Paris is Burning - The Intersection of High Fashion and the Black LGBTQ Community
High-collars. Organza-lined gowns. Floor-length fur coats. Labels on top of labels.
At thirst thought, you would think I am describing the latest high fashion show in Paris, however, I am actually describing the attire of any ballroom extravaganza held by the black and brown LGBT community. Looking a little deeper, past the clothing of the ball attendees, and you will see that the connection between the ballroom scene, the black/brown LGBT community, and their love of high fashion. High fashion and the queer community may have a long history, but when it comes to the black LGBT community, this love can be dated to the 80s.
The 1980s was a crucial time for queer people of color. The community was up against factors that sought to threaten their very livelihood and existence; specifically the sudden explosion of the AIDS epidemic as well as a lack of housing resources and employment. Many within the community were cast out and cast aside. Losing their families and any type of emotional support, queer POC turned towards each other; establishing their own family units, commonly known as a “House.” These “houses” provided the main source of stability within the unstable, volatile, and very solemn times.
To escape the combined harsh realities of homelessness, racism, poverty, and homophobia, the black LGBT community would retreat and rejoice in the world of high fashion. High fashion, or “haute couture,” was more than designer labels; it was about a lifestyle. The Houses would idolize these designer brands (so much so that they would shoplift designer garments to wear), as well as the models who wore them - so much so that the Houses essentially named themselves after these high fashion houses. The House of St. Laurent (named after designer Yves St. Laurent) was among the Houses that adopted high fashion monikers.
In grandiose style, the Houses would throw largely extravagant events called “balls,” as both a ceremonious celebration of black queer life and a competitive displays of one-upmanship between the different Houses. The members of the Houses walk “the runway” while donning their best and most extravagant clothes and competing against each other in various categories.
The “ballroom” scene was more than a competition or a party. The balls offered an alternative to the reality of the hard times. Members of the Houses would immerse themselves and adopt these high fashion lifestyles. Fashion is more than spectacle and expression. High fashion often saved the lives of House members. The world of high fashion gave the black and brown LGBT community a higher sense of self and identity in a world that piled the odds against them.
What started out as escapism has led to many breakthroughs for the black LGBT community. The first was the tipping point of the ballroom scene. The sensational, whimsical, and larger-than-life balls began to catch on, as many wanted to be a part of this elaborately-structured world. This led to the 1990 critically-acclaimed New York ballroom movie Paris is Burning, which details the early ballroom scene and many social troubles that its key players faced. Paris is Burning was widely known as the first mainstream peek inside the mostly underground black LGBT scene. Voguing, a popular dance style within the community, was also highlighted in the movie. Voguing received its name from the high fashion magazine, Vogue; characterized by dramatic poses and positions mirroring those in editorials of the famed magazine. This dance style further caught on a year later when Madonna released her classic song named after the dance (and employing several gay men of color from the New York ball scene as dancers in the music video).
Decades have passed since this era, but the intersection of high fashion and the black LGBT community only intensified. Art soon began to imitate life imitating art, as these fashion brands would turn to the community to not only inspire them but to showcase their designer labels in the grandest form. True, this may not do much to fight the continued battles for the social change for the community, but it is certainly leaps and bounds over where we started. And that alone is reason enough to don the fiercest fashions, and proudly strut your stuff.