The Instagram Account Archiving Lesbian Fashion

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Courtesy of @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y

We speak to the archivist behind the feed exploring the style evolution of queer culture about how the past – and the future – is female

Kelly Rakowski initially founded the popular Instagram account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, a treasure trove of queer and lesbian imagery over the decades, as a personal curatorial project. "Partly it's just to find and connect to a culture that's hard to see," explains the Brooklyn-based photo editor. But with almost 19,000 followers, a T-shirt collaboration with LA-based design studio and community centre Otherwild (their sold out Future is Female sweatshirt, inspired by a 70s protest photo featured on h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, was recently worn by St. Vincent and is now available for pre-order), and growing interest in the evolution of lesbian style, Rakowski is planning an eventual book and exhibition with the documents she has so far amassed.

Dating as far back as the 1890s, from gender-bending Victorian-era portraits to radical protest imagery from the 1970s, red carpet shots of Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche in 90s minimal fashion, personal ads, pornography and other ephemera, the account is a fascinating archive of changing styles and attitudes. While famous faces crop up in her feed, it is the less well known, sometimes anonymous characters, captured in off-the-cuff moments or even outed in antique issues of local newspapers, that resonate the most – like the teenage runaways caught "impersonating" men in north Carolina in the 1950s, or the monocle-sporting women at a lesbian bar in Montmartre in the 20s, or a group of women at an informal gathering sometime in the 50s, dressed in rolled up slacks, shirts, white socks and loafers.

Then there are the scores of women taking to the streets in protest in the 70s, their growing emancipation visible not only in their defiant smiles and raised fists, but also in their interpretation of the era's dominant style norms — the high-waisted flared jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with political slogans, worn, of course, without a bra. Indeed, it is those moments of intersection between the codes of lesbian style and the fashions of an era that are so sartorially captivating. Arguably, it is a meeting zone that is growing ever wider. Here, Rakowski talks to AnOther about how her research began, where it's taking her and her favourite images from the feed...

On how the collection began...
"I've done a lot of research over the years, and I would always come across queer and lesbian culture stuff. One day I was sitting on my couch doing some research and I found the lesbian Herstory archive. It's an archive of lesbian culture – any lesbian can have a folder there. It's really interesting and it's in Park Slope in Brooklyn, which is my neighbourhood. They have an online collection of images and I just started looking through them and getting really excited. There's protest imagery from the 70s, pictures from the 50s and 20s. The Herstory archive was like a jumping off point and from there I kept looking for things – but the account is partly just to find and connect to a culture that's hard to see, to find images that reflect what my life is. I studied graphic design and I'm always interested in handwritten signs and a lot of the ephemera, the buttons and the T-shirts, was interesting, too."

On her favourite images from the feed...
"One of my favourite collections is from the University of South Florida and it's a bunch of photographs by Bobby Smith, who lived in Tampa in the 50s. It's just lesbians at parties and bars. It can be really difficult to find imagery from the 50s because people were more closeted. I guess also photography wasn't as prevalent, because not everyone had a camera. One of the pictures is of these women, and they're just having fun. You can see the style, the haircuts are short, and it's just different than you would normally see when you think of the 1950s. The other one is of these two women sitting on a couch and one woman has her legs spread."

"The confidence and how they're looking at the camera… it is super intimate, you feel like you're there. The photographer, Bobby Smith, was very gender bending. In pictures of Bobby with her girlfriend, she looks super masculine. Going further back, from 1896 through 1905, Marie Hoeg in Norway ran a photo studio with her friend-slash-who-knows-who. They also did self-portraits and Marie really challenges gender norms, she's dressed like a man with her hair cut really short. Those are the earliest ones that I really love and relate to. There's other stuff on the internet from the late 1800s, but at the time women were more affectionate with each other and it didn't necessarily mean anything. So I try to avoid posting those cutesy photos of girls hugging. I just make sure it's something more aggressive and challenging."

On the intersection between lesbian style and fashion...
"In the 90s, it was definitely all about the boxy pantsuit and the power blazers, the shirts done up to the top button and then maybe Doc Martens. The pixie cut really took off in the late 90s, too. In the 70s, people were wearing messages on their t-shirts and buttons and it was the feminist movement coming up. People were out more and challenging things so it was a more aggressive stance, you wanted to wear your message and tell people who you were and what you stood for."

On the evolution of lesbian style...
"I think that challenging gender norms and what women are supposed to be wearing is the thing that holds through any queer culture. Just being able to wear whatever you want without judgement. Obviously it's trousers, but it doesn't necessarily mean you have to wear pants, you can wear dresses… it's whatever you feel, it's your own style that makes you feel comfortable and confident. Now, women are wearing whatever they want to wear and while there definitely are some things that you notice lesbians wearing more of, honestly it's just very fluid right now. Fashion is increasingly genderless. I think that the underlying thing is just the way a woman carries herself. The poise, and the confidence – it's all-encompassing, it's the energy you're exuding into the world. So you could be wearing anything. It's really subtle, underneath all the style."

On The Future is Female T-shirt...
"There's a whole new generation relating to the 'Future is Female' message, and it's kind of upsetting that it's as needed now as it was in the 70s. But you feel powerful wearing it because you're saying something important and necessary. I would say it's not so much about being female as about stopping the patriarchy. The 'Future is Female' is more about change." 

Kelly is accepting submissions for the archive and is especially interested in images from the 1950s. Please get in touch with her via the h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y account.