How To Queer A Look: A Cultural Critic’s Investigation

The following is an excerpt adapted from Fabulous: The Rise Of The Beautiful Eccentric, copyright © 2018 by Madison Moore and reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

Madison Moore

Working a look is inherently queer. In an ethnography of the relationship between nightlife and queer world-making, performance theorist Fiona Buckland writes about how dance clubs were “spaces to be fabulous.” Because many queer bodies are “worldless”—disconnected from support networks of family or church—Buckland shows how fabulousness in the queer dance club gives partyers the chance to express themselves as well as their queerness. She calls this a “currency of fabulousness,” a phrasing that has deep implications for queer self-imagining.

This “currency of fabulousness” is about the process of getting ready to go out and put outfits together from disparate materials and for as little coin as possible. This is what I’ve been calling creative strangeness, an aesthetic that stands out because it pairs objects and situations that we think have no business together. Creative strangeness is a fashion editorial spread showing a guy standing in a trash can wearing a vintage wedding dress, shaved eyebrows, and rings on every finger, holding a fabulous snake, totally covered in oil, and posing for the gods. It doesn’t make any sense—it’s bizarre, interesting, forcing us to look over and over—but that’s why it works. It’s an exaggerated storyboard of the self, style as theater.

As a queer aesthetic, looks are ultimately short, theatrical vignettes that highlight the power of ideas, imagination, and creating a visual sensation, like black queer performer Leo GuGu as he “slayed shoppers in a look” on the streets of New York.

The day I met GuGu near Bleecker Street I asked him to describe his look to me: “Right now, I’m serving fashionista on her day off. I’m wearing these faux [Christian] Louboutin’s with the spikes. I’m wearing these trash bag harem pants—I got them at Goodwill. I feel like I’m in Milan right now, not in New York.”

Fake Christian Louboutin’s, trash bag pants from Goodwill. Who cares whether the items are real or fake? It’s the fantasy that counts. Working a look is not about expensive, designer goods, or about buying into an aesthetic that a fashion house has said is “in.” It’s about resourcefulness, self-couture, and knowing how to put together an arresting image, one that exposes an “inner theater that is costumed by choice in clothes,” as cultural historian Anne Hollander describes. Working a look is about expressing a philosophy of creativity, about knowing how, through collage, to combine an array of materials into a full look, or story, giving “a visual aspect to consciousness” along the way.

Ultimately, we’re talking about style as utopia, a separate space where we get to play with ideas, creativity, and expression to create a whole new world, a stylish one at that, in the here and now.

Madison Moore, Ph.D., is a cultural critic, DJ, and creative director. His work has appeared in Theater, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, Aperture, Out, Interview, and more.

Fabulous: The Rise Of The Beautiful Eccentric is out now from Yale University Press.

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