VALERIE STEELE: fashion’s egghead

Image Above: Valerie Steele (Portrait by Aaron Cobbett)

Fashion photography was a sub-genre of photography from the beginning of the history of photography, but it tended to be seen as a bastard stepchild, that it was very commercial. Photographers didn’t want to be associated with fashion photographers. For example, George Platt Lynes did great fashion photography as well as photography of ballet and portrait photography. He actually deliberately destroyed most of his fashion negatives, because he didn’t want those to be his legacy. He did, however, save a lot of his homoerotic photography, so that’s something he was much more willing to be associated with.

When I started studying fashion, someone said to me while I was working on my fetish book, “Isn’t that going to damage your reputation in academia?” I said, “Are you kidding? Working on sex will bring my reputation up after working on fashion!” Nowadays, I think fashion has become a much more accepted part of the contemporary art world. There are lots of people in art who are doing things with fashion, like Cindy Sherman.

I think that it’s a misunderstanding to think that an arts education is a waste of time or just something for the elite, someone who doesn’t need to work. There needs to be a more humanistic idea of educa- tion as learning how to find out what you want to do, learning how to think critically, and become your own person. This is really more what education is about, and this could be through a traditional liberal arts education or through an arts education.

1©Valerie Steele (Left) Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, smoking evening suit, black wool, satin, and off-white silk crepe, c. 1982, France, The Museum at FIT. Gift from The Estate of Tina Chow. (Right) Halston, evening dress, sequined polyester, 1974, USA, The Museum at FIT, Gift of Celanese.

When I first started studying fashion, it was not considered an acceptable intellectual subject; it was considered very fluffy and anti-intellectual. At the same time, people within the fashion world looked askance, thinking, “Why are you being so serious and heavy about something that is fun and a busi- ness, etc.?” From one side I was too fluffy, and from the other I was too much of an egghead. I think that has changed. Now there is so much interest in fashion, not only in terms of buying clothes, but also in terms of thinking about fashion, making films about fashion, exhibiting fashion in museums. I think it is something that is much more accepted and recognized as important to society and culture, but also something that is expressive, individual, and personal. So, my goal with the exhi- bitions at the FIT museum is to advance knowledge of fashion, but also to advance an appreciation of fashion, and do exhibitions that are inspiring as well as educational. I want entertaining, inspiring, and educational exhibitions all at the same time.

I think our show “A Queer History of Fashion” was possibly the most important show we ever did, cer- tainly one of the most cutting-edge. When my colleague casually suggested to me, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a show about the gay influence on fashion?”, it was a revelation. No one has done this; this is huge! Then, when we started doing research, and found that by juxtaposing fashion history with queer theory and gay history, I suddenly found that all these researchers in LGBTQ history had uncovered material about gays and fashion going back to the 18th century. I thought we would start with the 1950s with Dior and Balenciaga and a closeted generation, but it started way earlier, even earlier than Oscar Wilde. Jonathan Katz and I are talking about trying to do more research into how queer studies can be explored further and included in exhibitions. Next fall’s exhibition is about Suzanne Bartsch, the party queen. She had a very close linking with drag queens and gay fashion people from Leigh Bowery on – Joey Arias, Richie Rich, all kinds of people. So that’s going to be an exciting show we are doing in the fall.

I think there’s tremendous popular interest in fashion, and tremendous interest within the LGBTQ community. I know that that the LGBTQ center in Greenwich Village has thrown at least one and maybe two fundraisers relating to the fashion world. They got an immediate, strong response from the community. It’s certainly something that young LGBTQ people are really interested in. The Hendrick-Martin Institute, for example, has also been involved in fashion. Kids are really interested in issues of fashion and style because they are so closely associated with identity. There’s a whole history of style and fashion being related to the LGBTQ community. I think there’s a lot of potential there. I just went to a fash- ion show by Hood by Air, and there they have a whole trans sensibility working its way through the fashion. It’s very contemporary. It’s not just something that an older generation of gay men were interested in.

I’m less interested in trends, per se, although I just did a piece for Harper’s Bazaar on 1970s retro, and that’s ob- viously a big trend, with all kinds of haute hippie and bohemian luxury. In general, there are lots of retro trends. The retro and 1970s trends have been particularly spearheaded by Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint Laurent. He’s a continuing leader in that realm. There’s also more and more diversity within the fashion world. I think that trends may be becoming less and less important in fashion. They’ve been useful primarily as a way of organiz- ing information for the public. Editors will go to hundreds and hundreds of fashion shows, and they think, “We have to come up with stories for people,” and trends tend to organize that information, but it may not end up being the way of the future.

by william j. simmons


Burk Uzzle: American Puzzles at Steven Kasher Gallery