The trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 led to, as historians have argued, a conceptualisation and increased awareness of homosexuality. Within previous centuries the biblical notion of ‘sodomy’ fuelled the belief that all sexuality was fluid and that every man was capable of committing the heinous crime of same-sex relations. As a result of the Wilde trials however, the newly defined legal and medical idea of the ‘homosexual’ allowed for sexual orientation to become a marker of identity. It is no surprise, therefore, that this new label of social categorisation infiltrated ways of dressing and enabled the notion of homosexual style to emerge.
Within the exhibition catalogue, Queer Style, Valerie Steele locates the inception of homosexual dress within the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in her discussion of Oscar Wilde. Wilde is often associated with two differing styles of masculine dress that are oft associated with the figure of the homosexual male: the ‘aesthete’ and the ‘dandy’. Steele defines the ‘aesthete’ as a flamboyantly dressed male whose outlandish sense of style became a marker of sexual deviance. For Wilde, his signature green carnation was adopted as a fashionable statement of such deviance amongst aesthetes.
While aesthetic modes of dress acted as a more visible form of locating the homosexual, dandyism revealed the sexual non-conformity of the individual through the hyper-conformity to male fashions. Steele observes how the dandy adhered to the male sartorial code to such an extent that he distinguished himself from his peers. When Wilde later transitioned to a dandyist approach to dress, he was thus able to signal his ‘deviance’ through conventional fashions. The dandy could protect himself within a heteronormative and homophobic society while also using his hyper-conformity as a means to present his homosexuality to those keen enough to observe it.
Wilde was a key figure in not only raising awareness of homosexual identity, but also in showing how this newly defined identity could be explored through dress. The impact of Wilde’s trial can be felt even now, as you see queer and homosexual aesthetics continually evolving and being redefined. Ultimately, the tragic downfall of Oscar Wilde allowed for the figure of the homosexual to be made visible within a heteronormative society, and it is this visibility that enabled the very notion of queer style to emerge.
Comme des Garçons Homme Plus’ recent show explored masculinities – through fabric, cut and adornment. The collection played with recurrent elements in Kawakubo’s work – ways to reconfigure familiar garments – trench coat, tailored suit, motorbike jacket – and by so doing make us look again at what we thought we knew, what has become invisible because of its continual presence. Textiles are equally mutable for Comme des Garçons – shirt fabrics and lining materials crept onto the exterior of the body, forming jackets that, while traditionally tailored, broke boundaries between inside and out. Waistcoats fused to the outside of jackets, and, most notably, garments were articulated like armour – asserting the two sides of the collection’s heart – soft and hard, war and peace – masculinity queered and remade.
At first this was done quietly – a tiny sprig of bright flowers on the first jacket – a hint of colourful nature on inky black. Quickly this spread and grew – elaborate headdresses blossomed and caressed the models’ heads, framing their faces, seemingly entangled with their hair. Some outfits were all black – armoured with eyelets and buckles that split bodies into parts like machines. These divisions were echoed in more traditional suiting fabrics that incorporated flowered fabrics – a nod to 18th century elite dress and masculine ideals, which revelled in lush embroideries and colours and praised sentiment and emotion.
Comme des Garçons brought together multiple images of men with flowers – Oscar Wilde’s green carnation, Vietnam soldiers with blooms tucked into their helmets, hippies’ floral crowns, Morrisey’s gladioli. Art historical references also abound – perhaps most notably Caravaggio’s Bacchus of 1595, with his decadent vine leaf headdress. In each case foliage and flowers disrupt stable masculine ideals and suggest complexity – slippage between masculine and feminine, sexual ambiguity.
The show’s finale saw models carrying huge bouquets of vibrant flowers, dressed in their black warrior suits – but these were melancholy heroes – trapped in a small space, continually trying to avoid crashing into each other. Clothes, accessories, styling and performance were all carefully calibrated to unsettle. The designs were beautiful, as were Julien D’ys’s hair and headdress combinations, but they were made to question not to appease.