CAMP Talk: Back Into the Closet
by Bill Sievert
It's the start of a new beach season, and that means the time has come for many of us to spruce up our wardrobes for sun-drenched days and romantic moonlit evenings. But, from what some people are saying, it seems that many of the articles of apparel John and I sell in our boutique are likely to have a more amorous summer than we humans are.
Several times on recent occasions I've had a customer announce, while poking through a rack of gauzy cotton tops suitable for either a man or woman to wear, "Why, this is all bisexual clothing."
"Sure," I respond. "Those shirts are so hot they get it on with both genders."
Then there is the comment often muttered by straight teenage boys who pass our store: "Don't go in there; that's all gay clothing." I want to yell back, "Yeah, and instead of you having to pick up your clothes, ours will pick you up." Mostly I just shake my head in disbelief or say something as predictable as, "Well, much of our selection is colorful and cheery."
When my friend David, who considers himself to be an amateur linguist, stopped by the shop a few days ago, I was about to tell him of one of the latest variations on the "gay clothing" remark. But, before I had the opportunity, he said he needed a new tank top. I pointed to a few of the latest summer arrivals. He sort of frowned, sighed and said, "All your tanks are so gay!"
By which David, a gay man of some 50 years of age, meant "trendy," "youthful" and "au courant."
There was a time when a term like "gay clothing" might have been appropriatealthough implausible, if literally parsedto describe the trendiest styles in the marketplace. But casual fashion sensibilities aren't so easily pigeonholed anymore. For every gay man who likes tight fitting club shirts there is one who prefers a relaxed look. For every one who wants a stretchy square-cut swimsuit, there's somebody who prefers a baggier board short.
One factor in what a guy likes often is his age. Like their straight counterparts, many older gay males (not all) tend to lose interest in looking stylish. Sometimes it's because they are in long-term relationships and let themselves go. In other cases, they simply become stuck in a time warp, clinging to a notion of what's in vogue from long ago. (Even Madonna's song "Vogue" is now from long ago, of course.)
You've seen the type of gay men of which I speak. They strut through the streets of Rehoboth Beach (and even dine in some of our finest restaurants) with their butts hanging out of 20-year-old OP "hot pants," a.k.a. Daisy Dukes. To make matters worse, all too many of these guys accessorize their short shorts with 99-cent flip flops and a shrunken tee shirt that doesn't quite cover the midriff, permitting the wrong manly bulge to hang out. Others pride themselves on having sported the same faded alligator-logo polo shirt for more than a decade. Such fashionably challenged gay men should go back into their closets and try again.
Although they may favor the clothing of their youth, these men often whine that today's chic styles remind them of "what I wore when I was a kid" or "what my father wore." It is particularly disheartening to hear a handsome 35- or 40-year-old say, "I'm too old to wear... longer shorts... clubby retro shirts... Hawaiian prints..." You name it; someone in the prime of life says he's too old for it. Yet, there are senior citizens with positive self-images who manage to pull off the latest looks with panache. Could that just be because so many current fashions have a vintage flair?
Younger gay guys today tend to favor the same clothing styles as their straight peers. Yet the straight kids have turned for inspiration to many of our most noted gay designers. When a handful of hip hop musical artists began appearing in shirts by Tommy Hilfiger, it wasn't long before nearly every young American dude, straight or gay, had to emblazon the Tommy name all over his chest. Many mature gay men, following the lead of the young fashion setters, also began to buy up Hilfigerparticularly whatever items they could find at outlet prices, which are often higher than retail store prices.
Like outlet pricing, gay fashion is very much a matter of perception. The homosexual elite may have been the first to go big for Calvin Klein underwear. But millions of red-blooded heterosexual boys fell in love with his drawers after Marky Mark Wahlberg began putting on Calvins for a living. Of course, while every kid in America decided to wear his pants slung low on the hips in order to show off the underwear's elastic-band logo, many of the more conservative or preppy gay men have continued to hike their pants up almost to their tits. In America today, it is indeed a vast waist land.
As for tank tops, the currently hottest style among physically fit gay guys is one that would have been considered quite "geeky" a few short years ago. This tank is sardonically referred to as the "wife beater" because it's basically the same as those cheap, old-fashioned sleeveless undershirts favored by undereducated working class males with bad attitudes. Skinny straight kids have picked up on this style, too, because members of the most popular boy bands like 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys started wearing them. And those band members probably started wearing them because their managers and agents liked the way the shirts looked on gay fashion models.
So what exactly is "gay clothing"? The question calls to mind the age-old conundrum about the chicken and the egg. Do gay men create fashion trends or are fashion trends simply gobbled up by groovy gay men? For instance, are the popular three-quarter length flood pants (seen in large numbers at the Millenium March on Washington) something bold, daring and gay? Or are they simply a renewal of the clam diggers worn by surfers in the 1980s and the knickers donned by golfers in the 1930s? Is the current popularity of tightly fitted camp shirts a tribute to the fact that so many modern gay men work out at the gym? Or are they a throwback to the look of the muscular men who worked as gas-station attendants in the 1950s?
It would be a lot easier for those of us in the business of selling clothing to a predominantly gay clientele if there were only a handful of styles that every homosexual male could agree upon as being "de rigueur." Remember the good old days of the Castro clone when shopkeepers could make a comfortable living selling little more than Levi's 501s and plaid flannel shirts? Nowadays the tastes and attitudes of the gay community are much more diverse, and the line between "gay style" and whatever it is that everyone else is wearing is less distinguishable.
Except for the occasional ruby red sequined evening gown.
Bill Sievert's CAMPtalk is a regular feature of Letters. His and John's "gay and bisexual clothing" can be found at SPLASH on Baltimore Avenue.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 10, No. 5, May 19, 2000.