An exhibit at the ISU Textiles and Clothing Museum co-curated by assistant professor Kelly Reddy-Best (right) and graduate assistant Dana Goodin will be one of the nation’s first museum exhibits to explore fashions and styles of LGBTQIA+ individuals. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Museum exhibit explores clothing worn by Midwest LGBTQIA+ individuals

Some like to appear more masculine. Others prefer a more feminine look.

But regardless of their preference, some Midwest women who identify themselves as LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual, and other) say they’ve struggled over the years with what to wear and how they are perceived.

“One woman described it as carrying the sword every day,” said Kelly Reddy-Best, an assistant professor in apparel, events, and hospitality management. “She’d get second looks, be called ‘sir,’ and asked if she was going into the right bathroom. But she never for a moment could wear or feel comfortable in women’s garments.”

Among the first in the nation

An upcoming exhibit at the Iowa State University Textiles and Clothing Museum is one of the nation’s first museum exhibits to explore fashions and styles of LGBTQIA+ individuals.

Queer Fashion and Style: Stories from the Heartland” will open Feb. 1 and run through April 14. The groundbreaking exhibit curated by Reddy-Best will share the experiences of 12 Midwest LGBTQIA+ women, ages 30 to 50, who agreed to share their stories about what they wear and how they wear it. 

“This really attaches the stories to the objects,” Reddy-Best said. “My goal is to tell the history of LGBTQIA+ individuals' fashion, style, and aesthetics because it’s often left out of the fashion history narrative. Ours is really about everyday styles. The women I interviewed noted how they often don’t see people who look like them. When a community isn’t represented, to see a reflection of yourself is exciting.”

The LGBTQIA+ community has been largely left out of the history books when it comes to their contributions to fashion. One of the nation’s first museum exhibits to feature queer style came in 2013-2014 with “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk,” at The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York.

Themes emerge from research

Iowa State's exhibit will include about 95 articles of clothing, shoes, and accessories loaned or donated to the university, featured in about 30 "looks." The display will include a pride banner along with gay pride shirts worn over the years. And it will include photos and video clips of Reddy-Best’s interviews with the women.

Themes that emerged from Reddy-Best's research include pushing gender boundaries, preferences of looking more masculine or feminine, the spectrum of how gay a garment looks, embedding signs of sexuality in a person's clothing, and wearing clothing specifically made for those in the LGBTQIA+ community.   

The upcoming exhibit will showcase these themes. Some women prefer clothing such as white dress shirts and pants, or swim trunks that are considered more masculine. Others prefer to look more feminine, such as by wearing fancy theater-like garments including dresses made from a shiny gold material, printed with cats, or made with a lacy off-white fabric.

The exhibit will feature garments that some consider overtly gay — such as a flannel shirt, or a rainbow tutu — and other garments that some LGBTQIA+ women say don’t look “gay enough.” It will show how sometimes people’s sexuality is purposefully layered against their skin, such as with men’s boxers, or embedded in their appearance, such as with a pastor’s stole that includes rainbow butterflies.

Some manufacturers produce garments and accessories specifically for those in the LGBTQIA+ community — such as “binders” which flatten the chest, “packing underwear” which adds a bulge to the crotch area, or men’s-style shoes in women’s sizes. Iowa State’s exhibit will include some of these items.

“There’s a wide variety of aesthetics that people in the LGBTQIA+ community wear,” Reddy-Best said. “Sometimes, it’s a direct signifier of sexuality, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, it’s more intimate like packers and binders that people don’t really talk about it. Other times, it’s garments that are more talked about, like T-shirts.”

Even more common clothing items such as a white collared shirt can produce a different experience for LGBTQIA+ women, Reddy-Best said, and can result in stares and questions from other people.

Opening reception

An opening reception for “Queer Fashion and Style: Stories from the Heartland” at the Textiles and Clothing Museum will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Feb. 8 in 1015 Morrill Hall. A lecture by Reddy-Best and graduate assistant Dana Goodin will be held from 5:45 to 6:15 p.m.

Goodin and Eulanda Sanders, the Donna R. Danielson Professor in Textiles and Clothing who’s department chair of apparel, events, and hospitality management, co-curated the exhibit with Reddy-Best. The exhibit received funding from Iowa State’s Inclusion Initiatives Grant Program, for initiatives aimed at fostering community engagement that positively impacts Iowa State.