Accessorizing refers to the use of something in such a way that it accents one’s appearance. In the LGBTQ community, accessorizing is a highly valued art form that often reflects a camp ethos of hilarious exaggeration in which fashion is a force for the highest good, lack of style is the worst atrocity, and enemies are ridiculed for not living up to aesthetic standards.
In the world of fashion, accessories are used in an outfit for two reasons: practical use and visual impact. The practicality of a thick coat in cold weather or an umbrella in rainy weather makes these accessories valuable for their usefulness. The other reason for accessories, visual impact, is a different kind of value: attracting the right kind of attention from a chosen audience.
In the gendering of fashion, accessorizing for visual rather than practical reasons has been associated with women rather than men, except for military and paramilitary parade dress (and in some societies, fighting gear), political and religious office, theatrical performance, and festivals. Obsession with accessorizing for visual impact has been the hallmark of the effeminate homosexual man since at least the seventeenth century in Western European discourse. In English, the terms dandy and fop refer to a man who is overly concerned with fashion, and whose masculinity is questionable.
One embodied example of accessorizing associated with same-sex orientation was the British author Oscar Wilde, who wore flamboyant (from Old French: flamboyer or “to flame”) clothes as accessories to draw attention to himself. Wilde also wore a green carnation in his outfits, which would become a coded accessory signifying homosexuality.
The most prominent feature of accessorizing in Gay folk history is the presentation of self in drag, and may be traced to the pansy shows, male illusionist performances, and drag balls of the early twentieth century in America. Notorious drag queen Bert Savoy wore flamboyant women’s outfits and perched large hats on the side of his head during his stage performances.
At the Harlem drag balls, men in extravagant drag would be presented to throngs of onlookers, including female and male cross-dressers who accessorized clothing to present themselves in varying degrees of drag off-stage. Not confining herself to drag balls, jazz/blues singer Gladys Bentley performed in a man’s tuxedo as she sang ribald songs at the piano in clubs such as Mona’s in San Francisco and the Clam House in New York City. Bentley was also known to accessorize male dancers in drag to perform during her numbers in Harlem’s Ubangi Club.
Accessorizing as Code
Tolerance of orientation- and gender-variant people has fluctuated in the course of history. For the most part, Gay folk before Stonewall (1969) had to exercise extreme caution when revealing their orientation. Dress codes for women and men were sometimes policed by authorities with vigor, so subtle accessorizing became a means for finding romance and like-minded companions. The accessory could be as simple as carrying a certain book or magazine recognizable by other members of the community.
Safe enclaves in the decades before Stonewall would often feature drag performers who would accessorize clothing worn by police, soldiers, sexy actresses, and 1950s rockers to dazzle and attract customers into the establishments. In the late 1970s, the Village People disco group accessorized costumes associated with machismo, such as the soldier, construction worker, Indian warrior, and cowboy. About the same time, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence loosely imitated the dress of Catholic nuns, adding whiteface and extreme drag queen makeup.
At the end of the twentieth century, drag king troupes continued the tradition of cross-dressing for women, and presented themselves as masculine icons such as Elvis Presley, accessorizing elements of his iconography (hair, bell bottoms, and sideburns, as does Canada’s Carlos Las Vegas in the twenty-first century).
Stonewall: accessorizing rage and violence
The story of a crucial moment in LGBTQ modern history, the Stonewall Uprising, has elements reflecting the aesthetics of accessorizing. Popular versions of the story includes effeminate men, butch women, men in drag, and transpeople, thus portraying the riot as the reaction of a population marked by orientation and gender diversity. Violence against the police during the initial raid (and later against the riot squads) was mostly for show and not intended to harm the police officers. In addition to the accessorizing of violence, there was biting humor and lampooning aimed at those same police by the rioters, turning the authorities into hapless participants in campy street performances. The riot police functioned as accessories in a show intended for broadcast across the world, and indeed that is what the riots and the protests afterward became: propaganda designed for the presentation of the Gay community-as-visible.
That same rage and humor would be summoned in zaps: unannounced performances of activist groups such as the Gay Activist Alliance (later on, the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance), ACT UP, and the Lesbian Avengers. ACT UP would even incorporate accessories into one of their chants:
Your gloves don’t match your shoes
They’ll see it on the news
Accessories are often the key for LGBTQ activism, such as waving underwear during the Toronto Panties Picket Protest in 2002 in response to a raid against a women’s bathhouse event, or the red ribbon for AIDS activism.
One year after Stonewall, protesters held the first marches that would eventually become Pride parades held around the globe. Pride parades are venues for accessorizing on a grand scale, with Dykes on Bikes in leather motorcycle gear; Leathermen and women in Leather gear designed for sex play; paramilitary uniforms, rifles, and flags of marching bands; and rainbow accessories in parade and in the crowd.
Erotic and Festival Accessorizing
In the performance of erotic presentation, accessorizing has been coded for both stage and for cruising (looking for romance and/or sex) at a bar. The Leather community has accessorized various items that mark the Leatherman and Leatherwoman, such as leather and chrome harnesses, leather vests, leather caps, chaps, pants, kilts, boots, and spike heels.
The hanky code is a color-coded system in which people can signal what kinds of erotic acts they prefer by adroit placing of a colored handkerchief upon their person, usually a back pants pocket. Burlesque performers at Lesbian clubs utilize bustiers, pasties (tassels attached to circles glued on the nipples), feather boas, and high heels.
Lack of clothing may also be an accessory in LGBTQ festivals. For Pride events and women’s music festivals, many women will go without shirts and display their breasts. Similar display of the torso can be found in the muscles-as-accessory display at Gay men’s Circuit parties in which men will take off their shirts as they dance.
The most significant and creative use of accessorizing remains with the camp performance of drag, and remains a major feature of drag queen pageants, drag king performance, organizations such as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the regal pomp of the International Court System.
Ethics of Accessorizing
One of the important features of accessorizing in Gay folklife is the baseline principle that anything can be accessorized, especially if it is controversial or nonsensical. The dynamics implicit in this principle have the symbolic power to raise anything to aesthetic heights while simultaneously reducing the implicit sanctity of the accessorized. For example, Jesus on the cross is a sacred icon for many Christians. But a drag show may incorporate a well-built Jesus in a silver loincloth and glowing stigmata singing a show tune with Roman soldiers and/or Hebrew temple priests as back-up dancers.
The incorporation of military gear in Circuit events privileges the man in uniform as sexy, but trivializes military identity by relegating it into the category of a sexual fetish.
For the LGBTQ community, the importance of accessorizing those who are its most visible opponents is not only done for scandalous humor but also an ethical imperative to show homophobic organizations and individuals that they are not above ridicule.
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DiLallo, Kevin and Jack Krumholtz. The Unofficial Gay Manual: Living the Lifestyle, or at Least Appearing to. New York: Main Street, 1994.
Simpson, Mark. Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 1994.