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Knocking Down the Door: Fashion and Queer Asian Identities

In the season 17 premiere of Project Runway, designer Kovid Kapoor is fitting a garment on his model Mimi Tao. During the fitting, Tao reveals that she has worked hard to be on the show: she is the first transgender model on Project Runway. Kapoor reacts with joy and amazement, exclaiming how he feels honoured to have Tao model his work. Afterward, in an interview, Kapoor explains the connection he felt with Tao due to the fact he has also worked hard to get where he is now while dealing with homophobia targeted towards him. Then, referring to her own experience while advising both Kapoor and the audience, Tao states:

“Keep knocking the door. If they don’t open, the door is going to break one day.”

I love this metaphor, as it encapsulates the struggle many marginalized individuals face to be recognized and included. At the same time, a refusal to welcome this change isn’t met with silence; people will keep fighting in solidarity with each other to build a more inclusive space. This is especially true for the fashion industry, which can be incredibly exclusive. 

For the most part, it’s an industry very focused on catering to specific individuals and enforcing beauty/societal standards. For example, nude fabrics are for the light-skinned. One size fits all really only fits a size two. When it comes to gender, stores, and brands separate men’s clothing from women’s clothing, reflecting a strict binary. When there is inclusion, it can border on being exploitative, performative, and problematic. 

A previous theme of the Met Gala, an annual event for celebrities and popular names in fashion, was “China: Through the Looking Glass,” where many designers were white and designed for white celebrities. Some pulled inspiration from other East Asian styles such as Japanese kimonos which reinforces the stereotype of Asians being a monolith. In 2019, the Met Gala’s theme was “Camp,” a style rooted in queer culture and its challenging of societal (and fashion) norms, an origin that people weren’t necessarily aware of.

Whether or not these themes were appropriative is still up for debate, some arguing that they were in celebration of identities and cultures otherwise not seen in mainstream Western fashion, while others point out that it provided a space for cis-gendered, heterosexual, white celebrities to profit off aesthetics of marginalized communities. 

Additionally, while more brands have been supporting the Asian or LGBTQ+ community through their designs, I would argue this is meaningless when the clothing is only available during certain times, like the month of May for Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month or June for Pride Month. To these brands, the support and recognition of Asian and/or queer identities is only ‘limited edition’ because it’s not true support: it’s a product to be marketed and sold. I haven’t even addressed the fact that intersections between identities are often ignored in favour of labelling individuals under a strict category.  

However, as I was doing research, I was overjoyed to learn about queer Asian individuals emerging in the fashion industry. Charlotte Carbone is a fashion designer from Toronto, Canada. In an interview with Fluide Magazine, Carbone explains that her identity plays a role in shaping her designs. She is inspired by the feeling of being in-between spaces, both in terms of being Chinese but adopted and raised by a white family and being a bisexual woman. Carbone also mentions how she learned from her ex-boyfriend, who is a transgender male, explaining that she became “a better sympathizer, hearing from a trans perspective how fashion can both affirm and invalidate identity.” To put it simply,

fashion is an expression of one’s identity, which, as Carbone expresses, is both freeing and limiting. 

Fashion is a performance: how you look is how others first perceive you. You can make a statement about who you are simply by what you wear or, society will make that decision for you. In that sense, trends or ‘rules’ of fashion can be extremely restrictive, making someone feel as though they must look a certain way to be someone they already are. This experience is particularly true for queer individuals. Another artist from Toronto whose work focuses on queer Asian identity is Meera Sethi. In an interview with Homegrown, a youth-led online publication based in India, Sethi explains how fashion in the queer community offers “lots of room for play and an exploration of persona.” In her work, Sethi explores the notion of hybridity, that fashion, much like individual identities, cannot be contained to rigid standards. Sethi also incorporates Indian textiles into her work, experimenting with colour and silhouettes to confront the expectation to conform to a strict gender binary and instead celebrate the diversity of gender identities. 

Queer Asian creators on Instagram are also using fashion to challenge societal standards related to gender. Seth Sanker is a queer desi photographer whose Instagram bio reads, “fashion has no gender.” Sanker posts photos wearing clothes that might be traditionally ‘feminine’ while sometimes incorporating traditionally ‘masculine elements as well, thus blurring the lines between the gender binary. An example of this is a selfie of Sanker wearing a sari, a South Asian garment typically worn by women. In each photo, Sanker’s sense of style and confidence shines through, truly showing that fashion has no gender. 

Another Instagram figure who uses style to challenge standards is Radam Ridwan, a non-binary Indonesian-Australian artist. In a post published earlier this month, Ridwan posted a portrait of themself wearing colourful makeup with a caption explaining that “we are greater than the sum of our identities.” Ridwan proposes that, while one’s identity is important, there can be certain limitations in terms of confining someone into certain expectations. Their work, for example, does not represent every single queer Asian identity.

Identity is fluid and it cannot be contained in the boxes that were previously created by society and reinforced by the fashion industry. 

Queer Asian identities have often been tokenized, disregarded, or forgotten throughout the history of the Western fashion industry. However, the exclusivity of the fashion industry is slowly becoming a thing of the past, not because of clothing brands or the fashion elites, but thanks to queer Asians themselves: designers, models, or simply individuals with a passion for fashion, who are exploring their identities and searching for inspiration from other queer Asian individuals. They inspire others to see that fashion can be a site of self-exploration and personal expression rather than a set of rules. As such, more recognition and appreciation of diverse identities will help move forward towards a more inclusive fashion community rather than an exclusive industry. 


Sources

Meet Canada’s Unapologetically Queer-Asian Designer | Charlotte Carbone

Camp Fashion Is Rooted In Gay Culture – Queer Origins 

The Colourful Chaos Of Queer South Asian Fashion

The Most Questionable Interpretations of the Met Gala’s Chinese Theme 

Project Runway, Season 17, Episode 1

Staff Writer

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

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