Throughout history, denim has renewed its significance with every generation, social circle, and subculture; its ability to align itself with the changing zeitgeist is what has enabled this unique textile to claim the title of ‘the peoples fabric.’ 

Before the month of June was dedicated to celebrating and supporting the queer community, denim was there. Used as a signifier, a tool of expression and a means to communicate feelings when words were impossible or even dangerous.

Pride month these days is marked by a slew of rainbow adorned collections and ‘pick me’ campaigns by large corporations, but we’ve spent this month looking back at the more meaningful history of denim entrenched within the gay community. Exploring big moments and subverted symbolism in queer denim dressing throughout the 20th century to unpack the part denim and jeans played in these stories of empowerment.

Blue Handkerchief Red Handkerchief by Hal Fisher, 1977

 “[fashion] can act as a marker; an "outing" tool, so to speak, in areas where flamboyance and full expression of personal style aren't as accepted or encouraged”

— Landon People writes for Refinery 29

According to the latest stats by Gallup, 1 in 5 adults identify as queer or transgender today, a figure that has more than doubled since Gallup first started their annual aggregated data in 2012 and a far cry from the oppressed and covert days of the early 20th century. 

 “[fashion] can act as a marker; an “outing” tool, so to speak, in areas where flamboyance and full expression of personal style aren’t as accepted or encouraged” Landon People writes for Refinery 29. Long before it was safe to openly express your sexuality or preferences, clothing was often the first tentative step.

As such a democratic wardrobe item, it’s no surprise that denim has played the role of liberator throughout history, the first instance of this was during the early decades of the 20th century and the rise of female empowerment. During both world wars, women experienced wearing men’s work pants and coveralls, and taking on jobs traditionally held by men; a small step towards gender equality that no doubt drives the symbolic power of the coverall for any feminist today.  Empowerment and freedom were so entrenched in the concept of workwear on women that when Levi’s released all in one coveralls in the 20’s they coined them ‘Freedom-alls’

Women arriving at a factory in Edmonton in 1943
Rosie The Riveter by Norman Rockwell, 1943

But donning the jean as a leisurewear item didn’t become acceptable until the early 30’s with the birth of Dude Ranches in America’s West. Until this moment there was a palpable stigma around the image of a woman in pants and this crucial shift towards jeans as leisurewear for vacationing on a ranch had huge ramifications for both men and women. “For the first time you start to see the design of jeans beginning to follow fashion” explains Melissa Leventon in Riveted: The History of Jeans, PBS.

This was the first crucial shift for a fabric once associated with workwear or incarceration to shift to encompass connotations of rebellion, sex and androgyny, a baton that was handed over to  James Dean and Marlon Brando, arguably the protagonists of the blue jean as a symbol of ultimate American cool. They were the male sex symbols of the silver screen but their tough yet sensitive demeanour was appreciated by the male gaze as much, if not more-so than the female. It’s also now commonly known that both Dean and Brando would have identified themselves as LGBTQ+ had they been around today. Rebel Without a Cause was released just weeks after Dean’s tragic and early death and his emotional performance conveyed a vulnerability and sensitivity never before depicted on screen by a male actor. The film contained a covert queer love story between his character Jim Stark and John ‘Plato’ Crawford that represented empowerment and vulnerability to his teenage admirers.

“Generations of queer men saw hope in cinema’s first sympathetic depiction of same-sex teenage love, and its only such depiction for more than a generation, but few straight viewers noticed for half a century”

- Jason Colavito, Esquire

Marlon Brando, The Wild One, 1953
James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause, 1955

“Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed. I have never paid much attention to what people think about me.”

- Marlon Brando, 1976

Marlon Brando went on to proclaim his bisexuality in a 1976 interview: “Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed. I have never paid much attention to what people think about me.”

This blurring of lines between male and female behavioural and dress codes encouraged women such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins to join ranks and pull on jeans, introducing a revolutionary idea: women dressing for empowerment rather than societal protocol. Bear in mind this move wasn’t just empowering, it was considered very daring, after a woman was reportedly sent to jail for wearing a pair of slacks to court in 1939.

Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes on the set of the classic Clash by Night, 1952
Elizabeth Tailor, 1949

The gender neutral appeal of the jean was of course symbolic to the queer community as it represented the erosion of traditional binaries and all over the world, men and women began styling exaggerated and homemade versions of the James Dean look. In Switzerland a self-taught photographer in his 30’s named Karlheinz Weinberger was inadvertently documenting this pivotal moment in time. Weinberger worked primarily for the gay underground Zurich club and magazine Der Kreis, infiltrating a working class group named the “Halbstark” (or “half strong”) and creating a collection of empowering images during the 50’s and 60’s of rock n roll kids in denim and leather, cowboy boots and giant belt buckles.

Karlheiz Weinberger 1960’s

This coincided with the emergence of the Leatherman scene all across the US and the ‘coming out’ of gay bars in America, particularly San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Gay motorcycle clubs like the LA-based Satyrs Motorcycle Club and Oedipus Motorcycle Club also began appearing in the 1950’s and their uniform remained uncannily representative of those early silver screen moments. Countless subcultures have actively pursued certain dress codes to align themselves with like-minded individuals and as queer visibility and acceptance grew, the humble jean was dripping in symbolism.

Karlheinz Weinberger, 1955
Karlheinz Weinberger 1960

Sadly, this is not to say that homosexuality was excepted by the mainstream. In 1952 the American Psychiatric association listed homosexuality in their manual of mental disorders where it remained until 1973. Holding hands in public, socialising in a gay bar or wearing clothing that was traditionally deemed of the ‘opposite sex’ was still criminalised. The Stonewall riots in 1969 marked a monumental moment of change for LGBTQ+ rights and a pivotal step towards equality. At 1.20am on June 28th, 1969 police raided the Stonewall Inn (a notorious Gay bar in Greenwich Village, NY) leading to a 6 day riot which flipped the switch of power from the oppressors to the oppressed. Fred W. McDarrah was the staff photographer at The Village Voice, an alternative newspaper just a few doors down from the Stonewall Inn who became a key photographer covering the riots and their aftermath, showing many protesters dressed in denim. There was even a chant aimed at ridiculing the police’s conventional masculinity during the clash:

“We are the Stonewall Girls, we wear our hair in curls,

We always dress with flair, we wear clean underwear, 

We wear our dungarees, above our nellie knees

(Nellie means feminine)

“The ability of gays, lesbians, drag queens, and transwomen to manipulate and transgress gender boundaries was revealed to be a source of remarkable strength, not a fatal weakness” 

- Andrew E. Larsen, historical author

Fred W McDarrah 1969 New York
Fred W McDarrah, Stonewall

Whilst on the subject of Dungarees, its important to note the significance of this classic workwear item to the Lesbian population as not only an item of female empowerment and a nod to the Civil Rights movement, but also as Anti Male-Gaze attire. 

“The idea of “ugliness” or of refusing to conform to feminine beauty standards was an empowering one for lesbian feminists and it was achieved through stylistic choices: the free-growing of body hair, short or shaven haircuts, makeup-less faces and the ‘dyke uniform’… and part of this ‘dyke uniform’ was a pair of overalls or dungarees”

writes Eleanor Medhurst in her Dressing Dykes platform, exploring lesbian fashion history. This was not simply a shunning of outdated and chiche beauty tropes, this was about signalling through style choices “I don’t want or need men to appreciate me”, such a powerful move forward from the gender norms of the time. She goes on to explain how overalls, much like a lot of these historical signifiers have shifted from their queer fashion roots to become populized by the masses, a concept that can be applied to so many of today’s denim ‘trends’ from skinny white jeans on men to jumpsuits on women. As Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator at the Museum at FIT, said:

“For many years, gays and lesbians were hidden from history … by emphasizing the important role that fashion and style have played within the LGBTQ community, we see how central gay culture has been to the creation of modern fashion.”

- Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator at the Museum at FIT

Lenora Trussell by Joan E. Biren, 1977
March on Albany for Gay Liberation, 14 March 1971. Photo by Diana Davies
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Trend forecaster, denim designer, industry journalist and author of Denim Dudes.