Essay: Homophobia, AIDS and Fashion

by Amy de la Haye on 7 May 2020

Exploring the cultural impact of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s through the shockwaves it sent through fashion, Amy de la Haye's essay connects the pink triangle symbol and its subversion for strength and community; the visionary talents we lost and AIDS victims' material legacies.

Exploring the cultural impact of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s through the shockwaves it sent through fashion, Amy de la Haye's essay connects the pink triangle symbol and its subversion for strength and community; the visionary talents we lost and AIDS victims' material legacies.

For many of us in our fifties and older, the COVID-19 pandemic–a global and indiscriminate virus about which very little is known and for which there is currently no cure–recalls painful memories of the 1980s and ‘90s when the AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome, the advanced stage of HIV [human immunodeficiency virus]) pandemic reached its first peak. Unlike COVID, this disease was originally–and entirely inaccurately–thought to exclusively target an already marginalised section of society: gay men. As such within a culture of homophobia, the development of a cure and support for its sufferers were not prioritised, compelling gay men to protest and campaign for their own equality, for broader visibility of the disease and investment in vital medical research.

By 1982, at the point when the spread of the disease had become rampant and the establishment could no longer ignore it, it was named GRID, an acronym for gay-related immune deficiency. The debilitating symptoms–including severe weight loss and Kaposi Sarcoma (a form of skin cancer)–were all the more shocking as they ravaged the lives and bodies of the young and often super-fit. In the prevailing climate of fear and bigotry, homophobia and ‘gay bashing’ became even more rife, and the popular media fanned the flames, reporting that AIDS, as it was later named, could be contracted from any contact with individuals who were HIV positive or items they had touched.

Keith Haring, an immensely talented artist and advocate for AIDS awareness, died of AIDS-related complications on 16 February 1990. This t-shirt graphic, based on the old proverb ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ dates from 1989; it was printed on paper and apparel. Haring also campaigned for nuclear disarmament and anti-apartheid. When he died, he was just 31: his star shone briefly, but it was brilliant.

As with COVID, New York was an epicentre for AIDS. The effects upon the designers, stylists, photographers, graphic artists, hairdressers, journalists, display artists, showroom and retail workers and other creatives that comprised the city’s second largest and most highly visible fashion industry were calamitous.

Dr Valerie Steele, Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) and curator of scores of exhibitions including the seminal A Queer History: From the Closet to the Catwalk (2013) recalls, how: 'AIDS had a devastating impact on the fashion world of New York (as it did on the arts in general). Many of the most talented designers died, from Halston to Willi Smith. The atmosphere of fear brought out loathsome bigotry, as [many] male designers were fired if they couldn’t prove that they didn’t have AIDS. But a committed segment of the fashion community joined forces with AIDS activists to raise money to help people who were sick and to pressure the government to take action. [Legendary nightlife figure] Suzanne Bartsch, the Swiss Miss of club life, created the Love Ball, which raised money and morale at a really horrible plague time.’ [1]

The jacket worn by artist David Wojnarowicz; the FDA were blamed for their lack of response to the AIDS crisis.

In 1987 the newly launched protest group ACT UP used 'Silence=Death', shown alongside an inverted pink triangle, as their slogan. The history and meaning behind this pink triangle evidences humanity at its most barbaric, recalling the state-sanctioned violence against gay men enacted in Nazi Germany. When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, he invoked the criminalisation of homosexuality which dated to 1871 but had rarely been enforced, rounding up some 100,000 men who were perceived to be gay over the ensuing 12 years. Between five and fifteen thousand of them were sent to the concentration camps as part of his mad and evil quest to ‘purify’ the German nation. Once there they were made to wear a prominent pink cloth triangle on their uniforms to mark them (other marginalised groups were classified by triangles in other colours: ‘gypsies’ wore brown, political prisoners red, immigrants blue, and ‘asocial people’, which included lesbians and prostitutes, black). Alongside so many other horrors and mass murder, men wearing the pink triangle were sterilised, subjected to medical experiments, bullied and tortured. In the 1980s, ACT UP and the wider gay community subverted and inverted this pink triangle to create a pyramid, a shape long associated with action, change and healing.

