21st Century Queer Fashion Stories: A Conversation with Dr. Kelly Reddy-Best

three people wearing FLAVNT binders. A queer fashion brand
Image courtesy of FLAVNT Streetwear

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kelly Reddy-Best at the annual Costume Society of America conference a couple of years ago. In addition to discovering a generous, principled and just generally great to be around person, I’ve become a devoted fan of her scholarship. Reddy-Best is Assistant Professor of Apparel, Merchandising, & Design at Iowa State University. Much of her research is focused on issues relating to queerness, fashion and style, including the 2018 exhibition Queer Fashion & Style: Stories from the Heartland and many, many publications. 

We got together via Zoom to celebrate the launch of 21st Century Queer Fashion Brands, an oral history project that includes interviews with the owners of 24 brands. With co-author and PhD candidate, Dana Goodin, Reddy-Best conceived a project that would be free and easily available to the public so that this diverse and detailed portrait of queer fashion in the early 21st century could reach beyond traditional academic audiences and into more communities.

Queer fashion scholar Kelly Reddy Best
Dr. Kelly Reddy-Best.

Sara Tatyana Bernstein: Do you want to start by telling us what the project is?

Kelly Reddy-Best: Yeah! The project is comprised of 24 oral histories of queer focused fashion brands that emerged in the 21st century. The brands typically create garments, accessories or other apparel-related products and market and sell them to folks in the queer community. 

The purpose of the project is to capture the background from the owner’s perspective, how and why the brand started and an in-depth description of the brand and the products — to capture a moment in history that I think largely started after same sex marriage. There were queer-focused brands before same-sex marriage, but largely after the passing of that legislation you see all these new brands emerge. And what better way to capture the history than through oral history so that you can get it right and really tell the story from their voice. So often when we try to tell about different histories, knowledge gets lost or it’s misinterpreted.

STB: So with the same-sex marriage legislation — there’s not necessarily a natural correlation with starting a clothing brand. Have you thought about what it was that made all of these things come together at that point in history?

KRB: I think it’s largely visibility; this governmental approval — that we’re now going to provide access to this law about marriage. But also, some of the early brands that I didn’t get to do oral histories with, like Saint Harridan and Tomboy Tailors — Saint Harridan was based in Oakland and Tomboy Tailors was based in downtown San Francisco — part of their story was that they emerged due to same-sex marriage. Some of the brands I interviewed specifically catered to wedding or formal attire; for example, THÚY Custom Clothier, they create really great suits and suit coordinates.

But, there’s such a variety of brands and different products, from swimwear to shoes to underwear, to trans gear like binders and packers. In the oral histories, each brand owner or founder gives their story about how and when the brand emerged. But I think collectively if you look at all of the brands — it is around this time period, you know, like you see Ellen Degeneres having her own talk show and coming out as gay, and Laverne Cox and other high profile folks who are giving these various queer identities visibility. I really think that has something to do with so many of these brands emerging in the 21st century.

STB: I don’t know if this is a question, I just think it’s interesting: I teach fashion studies every year but I just taught fashion history for the first time, and we were talking a lot about how un-queer it is. It’s interesting how even in texts that are going out of their way to be inclusive, how much queerness is not included in the history. And how hard it is to do historical research on it.

KRB: I agree there are not a lot of resources. This whole project came about because I wanted to teach an undergraduate course on queer fashion styles and bodies. And it’s tricky to build the units for a class like that. I use both social-psychology literature and then I also use historic literature. I wanted to do this oral history project so I could incorporate these brands’ histories into the course. Since the course is based in the fashion department, I think it’s important to tie content to the fashion industry in some way. A lot of the fashion students know the history of major brands such as Dior, Louis Vuitton or Ralph Lauren. And yeah, because there was no mention of any of these queer-focused brands — like you couldn’t find them even if you went into a retailing book. There was no case study, for example, on TomBoyX, which is a fantastic, super successful brand that focuses on queerness. But you couldn’t find a case study on that even for visual merchandising.

How fantastic would it be to have a case study that students in fashion do, and they have to think about how to display these garments with the mannequins they have? How are they going to portray gender? So I thought, certainly this project might be for a class that’s focused on queerness, but also it could be for the visual merchandising course, or for the other courses that focus on different niche businesses to have students critically think about the different kinds of companies that they could work for or about the larger companies and how they might consider some of these ideas of pushing the boundaries of social norms.

