The Museum of Modern Art has a major exhibition called "Is Fashion Modern?" Part of the exhibtion covers t-shirts.
Coordinating with the exhibition, the museum publishes a blog with some wonderful articles. I'm honored that they wanted to know the backstory of my photograph of Alix Dobkin wearing "the future is female" shirt from Labyris Books. Please read the actual blog...it's got some great essays. I've reprinted mine here.
The story behind the The Future Is Female graphic T-shirt is well known, both within feminists circles and outside them. In 2015, the Lesbian history Instagram account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y posted a photo of folk singer Alix Dobkin wearing a T-shirt with the logo in 1975, a piece of merchandise from Labyris Books, New York City’s first women’s bookstore. Soon after, the owners of Los Angeles–based boutique Otherwild approached Liza Cowan — the photographer and Dobkin’s then partner — requesting permission to reproduce the T-shirt. The garment and logo have since become an enduring symbol, worn by celebrities and civilians alike. It has also sparked numerous debates about the binary nature of gender and about the necessity for more inclusive discourses in mainstream feminism.
The story of the groundbreaking project that gave birth to the famous photograph is less known, however. As an artist working in the context of separatist Lesbian politics, Cowan was interested in the semiotic power of fashion to communicate identity. Years before costume and dress gained academic validation, Cowan developed a photo essay called “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear,” an exploration of Lesbian dress and its role in the construction of identity. As part of our research for item #044 on the Items: Is Fashion Modern? checklist, the Graphic T-shirt, we spoke with Cowan about the project, the political implications of Lesbian dress, and the proliferation of identity-proclaiming merchandise.
You first published your photo series “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear” in COWRIE Lesbian Feminist magazine. Can you talk a little more about what prompted you to work on this and the context in which it was developed?
COWRIE was a small magazine I started in 1972, originally as the newsletter of a women’s group on the Upper East Side of New York City. The group was called Community of Women, and our goal, unachieved, was to start a women’s center to serve the women in the neighborhood. By the third issue, in June 1973, the group had disbanded, but my editorial partner and I decided to continue publishing the newsletter as a magazine for Lesbians, renamed COWRIE Lesbian Feminist.
I had been observing how the women in the Lesbian community — as we called it then — were dressing. In 1972 I was inspired by a wonderful article in Rags Magazine, edited by Mary Peacock and Daphne Davis, called “What Gay Women Wear.”
I began to ask questions about clothing, both to myself and to my friends. I had just come out the year before, at age 21, and had started to dress like my Lesbian peers. I wanted to know why we dressed as we did, and what were the social and political implications. Mind you, this was decades before fashion, or even culture theory, was considered worthy of study as an academic discipline. In those days it was considered trivial, and I was often ridiculed for being interested in fashion. I knew it wasn’t trivial, and I knew that clothing carried a message. I wanted to decipher it.
In the seven-part series, I covered general observations, history of Lesbian clothing — including ancient Amazons — and contemporary lesbian clothing designers, hair, and shoes. In every one, I was trying to decipher the political and social consequences and meanings of our clothing choices.
My main theory, I suppose, was that contemporary Lesbians didn’t want to look like men, as we were constantly accused of trying to do, but we wanted to look like Lesbians — women-loving women — to invoke the styles of at least some of our foremothers. We wanted to honor our history and to wear clothes that would signal our identity to other Lesbians.
Why did our foremothers, some of them, dress in men’s clothing? Because of the power and freedom that men’s clothing both symbolized and allowed. Through the ages men have dressed for freedom, for comfort, and for power. Women have been forced to dress as second-class citizens and sexual objects. From hobble-skirts to corsets, from stiletto heels to beehives, our clothing has confined and constricted us. Lesbians didn’t want to look like men, they wanted to be free — free to move, free to play, free to run, free to work, free to catch the eye of other women, and free to mark themselves as off-limits to men.
Clothing — in addition to being necessary, sometimes fun, and always interesting — is about power and class. It always has been. Clothing is deeply symbolic. That is my interest. Writing about clothing was always an intellectual pursuit. I was not interested, or able, to tell women what to wear or where to shop, or what accessories to buy. I wanted to explore the meaning.
“The discussion I had with my friend [who had asked me why I wanted to look “dykey”] made me start thinking about the Lesbian Look. What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear. And why. I knew we look different from straight women. Is it a clothing style? A hair style? The movement Lesbians that I know, the community that shows up at conferences, women’s dances etc. all tend to dress similarly: comfortable clothes, T shirts, sturdy footwear, hair cut short, tied back, or loose au naturel. Women wear put-together suits, and blazers are always popular. But many of the women that go to bars (at least on weekends) wear outfits straight from Glamour magazine: platform shoes, tube tops, baubles, crimson mouths and plucked eyebrows. These clothes carry quite a different message.”
