Fashion Statement: author Steven Gdula on Wearing History
With slogans such as “Lavender Menace,” “Clark wants Dick, Dick wants condoms,” “Silence=Death,” “Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian,” and “That’s Mister Faggot To You!” emblazoned across chests throughout the past few decades, it may come as a surprise that t-shirts are an unexpected way to chart the GLBT Movement.
While you might not think that a simple 100 % cotton garment can make such a strong avowal that showcases the importance of getting a point across, this fact was particularly evident during the rise of the AIDS epidemic and the government’s lack of response to the crisis during the 1980’s and beyond.
Author Steven Gdula has written a book, Wearing History: T-Shirts from the Gay Rights Movement, which illustrates how what you wear can have a bigger impact as a true fashion statement of championing causes near and dear to many a GLBT heart, and chronicles the strides we have made.
Gdula accidentally stumbled upon these t-shirts and their historic value prior to making them the subject of a book, as he explained to me during our phone interview.
“I was in San Francisco, and at the time was reading Daniel Harris’ book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture,” he said. “And in it he had referenced what was then called ‘The Northern California GLBT Historic Society,’ and I opened up the Yellow Pages, and sure enough, there was an address. I was doing some research on another project at the time, so I thought that hopefully this would give me some inspiration.”
And that fortunate happenstance led to Gdula’s discovery of the t-shirts, and a new inspiration to draw upon. “I walked back into the archives facility, and there were probably at that time, about 60 boxes labeled just simply ‘t-shirts,’” he recanted. “So, I said to the office manager, ‘Would you mind if I started to go through those?’ And he said, ‘Go right ahead, you’ll be the first researcher to have done so.’ “So, I just grabbed a box and one of the first t-shirts that I pulled out was the ‘Anita Kisses Oranges’ t-shirt (which was in reference to 1970’s anti-homosexuality spokesperson, Anita Bryant, and featured two oranges that resembled buttocks with a lip print on them). I saw that shirt and I was blown away by the graphics, and the fact that in 1977 to walk around wearing a shirt with that type of message on it, was potentially dangerous. I also liked the sense of humor in it, as well, and I thought it was a pretty ballsy statement.”
Gdula feels these reasons, coupled with the t-shirts unsung qualities, emphasize the significance of why these shirts are such an essential part of our history.
“In terms of their importance, I initially had trouble stressing to people was that these weren’t just pieces of ephemera, that these were cultural artifacts, worthy of investigation, worthy of documentation.” He stated. “Because in some cases, they are the only things that might have survived a protest, or a rally. “And I think that in terms of defining our community at large, I think they are extremely important, because if we look over the past several years, we’ve seen the danger of allowing other people to define us.”
Which is why Gdula felt compelled to chronicle these “great visual timelines,” and is what drew him to take on the project to get the word out on the impact these t-shirts embodied. “I’m fascinated by the cues that used to be given through clothing choices and I’ve always been fascinated as the t-shirt as a billboard; but, also in the gay community, how clothes have been used to send signals.”
And those signals were heard loud and queer, and Gdula feels there were certain shirts that made a big impression as singular entities, but sees a much bigger picture of the t-shirts as a whole. “I think through this type of imagery, I don’t want to go so far as to call it a uniform, but it is to a degree,” Gdula said. “You are wearing something that is establishing an allegiance to something else; either a cause, a group, a mindset. And, I think it’s very important in getting the message out there and putting it in the public eye, and putting it in somebody’s face. “So, I think they are very important in showing where we’ve been, and if you look at how the shirts themselves have changed, I think you start to see how the community has changed in how it has grown more comfortable in identifying itself.”
And as that comfort level grew as the years wore on, and the community continued to wear their hearts across their chests. “When you start to move into the ‘We are here, we are queer,’ the ACT UP shirt, and you suddenly begin to see pronouns in use,” he explained. “It’s evident who the wearer is talking about; a person on the street who has seen someone wearing that shirt, there’s absolutely no question, no doubt (as to what the shirt is, in essence, saying). “Then, when you into the ’90s, and we start to get the shirts that ‘Don’t Panic’ put out with the ‘Nobody Knows I’m Gay’ or ‘Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian,’ there’s the complete cycle of ownership there – where it comes full circle and the person is identifying themselves as gay, lesbian, transgender, a member of the community. It’s no longer just ‘I belong to this group,’ it’s also ‘I am’ period.”
While t-shirts worn in the GLBT world in recent times have become more or less sexualized, making tongue in cheek declarations of sexual proclivities (“Tight End,” “Butte Pirates,” “Morning Wood Basketball,” etc.), Gdula sees them as a natural offshoot of the original attire.
“It’s funny, some of the shirts that I found from the mid-’70s shocked me,” Gdula recanted. “I actually thought that there was no way I could end up putting those shirts in the book, because it would end up getting slapped with an NC-17 rating for books. “But, I think as the community has become more confident, there’s been less of a need to shock. I think that the ‘Morning Wood Basketball’ t-shirt, there’s a certain amount of elasticity in terms of tolerance. People can laugh at that, and I think that humor is another way to break down barriers.”
Another upcoming book that utilizes Gdula’s talent for uncovering everyday things we may take for granted is The Warmest Room in the House, (due out in January) which delves into how American Culture and trends in the kitchen are interlinked. And he gave us a sneak preview of his other book’s subject matter.
“The thing I saw more and more that was influencing how Americans view their kitchens was this need for proximity to one another, this need for people to be close to one another. That wanting to be near, where that warmest part of the house is, I think that ultimately, I don’t know if it’s something primitive; but we are all drawn back to huddling around a campfire.
“There’s something about being around a place where food is prepared that makes people want to share stories that makes them want to share parts of their day with one another. And, that has definitely had an influence on why the walls have come down, and how the kitchen has bled into the rest of the home.”