In celebration of Pride Month, we’re paying tribute to some of the LGBTQ vintage fashion designers whose work ignited social movements and sparked revolutionary changes to the way we dress and look.
Today it is widely accepted that many LGBTQ people work within the fashion industry. However, back in the 20th Century, some of the best-known fashion designers were gay men who hid their sexuality due to societal pressures of the era in which they lived. Not only were they forced to hide their sexuality in order to protect their careers but also to avoid incarceration. Up until the late 1960s, it was illegal to be homosexual and gay men could be arrested and imprisoned simply for being gay. We thought it was important to acknowledge the historic influence of these LGBTQ fashion designers as gay culture has been central to the creation of modern fashion. Many of our favourite vintage fashion icons worked with these designers to create some of their most legendary looks. Here we share a few of their best designs.
Christian Dior was an influential French fashion designer who revolutionised forties fashion with his extremely popular ‘New Look’ collection in 1947. Featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist and full skirts, the ‘New Look’ celebrated ultra-femininity and opulence in women's fashion. After years of military and civilian uniforms, sartorial restrictions and shortages, Dior offered not just a new look but a new outlook. Dior never married and there were many rumours and speculation about his sexuality. He was a closeted gay man until his death in 1957. His legacy lives on in contemporary women’s fashion as he was responsible for creating a whole series of new looks for women including the short waistless sack dress and the A-line style.
Yves Saint Laurent
Another fabulous French fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent started his career at the House of Dior. Following the passing of Christian Dior in 1957, he became the head designer and was catapulted into international stardom with his trapeze dress. He left in 1961 and founded his eponymous fashion label. Saint Laurent used his designs to respond to and even rebel against fashion conventions. Some of his most famous creations include his collection of cocktail dresses inspired by the paintings of Piet Mondrian and ‘Le Smoking’ – a tuxedo suit designed for women. This suit pioneered androgynous styles for women and forever changed the way in which womenswear was perceived. Saint Laurent chose to empower women through fashion by giving them the option to wear clothes that were normally worn by men with influence and power. Openly homosexual, he was a gay rights activist and founded Sidaction, a fundraising institution dedicated to AIDS research.
Hubert de Givenchy
Hubert de Givenchy was French aristocrat who studied fashion at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1952, he launched the House of Givenchy. Less than a year later, he met American actress Audrey Hepburn while she was shooting ‘Sabrina’. She became his muse and Givenchy designed many of her onscreen costumes including the iconic black sheath dress she wore in ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’. Known for his feminine and timeless garments, Givenchy went on to design clothing for a range of esteemed women including Jackie O, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly. Some of his most famous styles include the balloon coat and the babydoll dress. Givenchy’s longtime partner was haute-couture designer Philippe Venet. They were together for more than 60 years before his death in 2018.
Pierre Balmain was a French fashion designer and founder of leading post-war fashion house Balmain. Known for sophistication and elegance, he described the art of dressmaking as “the architecture of movement.” Balmain claimed that he was actually responsible for the long bell-shaped skirts with small waists popularised by Dior’s ‘New Look’. During the 1950s, Balmain was a proponent of the stole for day as well as evening wear and created a vogue for sheath dresses beneath jackets. His talent as a designer laid in his ability to make simple, tailored suits as well as grand evening gowns, all with the same aesthetic of slender and elegant lines. He dressed some of the biggest actresses in French and international cinema such as Ava Gardner, Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot. His partner was the Danish designer Erik Mortensen, who worked at Balmain from 1948 until 1991.
Roy Halston Frowick, more commonly known as Halston, was an American fashion designer who rose to international fame in the 1970s. He began his career in fashion by making hats & skyrocketed to fame when he designed the famous pillbox hat worn by Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1961 Presidential inauguration. Halston's designs were usually quite simple, minimalist yet sophisticated, glamorous and comfortable at the same time. He liked to use soft, luxurious fabrics like silk and chiffon. He helped to define 70s style with his elegant yet sexy dresses that were staples during the disco era. He was a regular fixture at New York night club Studio 54 and his party-going inspired some of his most popular designs including the halter dress, which became a go-to look for many women of that era, including friends like Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall and many others. Halston's lover was Venezuelan-born artist Victor Hugo. Their on-and-off relationship lasted for over ten years. Halston died in 1990, shortly after testing positive for AIDS-related lung cancer.
Pierre Cardin was an Italian-born fashion designer known for his avant-garde style and futuristic designs that helped to revolutionise fashion during the 1950s and 60s. He founded his fashion house in 1950 and made his name with visionary designs like the iconic bubble dress in 1954 and his Space Age collection in 1964. He also produced the first women’s and men’s ready-to-wear collections from a couture designer. He preferred geometric shapes and motifs, often ignoring the female form and took an architectural approach to fashion. He was a pioneer of mod chic. His Cosmos collection included wool shift mini dresses with huge cutouts and colourful tights. Cardin’s Cylinder suit jackets were also the inspiration for the sharp grey collarless suits worn by The Beatles. He self-identified as being mostly gay but in the 1960s he had a four-year affair with actress Jeanne Moreau. His long-term business partner and life partner was fellow French fashion designer André Oliver.
Robert Gordon Mackie is an American fashion designer and costumier with a golden roster of clients. He is best known for dressing Carol Burnett, Diana Ross and Cher. Mackie started his career as a fashion sketch artist, collaborating with Hollywood’s greatest costume designers such as the legendary Edith Head at Paramount Studios. From there, he secured work with French-born, Hollywood costume designer Jean Louis, sketching the iconic Louis dress worn by Marilyn Monroe when she sang ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ to John F. Kennedy in 1962. He rose to prominence in the late 1960s when he started designing costumes for ‘The Carol Burnett Show’. Bob Mackie has always said that his clothes were for women who were not afraid to be noticed and any woman in one of his signature dresses would definitely turn heads. There is sparkle and an element of grandeur in his garments which is why his figure-hugging, feathered and fringed gowns are so popular with celebrities on the red carpet and concert tours. Mackie was previously married to LuLu Porter. However following their divorce in 1963, costume designer Ray Aghayan became his life partner for nearly 50 years.
Adrian Adolph Greenburg, widely known as Adrian, was an American costume designer whose most famous costumes were created for The Wizard Of Oz and hundreds of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films between 1928 and 1941. He was usually credited onscreen with the phrase ‘Gowns by Adrian’ because he didn't make traditional costumes - he made high fashion evening gowns. Adrian worked with the biggest female stars of the day including Hedy Lamarr, Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. Adrian changed the face of costume design in Hollywood, merging high fashion with studio wardrobe. He also ignited style trends off screen. The square-shouldered look he dreamed up for Crawford became her signature silhouette, prompting many women in the 1930s and 40s to adopt the style. Adrian was married to Janet Gaynor. Their relationship was a lavender marriage, since Adrian was openly gay within the film community while Gaynor was rumoured to be gay or bisexual. The arrangement protected both of them from the homophobic attitudes of Hollywood movie producers.
It’s safe to say that without these men, the world of fashion would not be the same. They revolutionised 20th Century fashion and helped to influence many of the trends that we still see both on catwalks and on the high street today. Many of the shapes and silhouettes they created can be found in our collection of true vintage dresses, and our vintage style dresses. Let us know your favourite LGBTQ fashion designers!