— Cowrie Lesbian Feminist, Vol. 1 #3, June 1973
“The clothes I wear help me to know my own power. So does being a Lesbian. I love the way I look. I love the way other lesbians look. I’m learning to rid myself of all straight patriarchal values and build my own world. So it’s a combination of clothes and attitude that make a woman identifiable as a lesbian”
— Cowrie Lesbian Feminist, Vol. 1 #3, June 1973
In 1975, along with my childhood friend Penny House, I started another magazine called DYKE: A Quarterly. The “What the Well Dressed Dyke” series continued there, but only for one issue. Our inaugural flyer for the magazine has become somewhat famous now, and exemplifies that Dyke look I had been describing in my articles. Decades later, in 2016, the flyer was featured in the book Gay Gotham, by Donald Albrecht and Stephan Vider, who curated the Gay Gotham exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.
Penny House and I had read fashion magazines ever since we were young girls. We both came from upper-middle-class families in New York City, where fashion — and the fashion industry — was part of the air we breathed. We had one school chum who had moved to England and became one of the world’s first supermodels in the ’60s, and we also had other friends whose parents were photographers, fashion editors, or were featured in magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and the like. We thought it would be amusing to do a photoshoot of Dykes as a fashion image. Dykes — the famously “ugly” and badly dressed. We found a Lesbian photographer who had access to a fashion photography studio. Her dad owned it and she was one of his assistants.
Penny and I gathered a couple of women to join us in the shoot, including Alix Dobkin as well as Penny’s modelesque friend Val. The photographer’s girlfriend was also in the shoot. Alix and I were wearing jeans. I had just shaved my head and was wearing a bandana and a blue work shirt, the kind I’d loved since I was a “folkie” teen. Blue work shirts were emblematic of ’60s folkies, as were bandanas. Laborers’ outfits, appropriated by middle-class kids, had become trendy again within a subcategory of Dykes who had grown up as Beats and folkies. Penny, Alix, and I are wore vests. Alix and Penny’s were traditional, woolen “men’s” vests, which we used to buy at thrift stores. Mine was blue cotton with tiny white flowers on it, a kind of a vestigial hippy item. Val had on gorgeous tall leather boots with a folded-over top. Alix and I were wearing workmen’s boots and shoes, another leftie/folkie appropriation that was quite popular among Lesbians. Debbie and Penny seem to be wearing Frye boots, which were all the rage.
More than anything, though, it is our posture that says, “We’re Dykes!” Ladies just did not stand like that; hands on hips, standing squarely on two feet, balanced and ready, staring straight at the camera with no smiles. It would never be unusual to see a group of men with this body language, but a group of women? Highly unusual, and only could be read as Lesbian.
It was around this time, 1974 and 1975, that Alix Dobkin and I were contacted to do presentations at an event in California called The Lesbian History Exploration. I decided to make my series into a slide show. One of the photos I used was an image I took of Alix wearing The Future Is Female T-shirt from our friends at Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City.
In the series, you explore what you call Lesbian “archetypes,” like the Amazons, but you also discuss certain stereotypes like “haute Dykes.” What was your research process like?
I prepared for the slideshow by taking photos of images in books of Lesbians from a particular era of Lesbian history, mostly American and British expats living in Paris — women like Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall, Margaret Anderson, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Clifford Barney, Sylvia Beach, Alice B. Toklas, Romaine Brooks, Janet Flanner, Renée Vivien, and more. I relied heavily on photos taken by the legendary Lesbian photographer Berenice Abbott. These women had recently earned legendary stature among my Lesbian friends and colleagues.
Then I took photos of contemporary Lesbians, mainly in New York City. I created the categories of fashion expression, “DYKE Schlepp” and “DYKE Finery,” and set about going to every event I could find at the time. For a couple of months I went to many events for Lesbians including dances, workshops, conferences, networking gatherings, concerts, and even a fashion show by Lesbian clothing designer Morgan Zale, whom I had interviewed for COWRIE. I went looking for what women were wearing, and asking permission to photograph them. In that era, there were many such events every month in New York City. I did not go to bars, mostly because the lighting would be terrible.
DYKE Schlep was, as it sounds, our everyday clothing: jeans and T-shirts, pea coats, work boots, denim overalls, sneakers, and Frye boots. Pretty much an up-cycled workman/folkie look. DYKE Finery included the outfits we wore to mostly evening events: jeans, suspenders, blazers, Frye boots, wingtip shoes, and the occasional fedora or tie. The difference between Schlepp and Finery was not huge, as I recall.
