Gay style-why it’s everywhere

Lawrence O’Toole February 18 1980

Gay style-why it’s everywhere

Lawrence O’Toole February 18 1980

Gay style-why it’s everywhere

Lawrence O’Toole

"Tacky, that’s really tacky,” said a businessman to his confrere in a popular Toronto restaurant. Dressed by Brooks Brothers and inspired by the conservative climate of Bay Street, our man in the cabana caressing his cigar may not have known that “tacky” used to be almost the sole proprietorship of homosexuals to describe something tasteless. Now it has as common a currency as another phrase of gay genesis—“out of the closet.” Our man may not have known either that the colors and contours of this eaterie,

with its ersatz art deco furnishings, were fixtures of gay style before straights surrounded themselves with same. His waiter, a mucho macho young man sporting a pair of beefy, bronzed arms, leaves no clues that he's gay. What our man is patronizing, perhaps unconsciously, is gay style; rather, what used to be gay style. Gay has gone mainstream, been mainlined into mass culture.

"Enormous,” is the word used by Peter Carlsen to describe the impact gays have had on style. He is a senior editor and writer at Gentlemen’s Quarterly, the bible of male fashion and lifestyle fancies. The list of styles and trends introduced by gays, or for which gays take credit, is somewhat staggering: disco, Sunday brunch, wicker, Perrier, sandblasted townhouses and reconverted warehouses, High Tech, specialty card shops, single earrings, moustaches and the current taste for things camp. Then there are the duds, from painter pants to Hawaiian shirts to military chic. Being gay in the past decade has

Dress, design, ways of spending leisure time—all these things are elements of style; and style is a means of presenting oneself to the rest of the world—an advertisement for the self. More self-conscious because it is a minority taste (Kinsey's Institute of Sex Research estimates that 10 per cent of the U S. population is homosexual), gay style in the '70s, with more and more people “coming out,” was very much in evidence—and new. Anything new in a decade so ravenous for rapid change was easily assimilated into mass style. And mass style is always instigated by a select few arbiters of taste who, by their very avocation, would be hooked into the homosexual world. The result was a dramatic dissipation of the gay stereotype, since it w was now becoming part of a straight style > that was exhausting its own resources. * The gay stereotype of the past was de£

meant, above and beyond all else, being busy.

fined by extremity: the frills of Victorian dandies, the extravagant displays of drag queens. It was also defined by softness: lavender, limp wrists and lisping. But nowadays extreme style, as paraded by gays or straights, is par for the course of the wandering eye. Suddenly, it is virtually impossible to determine sexual bent by what people wear, how they spend their time and money, or by occupation. The line between masculine and feminine, given the androgyny of fashion in general since the '60s, has been blurred. The upshot is that being a hairdresser is no guarantee of being gay, and that being a plumber is no guarantee of not being gay. Style has become looser, optional and, most of all, interchangeable.

A Toronto gay bar, The Barn, isn’t so different from any straight one where men

stop in for a drink. Dress is imitative bluecollar chic, behavior can be bellicose. A suggestion of sissiness to some patrons there could result in a free face-lift: The Barn is one of the last bastions of gay macho. ‘‘The macho look,” says Ed Jackson of Toronto’s gay newspaper, The Body Politic, “was a form of protest. It said in effect, ‘See, we can be just like you.’ ” It was also a form of protection: butch guys weren’t likely to get beaten up. But Jackson and other gays say that the macho look is fast fading as the gay community blends more comfortably into the straight.

That blending has, perhaps, been a function of money; nowhere have gays been as noticeable as in the marketplace. Nobody knows for sure how large the gay buying market is, or how much money has flown from styles and tastes begun by gays; like style itself, it isn’t quantifiable. It is, however, estimated that gays are a billion-dollar market in North America, for everything from magazines to gay cruises. Concentrated in large urban centres (Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver in Canada) where trends first gestate, it's obvious that the gay market is a considerable slice of the consuming pie. Michael Laking, president of Toronto’s gay Lambda Business Council, says, “The buying power of the gay dollar is substantial—gays have more disposable income than straights.” There are no children to speak of, no divorces, no alimony; there is, however, a vulnerability to advertising which sells "lifestyle.”

