Highsnobiety

Summer of Sexy: This summer, Highsnobiety explores all the ways personal style transcends what we wear. This special series delves into critical discussions and stories that highlight the body as a site of expression and exploration – social, sexual, and psychological. Check back throughout the week for Omar Apollo’s digital cover, a photo essay on fashion’s greatest (ass)et, the butt, a consideration of underwear as pants, and a reported feature on the data that shows just how much the freedom to dress cannot be overstated.

It was 1993. On the cover of New York magazine’s May issue is the singer-songwriter k.d. lang, whose album Ingénue had gone platinum, taking her from successful to superstar. Wearing her signature suit, hair in a curtain cut, lang gazes directly into the camera, a hand by her chin. If it weren’t for the headline “Lesbian Chic” plastered across her forearm, this could have been the cover of Fortune or Inc. Were the phrase “The bold, brave new world of gay women” not next to lang’s cheek, this cover might not have made the waves it did. But, the fact was, major magazines rarely put lesbians on covers, and if they did, they didn’t lead with unapologetic and positively skewed headlines about their sexual orientation. 

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Two months later, lang appeared on another cover. This time Vanity Fair, accompanied by one of the ‘90s favorite supermodels, Cindy Crawford. Not just accompanied, but posed alongside: Crawford, in a black bathing suit and heels, holds a razor. She leans back as lang, eyebrows up, comedically, reclines in a barber chair, shaving cream lathered down her throat and under her nose. It’s playful but pointed and, once again, exceptionally rare. 

In the years that followed, gay women popped up everywhere. They were in media and pop culture, they were on the covers of major magazines, hosting television shows, taking lead roles in films, and partying with some of the biggest names in the tabloids. Films like Go Fish (1994), Bound (1996), and But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) featured openly gay characters. Openly gay actress and model Jenny Shimizu starred in campaigns for major brands like Calvin Klein and was photographed gallivanting with stars like Angelina Jolie and Madonna. By 2003, a proudly out Ellen DeGeneres hosted one of the biggest daytime talk shows in the world.

The tides had turned. It was suddenly fashionable to be lesbian. Not just fashionable but chic. Lesbian chic. It was a look and a movement and a moment in history. 

But it all started with the look.

The Lesbian Chic dressed in form-fitting, neutral-toned business wear and toted the hottest designer handbag. Her wardrobe stood in sharp contrast to the baggy, androgynous clothing adopted by the Anti-Fashion movement founded by the lesbian feminist community in the 1970s. The Lesbian Chic were well-groomed, worked high-paying corporate jobs, and lived cosmopolitan lifestyles, far from the “hairy-legged, granola-eating, women's-music-festival-having, anti-man harpy” lesbian — a popular trope in ‘90s media, according to a 1993 Washington Post opinion piece by Kara Swisher. To be Lesbian Chic was to dress masculinely enough to appear queer, but femininely enough to still fit into a heteronormative world. 

Or at least, that’s how it was depicted in film, TV, and editorial spreads. 

In real life, things looked different. According to Eleanor Medhurst, lesbian fashion historian and the author of Unsuitable: A History of Lesbian Fashion, Lesbian Chic was largely concerned with “mainstreaming the acceptable parts of lesbian style and culture, while ignoring all the parts that weren’t ‘glamourous’ [to mainstream culture].” 

What began as “androgyny, suits, and short hair,” Medhurst says, quickly turned into “more of a ‘girlboss’ lesbian — power suits with a slightly more feminine cut, slightly longer hair.” Lesbian Chic went from masculine-presenting women like lang and Shimizu to more traditionally feminine women, like model Tasha Tilberg and screenwriter and actress Guinevere Turner, who shot to fame as a Versace runway staple and starring and writing films like Go Fish (1994) and American Psycho (2000), respectively. In some cases, the face of Lesbian Chic wasn’t even a lesbian, or a real person — take Madonna and Bette Porter from The L Word. The reason for this change, Medhurst contends, is marketability. Consumers were more comfortable seeing women adhering to, versus subverting, gender norms – chic or not. 

It wasn’t just the aesthetic that Lesbian Chic misrepresented. The reality of life for most gay women was very different from the lives led by lang and Madonna, with their wealth and prestige. For “regular” people, being openly gay sometimes and often came at a heavy social cost. It could mean being disowned by family, it could mean difficulty finding a job, and result in increased harassment. Ultimately, Lesbian Chic pandered to straight audiences and turned lesbianism into an aesthetic without confronting the politics of queerness. 

Jodi R. Schorb and Tania N. Hammidi put it perfectly in “The Do’s and Don’ts of Lesbian Chic,” their 2000 paper for the journal Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature: “Visibility cannot be automatically equated with power, and getting your own beer ads doesn’t mean you can’t be fired from your job at the beer factory for being a dyke.” 

Additional critique followed. After the premiere of The L Word, Booth Moore stated in a 2004 Los Angeles Times piece that “instead of promoting acceptance, the show could be another case of lesbians being used as a marketing tool, this time to create a successor to ‘Sex and the City.’” The stylish, classy lesbians in shows like The L Word were meant to be enjoyed by a mainstream – mostly straight – audience. 

Lesbian Chic treated lesbianism as a passing fad, like any other ‘90s trend. A 1993 edition of the now-discontinued Australian women’s magazine Cleo declared Lesbian Chic the latest "fashion statement" and "a gorgeous pouting gal-pal" the hottest "designer accessory." It didn’t treat lesbianism as a tangible part of someone’s identity, but something akin to the newest Prada handbag. 

But when you take a step back, is Lesbian Chic really all bad?

It had, undoubtedly, increased the visibility of queer women. Prior to this media-generated aesthetic, lesbians were not represented in the media nearly as much. According to a global study conducted by the University of Manitoba, there were a total of 89 documented openly gay and lesbian characters on television between 1981 and 1990 —  significantly fewer than the 338 between 1991 and 2000. 

In his book Gay TV and Straight America, Ron Becker writes, “The 1992-1993 season marked a turning point for the [television] industry’s attitude toward gay material…The lesbian-chic movement of the spring of 1993 signaled a changing social climate and made straight people think about gay people more and in new ways.” 

“A lot of people did find positives in their life through lesbians being represented as something admirable,” Medhurst says. No longer were gay women solely being portrayed as “killers, victims, [or] jokes,” as Swisher put it in 1993. Susie Bright, author, journalist, and co-founder of lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs told PAPER Magazine in 2023 that “before there was Lesbian Chic there was lesbian invisibility…I'd rather be visible.” 

It wasn’t all bad, and it wasn’t all good – lesbian visibility, 1993 style, was visibility for a specific type of lesbian. For everyone who didn’t fit that type, Lesbian Chic was another form of erasure. But the term hasn’t totally died out, and it’s had a chance to begin to evolve. A 2008 Gawker piece declared that Lindsey Lohan and then-girlfriend Samanthan Ronson were making “Lesbianism Chic.” The New York Post dubbed “dressing like a lesbian” the hottest trend in 2022. And in 2024 The New York Times characterized designer Daniela Kallmeyer’s clothes as “Lesbian Chic, For All.” We’re not quite there yet, but maybe the day will come when Lesbian Chic means something completely different. A day when Lesbian Chic allows everyone under the lesbian umbrella regardless of status or wealth to express themselves wholly and doesn’t require such strict restrictions to fit the label. Here’s to hoping. 

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