There was a section on hair. We tended to wear our hair short, sometimes the very bold shaved their heads. I did it once, just to see what it was like, and so I could document it for the slide show. I also included categories of lesbian accessories, like feminist/lesbian political buttons, which everyone wore, and the ever-present bandana/kerchief, which was tied in many different ways. As I travelled around the country, I continued to add slides and would include them in subsequent presentations around the US.
The last section of the show was about the style evolution of a few Lesbian friends, showing how their looks had changed as they went from girlhood to adulthood. I made slides from the photos in their photo albums and then photographed the women as they were at the time I was putting together the presentation. Most had gone through a period of being heterosexual, which made the whole thing both interesting and hilarious to my audiences. I think only one woman had been a Dyke her whole life, but even she had a marriage of “convenience,” which she had documented and was in the show.
In addition to my live photoshoots, I also did a number of interviews for the COWRIE series. I spent a wonderful afternoon at The Metropolitan Museum of Art with Stella Blum, who was at that time the curator of their fashion/clothing department. I also tried to interview Dietrich Felix von Bothmer, curator of Greek antiquities at the Met when I was researching Amazon clothing. He scoffed at me and told me he would not do my “homework.”
“h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y” and Otherwild took inspiration from your photograph of Alix Dobkin for their first collaborative clothing collection, which gave rise to many Lesbian-history-inspired garments. What are your thoughts on the growing availability of queer identity-proclaiming garments and their popularity? What is the biggest change that you see when you compare this context to the radical Lesbian one in which you came of age?
I don’t know why garments with slogans are popular in general. I never wear shirts with slogans, no matter how much I agree with them. I never have. I don’t enjoy being a walking billboard, and I find it odd that so many women do. The only one in my household who wears slogan shirts is the Rootstein mannequin who lives in my dining room. She likes when people stare at her — it’s her job. If I were going to wear one, I’d wear the T-shirt from Old Lesbians Organizing for Change that says, in simple block letters, “This is what an old Lesbian looks like.” It’s an inspiring message, it’s a fundraiser for a great organization, and it would be really hard to appropriate it.
However, the fact remains that these shirts are now big business. There were plenty of feminist and Lesbian T-shirts, of course, during the 1970s. Enough that DYKE: A Quarterly was planning for a theme-based issue on Lesbian Media, including T-shirts and buttons. But most of the T-shirts of that era were decorated with slogans and symbols from women’s groups, events, or places. Bars, conferences, sports teams, political groups and actions, etc. had their shirts. They were popular, and they were a great way to fundraise. T-shirts commemorated a place, an event, a group, but usually not a free-floating idea. Even the original The Future Is Female T-shirt had the name of Labyris Books on the back.
The point of buying these shirts was to support the places, the women, or events that created them. Sometimes the shirt was a medium for communicating a political action or “zap,” like the day in 1970 when a group of radical Lesbians occupied the stage at a meeting of the Second Congress to Unite Women wearing “Lavender Menace” T-shirts, protesting the exclusion of Lesbians and Lesbian issues from the feminist movement.That was a defining moment in lesbian history, made more powerful by the shirts themselves. This was not T-shirt as commodity. The action and the shirt are entangled.
T-shirts also acted as a way to signal other women. Wearing a T-shirt that said “Amazon Expedition,” for example, was a cue to let other women know that you’d been at that wonderful event, and the word “Amazon” let other women know that you were probably a Lesbian without actually broadcasting a message to everyone.
It was not hard to find T-shirts that included words like “Lesbian” or “Amazon” or “Sister” commemorating a march or an event, if you knew where to look, but you’d rarely find a T-shirt without the name of the group that made it, and date of the event. There were, of course, times when you’d see shirts that were just a slogan without a corresponding place or event. One well known photo shows a pair of women wearing shirts, one of which said “femme” and the other “butch,” but I think those shirts were homemade.
The big change came when T-shirts went from being fundraisers, cues, and memorabilia for events or groups to being commodities in themselves. In the past, the only place to buy Lesbian T-shirts, buttons, etc. was at an event, or at a woman’s bookstore. So you were supporting either an event, or a feminist venue, or both. Today, there are only a couple of women’s bookstores in existence. In the past, there were dozens and dozens.
Today, e-commerce and the huge popularity of slogan T-shirts have changed the whole ballgame. Anyone can buy a shirt without ever setting foot into a women’s bookstore or a feminist or Lesbian event. The shirts are are now just free-floating commodities. When you see someone wearing a T-shirt that says “Feminist” or “Love wins,” it does not reference a particular event, group, or even timeframe. It’s just something you bought.