When you’re looking for textbooks, resources, it can be really difficult to find things. So that’s why I wanted to make this project open source. So I thought — oral history is the way to go.

STB: That’s fabulous. I know a lot of people who are going to be really excited about this. As someone who has limited library access, I’m constantly looking for good resources that you don’t need a two-factor log-in at an R1 to get into.

Can we talk about if there were themes or particular business strategies or challenges that came up across the group?

KRB: I think that for the various brands…all of them are small businesses, and they all had unique challenges. Some of the things that stick out to me, for example, are some of the brands may have struggled with things like criticism from within the queer community. So they are aiming to be inclusive and diverse, but you can do alot of things right and still not address all diversity issues. Because essentially business decisions have to be made. They have to stay afloat.

So capitalism comes into play and they have to make money. So for example their size run — the more sizes you have the more money it is. Or other ethical issues came up. Like, the vision of the brand is built around this amazing mission to cater to a market that has largely had unmet needs. But then, because the market is small — the number of folks who identify in the queer community or the trans community,  it’s already a small pool — so how much are you making? And where are you making it? So, this sometimes came up. Yes, you’re serving the queer community, but then they can’t afford to produce in the U.S. because the cost of production is really high here. So do they go overseas? That sometimes came up as an issue.

STB: Everybody should be held accountable, of course, but I’ve noticed that the more transparent a company tries to be the more criticism they often get. Because it’s all in the open, unlike some kind of really opaque corporation that doesn’t tell you anything. They might not get as much criticism because people don’t know anything.

KRB: Exactly, so that was something that I heard. It’s a difficult choice to make. To stay afloat, especially in the first few years of any business model, you’re operating and trying to pay employees — they might not have been drawing a paycheck for themselves and you’re trying to make these decisions while having these core ethical values. But can the brand stay afloat? And in the marketing, who is being represented in terms of size and racial representation. Those are some areas where they might get criticized, and rightfully so, but trying to balance that is a challenge.

Sometimes I asked the question, “who does all these different tasks for the business?” or “how many people do you have working for you?” Some of the folks were like, “It’s me.” I mean it’s a lot to run a small business. They’re running a small business and then also dealing with varying criticism. Which is difficult because they’re really trying to create this brand that can offer varying products…but they’re being criticized from within the community.

STB: Yeah. If you’re not part of the mainstream and you found this other smaller community that’s really built around accepting you. That’s gonna be extra hard.

KRB: Yeah. And a lot of the brands would want to respond and navigate the social media interactions, which is you know, opening the floodgates. When the floodgates open on that you’ll be open to lots of types of comments and negotiating how to respond to all that can be mentally exhausting.

View this post on Instagram

Bareskin Binder 2.0 is here! Available on Saturday February 8 at 12pm CST. 🙌 • A little background on why it took so long to get our binders back in stock: The last time we dropped our binders was October 2018 and we sold out almost immediately. We realized pretty quickly that our previous manufacturer could not turn around runs of binders fast enough for our demand and we wanted to find a manufacturer in Austin so that we could have face to face meetings. Additionally, we had some improvements we wanted to make to our silhouette after two years of being on the market. So we took the time to develop a new prototype when we switched manufacturers. If you’re unfamiliar, manufacturing is a huge undertaking and something almost always goes wrong — there were several delays and bumps in the road, along with some inventory issues, but we wanted to have our binders back and available to the public early on in 2020, so we persevered. Due to all of the delays, we haven’t been able to do a photoshoot with our Bareskin Binder 2.0, but we will be remedying that ASAP. If you’re in the Austin area and would like to model for a binder shoot in February, please send us an email. We would love to have you! We appreciate everyone’s patience while our binders were out of stock and we are going to do our best moving forward to never have such a long wait between restocks. 💕 Much love, Courtney, Chris, and Drew

A post shared by FLΛVNT STRΞΞTWΞΛR (@flavnt_streetwear) on

STB: In the past we’ve talked about binders and production challenges with them — and nervousness that some big bra company was going to figure out this market exists.

