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Queer in disguise: where sexual identity intersects costume

While a male star may once have been able to wear an old wedding suit to the Oscar’s without anyone batting an eyelid, the increasing diversity in men’s fashion now continues to sensationalise the red carpet. From Timothée Chalamet’s harness-like ‘bib’ which exudes both glamour and rebellion, to Billy Porter’s floor-length gown that unapologetically demands for spotlight, queer culture is gradually trickling into Hollywood fashion, spoiling the world’s insatiable desire for more: more colours, more curves, more patterns. As LGBTQ+ equality movements gain momentum, the audience is no longer shocked by deviation from tradition. Yet how much of this extravaganza of pleats and tulle transfers to on-screen queer narratives?

In Levan Akin’s widely acclaimed drama And Then We Danced (2019), Irakli’s entrance into the film as one of the two protagonists is marked by a demanded change in his look: the dancer, who enters into a gay love affair over the course of the film, takes out his earring in a gesture of self-awareness when the trainer reminds him of where he works – the state-run National Georgian Ensemble, where homosexuality remains taboo. The story of a surreptitious relationship thus begins with the dancers’ disguise in heteronormative clothes. Yet a different set of costumes, with their transformative powers, offer the dancers a respite from constant camouflage. As Merab performs his last dance in his chosen costume – a billowing scarlet robe with a low V cut and decorative sequins– the intention to stretch the boundaries of masculinity presents itself without being provocative, since the item itself is accordant with the traditional Georgian dance costume design. The bold colour and delicate details accentuate the rebellious fluidity, which is channeled into the limber and effeminate dance movements. Reminiscent of Loie Fuller’s experimental use of fabric in Louis Lumière’s Danse Serpentine (1897), which remains an early example of gender stereotypes being challenged through the medium of dance, the dancer’s costume in the final scene is a muffled cry of protest. In this moment, unthinkable femininity is woven into tradition, pointing at a pre-existing harmony that the society around him denies. 

Akin’s exposition of the expressive quality of stage costume is not the first among LGBTQ+ films. In the biographical musical Rocketman (2019), Taron Egerton’s eighty-eight on-screen looks are strikingly flamboyant. Elton John’s ‘Dodgers outfit’ in the film, the only replica based on the musician’s 1975 stage outfit, is lavishly adorned with 140,000 Swarovski crystals, which complement the tight-fitting basketball uniform silhouette.  The crystals illuminate the singer in the spotlight. John is worshipped by a full stadium, untouchable from the censure in the world, surreal. The boundary between costume and every-day clothing is blurred in the film. In addition to oversized glasses and women’s jewellery, John is bathed by a kaleidoscope of rhinestones and sequins, creating an image of a conflicted artist who wraps himself up in colourful silk and animal patterns, overwhelming the eye with endless luxury to leave no room for criticism. It is camouflage of another kind, a shining armour that shields oneself from the world that is inexorably relentless. 

Instead of their original function to deceive, queer characters’ costumes work to disillusion. The experimentation with clothing, or the lack thereof, lends insight into their mechanism of existence in a world where every minority’s survival is hard-won. 

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