experience through the lens of fashion and dress, encompassing everything that has ever been involved with the LGBTQ community and fashion.
This course is unique, and is a great example of how universities can creative inclusive environments and offer modern-day courses for students of all backgrounds.
We chatted with Michael about his inspiration for doing the class, what his students have gotten out of it thus far, who he thinks are the most iconic members of the LGBTQ fashion community and so much more.
What inspired you to want to teach this class?
Fashion is most frequently taught and experienced from a heteronormative point of view that doesn’t fully consider Queer identities. I wanted to create a transformative space in the classroom environment where students could be challenged to consider the history of Queer people told through the lens of fashion but could also consider from a contemporary point of view how, as future professionals, they could embrace design, merchandising and even just personal practices that are more inclusive and welcoming to Queer people.
How far back does your teachings go in relation to this subject?
I began to work on the development of this course in 2013 and offered it for the first time in the spring of 2018. I am teaching Queer Fashion at Central Michigan University (CMU) this semester for the fourth time. I’m extremely pleased the course is not just offered to fashion students at CMU but is also an option for all students at the university to take as the course has been approved as part of our general education.
Have the students been receptive of your teachings? What would you say they’ve gotten the most out of it thus far?
It’s so exciting to see their interest and enthusiasm. We have lively discussions in class and it’s rewarding for me as an educator to have a receptive audience. In general, they are curious to learn about how fashion has shaped identity for those outside of the heteronormative status quo.
What five names stick out to you the most when it comes to LGBTQ fashion and why?
Gladys Bentley: African American entertainer who gained prominence during the Harlem Renaissance for dressing in a masculine way. Bentley often wore a formal cut-a-way with tails and matching top hat when she performed. She not only expressed her sexuality through her dress but the lyrics of several of her songs referenced lesbian identity. For a woman of color to put herself out there in this way at this period of history when segregation was prevalent is remarkable.
Radclyffe Hall: Wrote a novel dealing with lesbian themes (The Well of Loneliness) and dressed in a mannish, very high-styled dandy way. Hall often incorporated a monocle into her outfit which, like the green carnation associated with Oscar Wilde, was a sartorial signifier of lesbian identity in the early 20th century.
Leigh Bowery: Bowery, through the use of clothing in his performance art, explored concepts of Queer Theory before we even had the word. He made us stop and think, through his dress and performances, just how gender and sex are socially constructed.
Tom of Finland: This artist’s Queer interpretations of mainstream archetypes, such as biker, sailor, cowboy, etc. influenced gay men and their presentations of sexuality, masculinity, and attractiveness (whether positively or negatively) in a far-reaching way. His influence can still be felt today.
Bindle & Keep: A ground-breaking leader in the provision of bespoke clothing for masculine-presenting women and trans men, this company has not only found a way to provide product for those that are often marginalized, but has done so via a successful business model. Their work to me is so inspiring.
Do you think the emergence of shows like Pose have given the younger generations a bigger view on what fashion was like for our community many moons ago?
I’m such a HUGE Pose fan. While I think the show is making a huge impact on visibility of the Queer community to a broader audience, surprisingly my students are for the most part not aware of the show. I show clips from Pose in my class when I talk about ballroom culture and how fashion was a way to experiment with and present multiple social identities, so I hope that they then become fans of the show. Thank goodness for Ryan Murphy!
Who at the moment do you think is the future of fashion?
The future of fashion lies in breaking away from gendered design and merchandising processes. Some pioneers have already begun this process, such as Phluid Project in NYC and AGOGOGANG in Paris. The future is designing for and providing shopping experiences for PEOPLE, not men or women.
More information about Michael’s course can be found by previewing his Queer Fashion course online.