KRB: Yeah, I think one of the things that the brands felt really proud of was that they were really working within the queer community. For a lot of the customers the way they described it was that the brand was built by and for queer and trans people so they felt really positive about spending their dollars there. But there was this discussion. Certainly a larger brand, for example Target, has huge research and development funding. If Target felt at any moment that it would be worth their money to invest and market binders or other trans gear, it could really wipe out these smaller brands. Target just has the power to do that. But I think in some ways…I wonder…it would be an interesting conversation if Target went that route and who would buy there.

A lot of the issues that the folks who specifically sold binders had is that, you know, they’re costly. Especially if you’re doing small runs. And they might not necessarily have the research and development funds to do in depth research the way Target could, or major national brands that already make compression gear.

STB: It will be interesting to see if that happens. People I know that wear them — it seems like it’s not even like clothes. The relationship people have with their binders is so personal and important to their sense of self…I wonder if getting it at Target would feel bad? But if that’s what you had access to — that would be great. I don’t know…

KRB: Yeah, I think it’s the access. Binders can be expensive. You and I know why clothes are expensive. There’s materials, and everything that goes into making the garment, there’s — well, especially labor. I think clothes should be expensive. Because what is people’s time worth? Although I don’t want to spend that much money on clothes, I don’t ever feel bad about that — depending on the company — but essentially I would want to pay more because I believe people’s time is worth money. And sewing is a really important and a difficult skill that not everyone has. And sewing compression fabric is not easy. So I think based on those conversations with folks making binders I do think that cost is a huge factor. As we know, a lot of trans and non-binary people expereince ongoing oppression. Not everyone, but many trans folks might have limited access to resources like a stable income. So if you can get a binder for 10.99 at Target, would you? It’s a complicated issue.

STB: I don’t know how much you looked back through this as you were getting it ready to go live, but it’s happening in the midst of an incredible social shutdown. I was wondering if you noticed if there are any immediate impacts? I’ve seen a lot of small fashion companies are not going to make it.

KRB: You know, I have not. It’s an important question to bring up. The oral histories are a cross section in time. So even when a brand approved a transcript they often said, “Oh, we’ve grown so much and changed.” In the introduction to the project, I made a point to say that it was cross section in time so that people would know it wasn’t the whole history. It’s just a particular slice of history that the brand told when we did the interview.

The only one that I know right now has not made it is Greyscale Goods. And when I did the oral history of Bluestocking Boutique they had already closed. The owner had done the interview after they closed just to be a part of the project, which was really nice of her.

I haven’t necessarily looked at all of the other brands. I follow them on social media but haven’t done follow ups with them. I might do a Part Two, but oral histories are very labor intensive.

STB: Right, that’s a huge project. You have to put some kind of parameters around it. So my last question is —- somebody comes to visit this site, spends some time with it, what do you hope they take away? If you were a tour guide or a docent what would you hope they saw?

KRB: I would hope that they’d learn about all the different types of gender and sexual identities that people embrace and connect with, and the ways those identities might be expressed through different appearance practices or apparel products. I also want them to learn how these various businesses have emerged to meet different needs. Overall, I want them to learn more about the ways people express themselves. That way, these varying expressions of the self become normalized, something people don’t think twice about.

Something that’s important to note about the project is that while these brands focus on queer folks — it can still be essentiallizing of what queerness is. Queer people shop anywhere. They buy things they like and then style it. The mistake people who come to this project might make is that all queer women dress in a masculine aesthetic, for example. But we know that queer women, gay men, people of a variety of identities dress in all kinds of different ways. That’s one thing people could come to this project and make assumptions about.

So for example, Nik Kacy shoes. Nik Kacy makes masculine-style shoes for people who might have a smaller foot; people who might be assigned female at birth. So they make shoes that are more masculine-leaning. Well, there’s lots of queer people who wear shoes that are not masculine-leaning.

A lot of these brands are creating garments that are pushing gender boundaries, but certainly folks in the queer community don’t all necessarily push gender boundaries. Maybe they were assigned female at birth and dress in a really feminine way. I think that’s something that isn’t necessarily captured in the project. Someone might be a high femme lesbian and shop at a mainstream store. If there was one thing I’d add to this project, I’d emphasize that more.

SB: I suppose that’s the gap the brands are filling. Because you can’t go to the department store to…

KRB: …Right, to get masculine-leaning shoes in a size 5. 

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Longreads, LitHub, Hippocampus, Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more.