Semiotics of dress: the Age of High Gay

From two different sources, trips back to the ’70s and ’80s and the expression of gay identities through dress. From my correspondent RJP, a link to a Tumblr site celebrating Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics: A Photographic Study of Visual Coding Among Homosexual Men, 1977; and from Daniel MacKay on Facebook, a link to an Advocate magazine site on “The Men, Mustaches, and Memories of Jim Wigler (101 Photos)” by Christopher Harrity. Then there’s the Levine/Kimmel book Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone, exploring the Age of High Gay in the ’70s and ’80s:


Three photos from Fisher’s Gay Semiotics:




That’s Basic Gay, Jock, and Leather. Other Street Fashion photos: Forties Trash, Hippie, Uniform.

Harrity’s Jim Wigler site focuses on the Leather category. Three of Wigler’s photos:


Men from the San Francisco leather/bdsm subculture from the ’80s on.

Background from the 1998 Levine book (edited and with a introduction by Kimmel: the back cover text, with some additions by me:

Before gay liberation, gay men were usually perceived [in the larger culture] as failed men – “inverts”, men trapped in women’s bodies [and gay men often offered “swish” presentations of self]. The 1970s saw a radical shift in gay male culture, as a male homosexuality emerged that embraced a more traditional masculine ethos. The gay “clone”, a muscle-bound, sexually free, hard-living Marlboro man, appeared in the gay enclaves of major cities, changing forever the face of gay male culture. Gay Macho presents the ethnography of this homosexual clone. Martin P. Levine, a pioneer of the sociological study of homosexuality, was among the first social scientists to map the emergence of a gay community and this new style of gay masculinity. Levine was a participant in as well as an observer of gay culture in the 1970s, and this perspective allowed him to capture the true flavor of what it was like to be a gay man before AIDS. Later chapters, based on Levine’s pathbreaking empirical research, explore some of the epidemiological and social consequences of the AIDS epidemic on this particular substratum of the gay community. Although Levine explicitly rejects pathologizing the gay men afflicted with HIV, his work develops a scathing, feminist-inspired critique of masculinity, whether practiced by gay men or straight men.

A corrective: though swishy types were long the main way gay men were presented in popular culture, among gay men themselves, there was a tradition of high-masculinity presentations of the objects of gay desire, in beefcake magazines. From Wikipedia:

Beefcake magazines were magazines published in North America in the 1930s to 1960s that featured photographs of attractive, muscular young men in athletic poses. While their primary market was gay men, until the 1960s, they were typically presented as being magazines dedicated to encouraging fitness and health: the models were often shown demonstrating exercises.

Because of the conservative and homophobic social culture of the era, and because of censorship laws, gay pornography could not be sold openly. Gay men turned to beefcake magazines, which could be sold in newspaper stands, book stores and pharmacies.

… In December 1945, gay pornography pioneer Bob Mizer founded Athletic Model Guild, or AMG. Mizer’s AMG produced Physique Pictorial, the first all-nude and all-male magazine, and the film Beefcake documents his work and the growth of the Beefcake magazine industry. H. Lynn Womack published magazines such as Manorama, MANual, Fizeek, and Trim and was involved in the U.S. Supreme Court case MANual Enterprises v. Day (1962). From 1964 to 1967, Clark Polak published DRUM magazine.

In the 1960s, the pretense of being about exercise and fitness was dropped as controls on pornography were reduced. By the end of the decade gay pornography became legal, and the market for beefcake magazines collapsed.

This was the subculture in which Tom of Finland developed. When gay macho went mainline in the 1970s, ToF became one of its icons.

Harrity enthusing about Wigler’s photography, as in #5:

Photographer Jim Wigler is a treasure. He was born in Detroit, and as soon as he was able he headed to New York City to begin his photo career with the Nikon his father had bought him.

His New York adventures included a big early photo shoot with Leonard Cohen and a torrid drug- and liquor-fueled affair with a New York City beat cop, Paul Borter.

When that fell apart, Jim beat a hasty retreat to San Francisco just in time to spin out of control completely in 1979.

Then, happily, recovery happened early in 1980. Along with his newfound sobriety, he rekindled his affair with photography, learning everything from scratch sober. He began shooting for all the gay sex magazines there — Drummer, Bear Magazine (Brush Creek Media), Honcho, and many more. His knowledge of the leather scene in San Francisco from the ’80s on is astounding.

… The collection of images here is from his massive Tumblr archive. The images are both sexy and moving. Many of the men are no longer alive, due to both AIDS and old age. What began as sexy photo shoots has become, over the years, a soulful archve of a time both magical and tragic.

You can watch the slideshow on the Advocate site; and Wigler is still at work, with his own Tumblr site here.

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