Though advertising agencies don’t admit to directing promotion to gays specifically, ads have become more markedly gay-oriented, at the very least ambiguous. "There seem to be certain commercials which might be attractive to gays,” says Jacques Bouchard of BCP Advertising in Montreal, "such as the beer commercials

where men look male and hard-looking." Some leave a suggestion that the boys will enjoy each other as much as the beer that night. In an ad for a hotel one man eyes another carnally. Two couples in a liquor ad make intense eye contact; one of the couples is male. In a TV ad a man gets into an elevator and cruises another. An invitation to buy swimwear reads, rather unambiguously, "Join a family of men/ From sea to shining sea,” under a shot of water dripping off rippling muscles. Another, urging readers to partake of the joys of underwear, runs "A few bare inches of smooth, supple, shape-showing maleness in soft Egyptian cotton.” There’s more than alliteration there. If the male is being sold as an erotic object, it seems financial folly to restrict the pitch to one gender.

Terry O’Malley of Vickers and Benson in Toronto says the gay market is "not significant,” but he does admit that there is "the influence of gays who have worked in and around the business, and exert an influence you probably wouldn’t notice.” Bouchard of BCP says 90 per cent of the male models he knows are gay, which suggests that a “gayness” is likely to pervade ads, especially for male attire. "Gay,” like the word itself, has seeped into the consciousness of the millions of minions advertising reaches. And while homosexuality may not be accepted in all quarters, that doesn’t mean its style isn’t.

Nowhere has gay style had a more profound impact than in men’s fashions. "Gays are more aware of their bodies than heterosexuals,” says GO'S Peter Carlsen. Since there’s more concentrated competition in the gay subculture, gay men are more drastic in their self-appraisal. But now, he points out, the emphasis on narcissism, hedonism and lack of belief in the future has subsided somewhat in the gay

community and crossed over into the straight lifestyle. The perfect example of that was the phenomenal resurrection of disco by gays and its success thereafter in straight society. One of the largest selling disco groups of 1979, The Village People, wear archetypal gay clothing and shout lyrics celebrating the gay lifestyle as embodied in Key West, Fire Island, the "macho man,” tricking at the YMCA and joining the navy to cruise sailors. Still the trendiest disco in North America is New York’s gay Flamingo where, if a disc catches on, it is marketed to become a hit nationwide. The Flamingo essentially decides what the hits of a multimillion-dollar industry will be. In Canada discos originally intended as gay dance palaces, such as Vancouver’s Faces and Luv-A-Fair and Toronto's Stages, couldn’t keep the straights out.

The first flush of liberation that came with the gay escapist sensibility found itself rising into the previously pallored straight face. The gay mass sex watering holes, of which New York's Mineshaft is the last of its kind, were responsible for the grope-inthe-group straight equivalents such as Plato’s Retreat. "The gay,” says Carlsen, "has a detached view of society,” and that detached, ironic distance from things became increasingly appealing to straights in the rapaciously changing and cynical '70s.

It is because of the instant conveyance of change by the media that taste travels so fast, which accounts for the undeniable impact gays have had on contemporary culture. Several years ago when male designers, picking up on a style developed by gays, brought in the soft and "draped” look, gays had already begun to change their image again: the macho, or butch boy, look. The “Castro Street clones,” named after San Francisco’s main gay drag, was “in”: torn denim and T-shirts, cowboy accoutrements, leather, super-short hair, ascetically trimmed beards and moustaches. That look may be the next to be adopted by straights, but it's dying out in the gay world.” Says The Body Politic’s Ed Jackson: “There’s a re-evaluation going on in the gay community about the image it wants to project.” Vancouver designer Gabriel Levy says, "The direction [in men’s clothes] is softer and more sensual than the tough-guy approach.” "Gay men in New York are wearing softer clothes and more colors,” Peter Carlsen claims. "Even the hair is getting longer. Gays are becoming aware of the possibilities of a stable relationship.” This might seem to some the antithesis of the current straight view.

The irony in all this is, as Carlsen puts it, that the gay “can reproduce straight style more consciously and even better than straights themselves.” That detached view, ironically again, has made it possible for gay style to blend with straight. That, and the fact money made from the influence of gay style doesn't bother anybody. Business is business. Dollars don’t copulate.