These Queer People Couldn’t Find Clothes That Fit — So They Made Their Own
The DIY ethos has always been central to the LGBTQ community, especially when it comes to fashion.by Emma Banks
2020 was the year of the hobby: home improvement stores like Home Depot saw a huge increase in revenue, millennials forgot their aversion to gluten and learned how to bake bread, and the age-old tradition of sewing reemerged as a popular craft, leading to a boom in sewing machine sales.
This list probably doesn't surprise you. In a year characterized by quarantine and isolation, it's likely you participated in at least one of the hobbies listed above.
But the increased interest in sewing, in particular, was not limited to (or dependent on) COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, millennial sewers were hard at work reclaiming the craft — which, until recently, was still perceived as being dominated by older white women.
Central to this trend are queer sewists (a moniker meaning both sewer and artist), who are creating garments that defy the gendered norms of the mainstream fashion world.
"I think gender and gender norms are super limiting for everyone," said Terrance Williams, an avid designer and sewer.
"For me, clothing has always just been clothing. I have never assigned a gender to anything I wear. And now, it's even more so like that — because it's just cotton, or just polyester, or just sequins. It's really about how it makes you feel."
Is the future of fashion gender-neutral?
Far away from the anything-goes world of queer DIY, most clothing stores are still strictly segregated by gender: women's clothing on one side, men's on the other.
And though "gender-neutral" fashion has experienced a surge in popularity, that term is often just shorthand for putting masc clothing on bodies that aren't traditionally interpreted as masculine. Sewist Tess Clabby isn't particularly impressed.
"It's obviously not the most interesting or exciting thing and not something that will work for everyone either," they said.
"I mean, if you actually have a curvy body, a men's suit isn't going to look on you the way that it looks on a six foot tall thin person on the runway, you know? So it's about making styles work for the bodies that we have."
'The limit does not exist!'
Finding a more inclusive alternative to mainstream fashion's limitations, then, is at the heart of the queer community's interest in DIY, at least when it comes to sewing.
Simply put, for people outside of traditional gender and sexuality frameworks, sometimes the only garment that feels truly right is the one you make yourself.
"The creativity of making the clothes myself is definitely very tied to my relationship to queerness, and wanting to present myself to the world in a way that feels in alignment with the way that I see myself and know myself to be," Clabby said.
"I do think it's sort of related to this idea that we as queer people are not being catered to within mainstream fashion. It's not made for us. Nothing is really made for us except for the stuff that's made by us. And that's of course where the DIY stuff comes in."
Queer DIY sewists are combating other limitations besides gender presentation, too. For one, size inclusivity in affordable, accessible brands is notoriously lacking; for another, brands that do adhere to sustainable, ethical practices are often way out of budget. Creating one's own garments can thus serve as a solution to all three issues.
"I think that the best part when you're creating your own clothing is that the rules don't really matter," sewist Alex Sundstrom said.
"Like, the limit does not exist! And so, you can take any pattern and if it's gendered, well, the gender can go fuck itself and you can just make it for you. Especially with zero-waste and sewing sustainability, they're just rectangles or they're just circles and it's less about cutting for your curves or cutting for someone's bust or waist — it just becomes about the draping of the fabric."
A long history of DIY
This recent uptick in the popularity of self-made clothing is just the latest manifestation of a long history of DIY within the queer community.
If you look at the consistent, ongoing popularity of queer mullets — in lieu of professional haircuts — or at the Women in Print Movement of the 1970s that circumvented legacy publishers, sewing one's own clothes feels like a natural progression of a larger trend that has always favored fringe, do-it-yourself efforts over institutional approval and praise.
Shannon Flaherty founded Sew Queer, an online community of LGBTQ sewers and allies, in hopes of bringing together likeminded folks who share this commitment to DIY.
"I think that's one of the things that feels so important and interesting and affirming for me is that we're just the latest generation who are doing this work," she said.
"And one of the things I've loved seeing is that people are using the [#sewqueer] hashtag not only for garment sewing, but also for embroidery and needlework, or banners and drag costumes. It's about recognizing the lack of objects out there in the world for us; if you want, for instance, a bag that suits your exact needs and feels gender affirming for you, where are you going to find that in the purse department of a mainstream store?"
At its best, the sewing community — queer, and otherwise — is a trend (and hobby, and artform) that brings folks together to share resources, patterns and general knowledge. In doing so, sewists of all stripes are democratizing an industry to include all makers, stitch by stitch by stitch.
"I never really had anyone growing up to look up to who was out and gay and proud and flashy and vibrant," Williams said.
"So now that I can be that person, I can inspire other people to be themselves and to be out and proud. Whether they want to wear sequins or even just colorful nail polish. It has gone beyond me now and that's what I really like and what I've taken away from this journey."