From The Gates to the ‘gram, Roxy Bourdillon examines the relationship between old fashioned glamour and modern sexuality
BY ROXY BOURDILLON
My girlfriend smudging my freshly applied crimson lipstick with urgent kisses. Seamed stockings on the wonk as I dance up a storm at G-A-Y. Blister-ridden feet from trampling all over the patriarchy wearing sparkly peeptoe heels. Welcome to life as a vintage-loving femme. Some might assume that two of my greatest passions – retro fashion and seducing women – are mutually exclusive. To them I say: I like everything girly, including girls. I channel old fashioned glamour, not old fashioned values. And the only thing I want oppressed is my waistline, preferably in a fetching longline girdle.
In these fluid times, plenty of LGBTQIA+ folk feel little or no connection to terms like “femme”. But for me, claiming the label affirms the fact that, despite what I’ve been told by both straight and queer people, my love of the trappings of traditional femininity in no way diminishes my love of women. Like so many girly gays, I’ve been denied entry to queer clubs for “not looking like a lesbian” – literally am a lesbian so couldn’t look more like one unless I was mid-sesh with my GF. When I first came out, I flirted with a trendier “lezzier” aesthetic. I pierced my lip, bought a checked shirt from Topshop and consciously suppressed my inner femme, but this project was doomed. It just wasn’t me. And it wasn’t only the butchness that didn’t feel right, it was the modernity.
In my more grandiose moments, I imagine I’m an old soul. I fancy that embracing vintage style connects me with queer femmes of the past. By donning nothing but a satin nightgown, I give a cheeky nod to Tallulah Bankhead, the “dah-ling” actor of yesteryear who devoured bourbon, codeine and starlets, then cartwheeled into parties with no panties on. At the weekend, my gramophone plays back-to-back Billie Holliday, the lady-loving lady who sings the blues.
Time for a quick herstory lesson. The word “femme”, French for “young woman”, became synonymous with queer culture in the 1940s when the underground bar scene was dominated by “butch and femme”. So it makes total sartorial sense for me to pay homage by dressing up like the girls down The Gates, London’s legendary lezzy nightspot. In Jill Gardiner’s book, From The Closet To The Screen: Women At The Gateways Club, one reveller remembers, “The femme wore skirts, blouses, high-heeled shoes, earrings and make-up, and carried a black patent-leather handbag. You always knew who it was that you were talking to, and who to ask for a dance.”
Through the butch-femme romantic structure, our community created its own specifically female, specifically queer code of erotic conduct. Beyond fashion, femme is about desire – expressing my sexuality for my own pleasure and that of my femme-fancying partner. I reject the male gaze, while relishing the queer female gaze. And don’t taken my femmeness for weakness. Femme is power; glamour is enchantment.
Since our mid-century heyday, we femmes have fallen in and out of favour. In the lesbian separatist movement of the 60s and 70s, butch-femme couples were scorned for “aping” heterosexuality. FYI, my chivalrous girlfriend in no way resembles a bloke and there’s nothing straight about our relationship (except that it’s straight up smokin’). Although I get off on the occasional Gateways-themed role-play, you don’t have to be butch to be my girl. Femme for femme works for me too. The point is my identity is not defined by another. I am femme when flying solo. Loungewear femme – home alone in a silk kimono setting my pin-curls. Gal pal femme – bestowing bosomy cuddles on friends in need. 24/7 femme – moving through the world with sensuality, sensitivity, strength and stilettos.
We vintage-loving queers may be a minority within a minority, but we are increasingly carving out our own spaces – both physical and online. Parties like the monthly Queer Ball at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club give us an excuse to bust out our old school finery. The Vintage Woman magazine recently published its Identity Issue and popular reproduction brands are employing a more diverse range of models. Lori Jade, a flame-haired siren with a spectacular collection of forties frocks, created private Facebook group, Queer Vintage Worldwide, to be “a safe and totally inclusive space for vintage lovin’ LGBTQIA+ people”. Users post flashback photos of Old Timey queeroes, share personal stories and swap fashion tips (high-waisted, lacy strap-on harness, anyone?).
But despite promising signs of progress, creepy straight men still lurk like chauvinist flies in the comments on Insta and around the Chevrolets at car shows, incorrectly assuming that vintage-clad ladies welcome their lechery. And sadly, there are still those who think homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are a good look. My own experience as a lezza on the vintage scene has been mixed. It’s a subculture that attracts slightly eccentric people, so the majority don’t bat a false eyelash at two women holding hands. They’re too busy wondering how that sweetheart in the tea dress got her victory rolls to stay put so flawlessly. But it’s also true that many vintage nights have a distinctly “dudes and dames” vibe. I’ve often been read as straight by heteronormative cabaret MCs, even when my girlfriend, serving dapper butch realness in a flat cap and braces, clearly has her hand on my thigh.
Femme invisibility is something Chaka Bachman, who blogs as The Defiant Femme, is well versed in. She describes her style as “vintage glam, dapper eccentricity and a hint of kinky femininity”. In an interview with Dapper Q she explains, “Identifying as Femme is for me a subversive and radical act. It is an entirely conscious act in which I reclaim my femininity, away from the heteronormative gaze and toxic misogyny.” In the words of RuPaul, can I get an amen? We vintage femmes are eloquent, exceptionally well dressed warrior queens.
Of course, some of the reasons I love vintage have nothing at all to do with my sexuality. I am soothed and centred by the ritual of getting ready, applying make-up with meditative precision, gathering my strength to face the outside world. By perpetually looking as fabulous as I can, I imbue each day with a sense of possibility. Permanently overdressed, I’m always ready for a last minute ball invite. Clothes that have already lived a secret life fill me with wonder. Rhinestones lift my spirits. And I not only honour my femme foremothers through my attire, but also my glamourpuss granny, still the most radiant beauty I ever knew.
For lesbian YouTuber Jessica Kellgren-Fozard, who sums up her aesthetic as “vintage Disney princess meets Hollywood sweetheart”, there isn’t necessarily a direct link between her orientation and her style. She tells me, “I don’t know that the way I look connects that much to my sexuality. We are who we are inside and we choose to dress in whatever makes us happiest. Being very high femme makes me very happy.” Similarly, while on one level my vintage femme presentation affirms my identity and reflects my truest, most authentic self, on another, I just really like sparkly shit.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!