The Glass Closet:
Identity, Appearance, and Shame in the Context of Queerness
by Manon Loustaunau
In the United States, shame is such a universal aspect of the coming-of-age process. You are shamed by your peers and community for being other. Taunts like four-eyes, nerd, dork, peewee, or loser – you grow out of. Puberty hits, and you, by choice or in desperation, embrace your otherness and all of the sudden those glasses are trendy, you attend a top-tier university, and those jeers are just a bad memory.
But the first time someone calls you a dyke or a faggot – maybe you’re in the gym locker room in junior high and snuck one too many glances – it hurts more than the rest, because on some level you know your tormentors are right – you are other, you are queer, and you never grow out of that.
The world we live in today confines queerness to marginalized otherness, but also fetishizes it as trendy. According to i-D, more than half of my generation considers itself “not straight”, however tabloids still call girl-on-girl kissing “news”. Straight women kiss and touch each other to attract straight male attention, because in their minds “lesbian” is more a sex position and form of foreplay, and less a genuine identity.
The fashion industry is so quick to appropriate otherness in to something palatable and exclusive, but intended for those who do not feel other. It is now trendy to be queer. But queerness is not a pretty package that everyone from Kohl’s to Bloomingdales can sell: “lumbersexual” men’s style is the new best-selling trend. But this aesthetic came from gay porn 25 years ago. At the time, it was shocking and disturbing to much of middle-class America. Their “all-american” boy – tall, tanned, and muscular – was doing it with other “all-American” boys. This was practically the Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ of porn; An Abomination!
The Glass Closet was a performance piece that occurred in New York City, coinciding with New York Fashion Week, September 2015. We performed across the city, from Central Park to Washington Square Park, from Lincoln Center to the High Line, and finally at Chelsea Piers. Models paraded, meandered, and posed in our various locations, vacillating between interacting with and ignoring other people. The models commanded the attention of our space, causing viewers to pause and ogle, and sometimes turn away in disgust and horror.
I wanted to do this performance in New York, because to locate it in a space that has historically been a hot spot for performance and queerness contextualized the performance for the viewers. Richmond did not seem to be a queer enough audience. New York tolerates oddity, but also challenge the oddity to be intentional, and therefore noticed. New York as a location also challenged me to work on a larger scale, and what that means for a sensitive topic. The entire ordeal involved 19 people. From start to finish, this was an eight month process – beginning in February with a diary entry about wanting to show at New York Fashion Week, while simultaneously rejecting the principle purpose of the fashion industry: commodified appearance. Serious work began in late July, with an overhaul of the designs; construction took place in August.
The Glass Closet was a public recognition of the shame one feels as a queer person. It was meant to challenge the viewer to contemplate their own otherness by creating a moment of pause for contemplation.
Models each had two outfits that were designed with them specifically in mind. This is because the underlying purpose and pretext of The Glass Closet was an experiment in the correlation between identity and appearance.
While dressed and performing, I observed the models becoming different from their usual selves – sometimes physically, in the way they carried themselves and their mannerisms, and sometimes through stronger or new personality traits than what I knew them to usually exhibit. This was intentional, and the most exciting part of the performance. The clothes were meant to reveal and conceal, both in actuality and allusion, the models’ physiques and minds. With visual cues from traditional fashion silhouettes and occasions, these clothes were meant to guide the models to explore hidden parts of themselves.
I was giving them a new, queer, and to an extent, radical, appearance to inhabit, and they did so with vigor. It was magical to watch as they explored their usually censored otherness. This led to the models having a more refined sense of self-awareness. By the end of the performance, they were inhabiting our venues so deliberately, and commanding so much intensity and attention.
The Glass Closet became a case study in identity and appearance. If you cannot look the way you feel, you can never truly be who you know yourself to be. (If you only exist internally, what kind of limited existence is that?) Conversely, if appearance can determine our roles and how we are perceived and treated, do they determine at a deep, internalized level our identity?
There is such a flaunted abundance of clothing and accessory choices for consumers to buy and wear, to exist within the cis/hetero-normative ideas of beauty and desire. When this is contrasted with the queer identity, and the complete lack of androgynous or non-gender-specific clothing, it is no wonder we queers struggle with our appearance.
When we dress ourselves what are we doing?
We are choosing an appearance.
We are choosing a priority.
We are choosing an identity.
We are choosing to acknowledge our personality and state of independence.
We are choosing how we want to be perceived.
Even when we decide to not appear as we usually do we are doing so deliberately; even when we decide not to put thought or effort in to our appearance it is deliberate.
It is the role of the fashion designer, the clothier, to craft appearances and potential appearances that will appeal to and validate certain existences and identities; to carefully consider how her clothes construct an appearance that will craft, support, and contribute to an individual’s sense of self. A businessman will tell you this is called a customer profile or a market analysis. Really, you are learning to emphasize and appreciate – in what feels like a safe way – a certain identity or part of an identity. It is magnificent we have such versatility in our existence.
The Glass Closet is not over, but just the beginning. It was an ephemeral event, with such interesting results. I am ready to take this further now. The concept of queer shame can always be explored further – when reclaimed and processed, shame is such a point of strength and empowerment. Finding empowerment in otherness is perhaps the greatest freedom one can achieve.
The Glass Closet would not have been possible without the patience and kindness of the models: Adele, Anya, Austin, Brandon, Campbell, Cyrus, Daniel, Kristin, Zach and Zoe; my mother; and the support of Kristin Caskey, Kasha Killingsworth and Miranda Leung
Manon was formally trained as an apparel designer, holding a BFA in fashion design from Virginia Commonwealth University. She is currently based in Richmond, VA. She identifies with the lesbian end of queerness. She can be found on the web www.gentle.website, or contacted at [email protected]
My work concerns itself with the intersection of identity and appearance, addressing the ugly, unpalatable, and sometimes painful sides of sexuality, femininity, attraction, and intimacy. By straying from traditional silhouettes and contexts of the fashion industry, my work seeks to create moments of pause and wonder in the quotidian. I create body coverings that are meant to effect or enhance the wearer’s typical modes of being. I see the body as a tangible, sometimes fetishized, declaration of existence that can be altered or newly discovered through acts of revealing or concealing.