Queer people have used dress and fashion as a way of communicating their sexuality and to meet other queer people over the years. 

But today, elements of queer style have become more mainstream, which means expressing your sexuality or gender through clothing is not as easy as it once was. 

Dr Vicki Karaminas, Professor of Fashion, Genders and Sexualities at Massey University, says it’s all changed in recent times.

She spoke to Re: News about how mainstreaming has scrambled queer fashion codes. 

Here’s what she had to say:

Queer people have long used certain fashion codes to signal their sexuality to one another.

There were codes like a pinky ring and other accessories that people wore to indicate sexual preference. 

For women, there were also codes for things like whether you were butch or femme.

Once upon a time, you'd go out somewhere and you could read the code, read the language.

For example, there was what was called the hanky code for gay men in the '70s. 

The hanky code was bandanas of different colours in different back pockets, which basically symbolised what you preferred sexually.

In Re:’s new docuseries Queer Academy, a question is raised about whether these kinds of codes still exist. 

With the mainstreaming of what we call queer style, and the breaking down of gender binaries, these codes have been scrambled.

I’m queer and spent a lot of time in the Australian club scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s and those kinds of queer styles were evident then.

I could have walked into a whole football field full of people and I could have used my gaydar to scan the area and pretty much know who was gay and who wasn't because of what they were wearing. 

I think a lot of gay people who grew up in the ‘80s or ‘90s or even the 2000s could do that. 

Now, I can't do that, because the mainstream has picked up these signifiers.

Queer style used to be a subculture style. I don’t think it is anymore. 

The Harry Styles factor

Then we have people like Harry Styles, for example. 

There’s his complete mainstreaming of clothes like nail polish, earrings, all of these kinds of accessories that are part of this queer style. 

But I don’t think it’s problematic. Some would say it’s queerbaiting but I say there is always a queer subtext.

It’s not a bad thing in that it has made men feel a lot more comfortable, for example, to wear nail polish. 

But when we mainstream these things, people tend to forget that not every queer person in the world has the same legal standing.

Across the West, we have more acceptance of gay marriage and other legal rules, but when we talk about places like India or parts of Africa, people are still killed or put in prison for being queer.

We’re still fighting and breaking down the barriers, especially younger people.

It’s this kind of mainstreaming that has really pushed the envelope and has manifested in gender non-conforming fashion and that’s why we have labels that cater for all different kinds of bodies now.

Made with the support of NZ On Air.

Watch the full series of Queer Academy now.

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