By 1990, the crisis was finally being treated as a pressing issue. In a New York Times front page story from 11 February 1990, Virginia Estrada, sister and design partner of the New York designer Angel Estrada who had died of AIDS the year before, said: ‘Health has become the most important thing in fashion, more important than the cut of the clothes.' Although perhaps an unfamiliar name to many now, Angel Estrada was so successful that his glamorous evening wear had graced the cover of Vogue. When he died on 7 September 1989, he was just 31 years old. Estrada, along with other incredible fashion talents including Willi Smith (who died aged 39, on 17 April 1987) and Patrick Kelly (who died aged 35, on 1 January 1990), now deserve greater recognition within fashion history.

Patrick Kelly's Spring/Summer 1989 campaign, photographed by Oliviero Toscani.

American sportswear giant Perry Ellis (died aged 46, on 20 October 1986) insisted on his illness being kept secret; a young Marc Jacobs was famously brought in to continue the brand. Halston (who died, aged 57, four years later on 26 March 1990) arranged to have his beloved Rolls Royce publicly auctioned with all proceeds going to AIDS research.

With so many key fashion figures lost to the disease, it was vital to act. By the winter of 1990, the Council of Fashion Designers of America staged a Seventh Avenue fundraising event, followed soon after by similar initiatives in Paris and Milan.

Within this climate, where the revelation of an AIDS diagnosis would make business plummet, for the first time, financiers considered women designers to be infinitely more investable and masses of male talent was quashed: it is not a coincidence that the 1990s is often considered the decade of the woman designer.

Estrada, along with other incredible fashion talents including Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly, now deserve greater recognition within fashion history.

Whilst London has never received the state support for its fashion industries that other fashion capitals have enjoyed, the UK’s unrivalled art schools, youth and club cultures have created an environment in which unbridled creativity flourishes and adversity becomes a catalyst for change. In the mid-1980s, image maker Ray Petri, (who died of AIDS in 1989, aged 41) developed the radical and now iconic Buffalo style for the British style magazines i-D, The Face and Arena. The name was taken from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1983 hit song Buffalo Soldier, with its poignant lyrics about racism, bravery and resistance. The style did much to challenge binary gendered dressing. A signature Buffalo look comprised a blue MA-1 flight jacket, loose fitting Levi’s worn from the hips, German paratrooper boots, a Stetson pork pie hat and cropped hair. Also: men in skirts. For many people, including gay men, the freedom this look provided was unprecedented, forming a vital part of their personal life stories.

Giving away and safeguarding the future of our most treasured possessions forms part of the preparation for death. Clothing bears testimony to our lived experience: the stains and wear and individual personal smells can be most poignant. As a dress curator at the V&A I was accustomed to accepting donations and bequests from the elderly, but with the arrival of the AIDS pandemic, the demographic of those making bequests changed to include young men, which was all the more emotionally devastating. Memorable bequests include a huge collection of menswear designed by Vivienne Westwood from a young man who was an obsessive Westwood wearer and collector. Another is the archive of London-based designers Ian & Marcel (Ian H Cooper died 18 January 1992, and Marcel B. Aucoin who died 18 February 1991). I exhibited a selection of their bohemian silks in the dress gallery, having secured special permission to put a large red ribbon in the main display case in time for the exhibition opening party which took place to coincide with World Aids Day (1 December). Simultaneously my colleague Shaun Cole was proactively collecting AIDS-related graphics, photography and other print media for the museum’s permanent collection.

Since the 1980s, over 30 million people worldwide have died of AIDS. It was not until 1996 that anti-retroviral (ART) drugs, which work to ensure a longer life expectancy, became available. However, the perceived stigma that continues to be associated with the disease lingers and forms a major barrier for many individuals, families and communities battling with AIDS across the globe.

Today, scientists are working urgently to develop treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19, and local, national and international organisations are working to support their communities. Additionally, plans are afoot to create museum collections, gather oral testimonies and other forms of legacy to mark the current crisis, its impact and its cultural ramifications. As with the AIDS crisis, it is already all too apparent that COVID-19 magnifies the existing difference in life expectancies caused by inequality of power, status and wealth. In the context of fashion, only time will tell how the industry–and the people that make it exist–will shift, adapt and live on.

[1] Interview with Dr Valerie Steele, conducted by the author.

[2] The New York Times, 1 February, 1990: page 1.



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