In the 2021 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition titled In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, two mannequins stand side-by-side wearing suits of the same shade of grey. The mannequin dressed in the women’s blazer wears a pair of Thom Browne trousers rolled up at the ankle. The other mannequin, in a near-identical men’s blazer, wears a Thom Browne pleated skirt and knee-high socks, a signature of the label. In the school of Thom Browne, the classrooms are co-ed and the boys are wearing skirts.
Despite his last name, designer Thom Browne works almost exclusively with grey. ‘So many of my collections do start from the idea of how I am going to make the grey suit interesting, again.’1 Thom Browne’s work is defined by the continual betrayal of a fixed variable that he has chosen, his house code, the grey suit and its many metaphors. With each collection, he responds to the conventions of menswear by constructing a uniform, then, as if to break his own rule, abstracts it with flair and corny flamboyance. In his school, Browne is both the principal enforcing the dress code and the truant teenager wearing the uniform however he wants.
Browne is working with ‘the idea of uniformity,’ which ‘most people think is not interesting or very constricting.’2 Constricting. This is an approach to dress and design that impedes expression. The uniform constricts also the physical expression as it presupposes the wearer’s deportment. Stand upright. Shoulders back. There is no bending over in a Thom Browne suit. Above a Thom Browne twin suit set displayed at the Met is the word ‘Discipline.’ So-called perspex ‘word bubble head-pieces’ hover over the mannequin heads like halos. These words represent the ‘defining emotional qualities of American fashion,’ said Andrew Bolton, the curator of the exhibition.
Browne’s long-term boyfriend, Andrew Bolton is the head curator of the Anna Wintour Costume Center at The Met. Every year, Bolton bangs the proverbial gong in fashion as he is tasked with curating a Met fashion exhibition, the opening night of which attracts insurmountable global interest and coverage. As envisaged by Bolton, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion presented a ‘revised vocabulary of American fashion’ that explored the provenance and prominence of American fashion, in turn providing Bolton an opportunity to celebrate his boyfriend, Browne, whose work was featured throughout the exhibition.
Bolton and Browne are two of the most influential men in fashion today. Both of them are gay and both of them have grey hair. Together they form an unmarried, gay power-couple deciding what’s in while ostensibly living in sin. What does it mean for Browne and Bolton to be ‘in bed with’ one another? The idiom suggests something sinister – a conspiracy.
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In a letter to Karl Marx in 1869, Friedrich Engels writes, ‘paederasts are beginning to count themselves and find that they make up a power in the state.’ Engels goes on to claim that a syndicate of homosexual paedophiles have built a political alliance around their shared sexual sensibility of perversion.
Almost a century later, in 1971, in one of his many homophobic rants made public on the leaked Watergate tapes, Richard Nixon hilariously engages with fashion criticism: ‘You know one of the reasons fashions have made women look so terrible is because the goddamned designers hate women.’3 He is, of course, making reference to the prevalence of gay designers, and their assumed hatred for women, which supposedly precipitates their homosexuality. Are gay men becoming fashion designers to exact their revenge on the heterosexual world?
In his book, Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World, the poet and cultural historian Gregory Woods traces the history of this conspiracy back to Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. Homintern, a portmanteau for Comintern, plays on fearful logics of world domination that suggest a cohort of taste-making homosexual men – and less often women – are plotting to corrupt social decency through their unique cultural production and influence in the arts. This proposal, which says more about homophobia than homosexuality according to Woods, unveils a moral panic around the gay man and his assumed eschatological desires, which he actively pursues through decorative arts, theatre, fashion, literature and, in his private life, buggery.
One might argue that the disproportionate presence of gay men in creative industries says more about the natural affinity and attraction these individuals have for the arts rather than their desire for the end of the world. Woods argues that these alliances are a part of ‘any healthy culture’ by reframing mutual identification as a source of confidence and strength.4
So what happens when individuals begin to recognise their mutual affinities, organise around them, and inevitably start sleeping with one another? How might a relationship between Browne and Bolton reveal a greater syndication within fashion that relates to homosexuality?
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Fashion is not immune to the nepotistic infrastructure that shapes all industries. Conversations in the home preface conversations in the museum. Bolton and Browne’s personal connection would inevitably inform their professional relationship, and contribute to a vested interest in their respective successes. By ingratiating themselves institutionally, the designer and curator decree a national style from the comfort of their king-sized bed.
As American cultural scholars Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner remind us in their essay ‘Sex in Public,’ heterosexual culture assumes a separation of the ‘personal’ sphere from work, politics and public life. Homosexual culture is in contrast defined by the private parts, which are continually mediated publicly. Within a homophobic society, the bedroom as a site of passion and perversion has incriminating potential. ‘The sheets were stained in a peculiar way,’ the chambermaid said at the trials of Oscar Wilde. Woods exposes this indiscrete practice of ‘making public the once private’ within history, arguing for discretion and caution ‘by not making more of the evidence than is strictly plausible.’5
However, Berlant and Warner defend and necessitate speculation, where ‘contexts of queer world making depend on parasitic and fugitive elaboration through gossip.’6 This culture cannot be separated from hearsay and scandal as it has historically been defined by the closet and its metaphors. ‘Homosexual circles,’ as Woods puts them, depend on gossip to function because they are primarily ‘led by the passions’: their presence originates from sexuality and depends on its continued relevance.7
Thom Browne’s homosexual circle is also founded by hearsay, scandal and gossip. Take, for example, actor Lee Pace, who was inadvertently outed by his co-star Ian McKellen in 2011. Over ten years later Pace publicly announced his marriage to Matthew Foley, the Vice President of Communications at Thom Browne. Does homosexuality change the dimensions of Browne and Bolton’s confluence? Is it indiscreet to stress the homosexual alliance? Homophobic even?
