Review: Fashion Icons: Celebrating Gay Designers

Fashion Icons: Celebrating Gay Designers, at Walker Art Gallery

Fashion Icons: Celebrating Gay Designers
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, Till Summer 2018

Words, Samantha Browne

The beat of my heels as I ascended the stone steps towards the entrance of the Walker Art Gallery betrayed my eagerness to see Fashion Icons: Celebrating Gay Designers.

To get up close to fourteen outfits by twelve world-renowned designers, is an unmissable opportunity to get a glimpse of the treasure trove held by the National Museums Liverpool’s costume collection.  But what is particularly exciting about this exhibition is that it goes behind the darts, tucks and pleats and focuses on the man who made them.

At the start of the exhibition the scene is set with a brief history about the legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, and putting the designer within this social context makes for a thought-provoking perspective.  Christian Dior (1905-1957), for example, only knew a world where it was illegal to love another man.  This led me to wonder if his exuberant use of fabric in a time of post-war rationing with his ‘new look’, as in his cocktail dress (1954), was his way of releasing the emotional constraint he endured.  Conversely,Domenico Dolce (b.1958) and Stefano Gabbana (b.1962) grew up in a world of greater tolerance and were an openly gay couple.  With their names emblazoned on the shoulder straps of their ‘body-con’ evening dress (1999), one is reminded of two lovers driven to graffiti their names on public surfaces.

The outfits on display also show the paradigms of the ‘fashionable’ female form, and how these gay designers embraced such psychological dimensions.  For instance, strategically placed beads, as in the evening dress made in 1972 by John Bates (b.1938), playfully allude to the naked female form at a time of sexual objectification.  In contrast, when women sought the androgynous look, the 1985 evening trouser suit by Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008) provided a more masculine silhouette.

Perhaps the garment that best celebrates gender identity is the skirt (1998) designed by Moschino, with its images from the painting ‘The Birth of Venus’ (1486) by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) and the sculpture ‘David’ (1504) by Michelangelo (1475-1564).  Moreover, not only does its thigh length and high split add to its sexuality, but these details increase the self-confidence demanded to wear it.  Franco Moschino (1950-1994) witnessed the crossing of the divide in his lifetime, but he was also renowned as a satirical designer.  In this light, one wonders if using ‘David’ by Michelangelo, an artist known to be a homosexual who abstained from physical relationships because of catholic dogma, was Moschino’s way of reminding the world that, whatever the social mores, gay public expression is nothing new.

This exhibition encourages the viewer to focus on the designer’s sexuality within the context of his social environment and, as I wandered around the glass cabinets, I found it enthralling to speculate how this may have affected the design process.  Undeniably, these designers are worthily regarded as fashion icons, their designs stand testament to their talent and as a wise person once said: ‘Life’s too short to wear boring clothes’.

For more information visit: www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/