Insofar as they are out homosexuals living under the same roof, there is nothing sordid to uncover about Browne and Bolton. Their relationship is publicly confirmed on Wikipedia and their shared home was photographed by Architectural Digest in 2022. They are unashamed and open about being in a relationship together. Above their bed hangs a crucifix (Browne is a devoted Catholic). The time of open displays of perversion that once threatened to tear apart the fabric of public life has instead formed a new fabric. As Woods put it, the sinister homosexual archetype has instead become a generative force for positive change where ‘loyal alliances are creative and productive.’8
Berlant and Warner argue, ‘hegemonies are nothing if not elastic alliances, involving dispersed and contradictory strategies for self-maintenance and reproduction.’9 This is to say that the ascendancy of homosexuals in the fashion industry is the result of tension and competition as much as it is a story of mutual identification and cohesion. When applying this logic to Thom Browne and Andrew Bolton’s bedroom-cum-museum, the threat of a sexually-charged syndication in fashion begins to feel manufactured. These are two men who have found resemblance in one another, maximising their influence as companions first and allies second. In a polemic essay responding to the distress around the emergence of a ‘gay mob’ in literature in 1979, novelist and public intellectual Gore Vidal reminds his reader, ‘this plurality is the fact of our nature and not worth fretting about.’10
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In America: A Lexicon of Fashion circles around the story of a quilt made in 1856 by Adeline Harris Sears, the fabrication of which includes a patchwork of diamond-shaped pieces of silk fabric autographed by the most famous people of her day. In the nineteenth century, this patchwork quilt was a sort of Met Gala in and of itself. According to Bolton, the quilt was intended to set the tone for an exhibition as ‘diverse, multi-faceted and heterogeneous as the nation itself.’11
Drag queen and media personality RuPaul Charles famously likes to say that ‘life is about using the whole box of crayons’ and not being afraid of all the colours. Of course, ‘all the colours’ paints a vivid image of the rainbow motif, a proliferated symbol of pride and protest for gay people. But there is no place for grey in the rainbow.
When he is not all dressed up in his signature glamazon drag, RuPaul wears ghastly, colourful, printed suits. These suits have become his very own boy-uniform, reifying his stature and presence through every colourful iteration. In an episode of his Masterclass series, RuPaul ‘shows you how to shine’ and ‘find your inner truth.’ ‘Wear a suit’ he proclaims, ‘You wanna make more money? You like money? Wear a suit. Put yourself together. People respond to it, it has nothing to do with you, it has to do with the narrative that’s already implanted in people’s consciousness. You don’t want to swim upstream, you want to work with what people already know. You can use that tool to get what you want out of this life.’12
The image of a man in a suit – even a black gay man in a pink satin suit – is synonymous with success. In the collective consciousness, the suit-as-uniform is still emblematic of white-collar labour. When RuPaul wears a pink satin suit, he is working with what people already know; a collared shirt, fitted pants and a blazer.
The association between heterogeneous style and ‘swimming upstream’ leads back to Browne’s visions of homogeneity. The grey suit becomes a powerful tool of social cohesion that re-mediates the individual and collective identity. As a gay menswear designer, Browne is meditating on repression and assimilation with his grey suit, creating a culturally-safe uniform for the ‘good’ homosexual to wear as a tool to acculturate to public life.13 Even boys in skirts, via Browne’s mediation of the grey suit, quietly destabilise a heterosexual culture underpinned by fear of the effeminate masculine. For the homosexual, a Thom Browne suit is the perfect uniform. With his grey suits, Browne re-tailors the social fabric, taking his consumers out of their closets and sending them into the workplace where they will go on to fashion new alliances.
Charles Carrall is a writer and critic from Sydney, Australia. He makes up one-half of the podcast, Vanity Project.
Vogue, ‘Thom Browne’s Entire Design Process, From Sketch to Dress,’ Vogue YouTube Channel, 26th March 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVbD2dXS4gw&ab_channel=Vogue, accessed 13th December 2023. ↩
Woods, p. 26 ↩
Woods, p. 27. ↩
Woods, p. 341. ↩
Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, ‘Sex in Public,’ Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2, 1998, p. 561. ↩
Woods, p. 7. ↩
Woods, p. 27. ↩
Berlant and Warner. ↩
Gore Vidal, Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings, Cleis, 1999, p. 110. ↩
The Met, ‘Exhibition Tour—In America: A Lexicon of Fashion with Andrew Bolton,’ The Met YouTube Channel, 18th September 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHhabL3pUjg&ab_channel=TheMet, accessed 13th December 2023. ↩
RuPaul, ‘9. Proportion and Presentation,’ Self-Expression and Authenticity, Masterclass, 2020. ↩
Woods, p. 307. ↩