The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.—Oscar Wilde
Find out who you are and do it on purpose.—Dolly Parton
House of Dior. House of Chanel. House of St. Laurent. House of Mizrahi. House of Labeija. House of Pendavis. House of Ninja. House of Xtravaganza. Emerging in the 1970s and 1980s within the underground black drag ball scene, house networks provided a critical community for queer youth of color. The ball circuit, whose history extends to the Harlem drag balls of the 1930s, was revitalized in the 1960s by black drag queens frustrated by the restrictiveness of the existing drag culture. Balls were held in the early morning hours in Harlem, allowing for the safe passage of contestants in their finery through the streets, and for the participation of ball-goers who worked late hours hustling. The performances, and the fashions, were legendary. The first house was created in 1972, when Crystal LaBeija, in an inspired promotional move, co-sponsored "the first annual House of LaBeija ball." With a nod to the glamour and the patronage system of the great fashion houses, the drag houses instituted their own family structure, headed by mothers, and sometimes fathers, who oversaw their "children," some of whom faced rejection from their biological families or their working-class African American and Latino communities. While the houses were initially formed to prepare and promote their competitors in upcoming balls, they provided space for much broader, adaptable family [End Page 9] roles, with room for members not interested in "walking" to offer support and companionship.
The range of roles enabled by queer house culture has resulted in an ever-expanding roster of contestants and categories represented at balls. Butch queens, femme queens, butch queens in drag, (lesbian or female-to-male trans) butches, or females battle for top scores in face, model's body, luscious body, muscular body, thug realness, banjee girl realness, executive realness, designer's delight, or European runway. Costumes might be self-crafted, or in label-based competitions, purchased or "mopped" (shop-lifted). The spectrum of identities performed on the floor, and the craft and spectacle of the performances themselves, move to center stage the routine labor of self-presentation. Ball culture entered mainstream consciousness, briefly, in the early 1990s, in the wake of Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris is Burning (1991), Malcolm McLaren's "Deep in Vogue" (1989), the Design Industries Foundation for AIDS Love Ball (1989), and Madonna's "Vogue" (1990), which appropriated the dance style invented by ball participants. But the nuances of house society exceed its stylistic cooptation, and its socioeconomic context remains persistently unfashionable. The house communities have continued to evolve and flourish, regardless, below the mainstream radar, incorporating a host of new stylistic influences and performing a critical social function.1
The dynamics of house ball culture intersect in provocative ways with the questions addressed by the diverse works in the Fashion issue of WSQ: How do we negotiate and perform identity, collectively and as individuals, via the spectacle of fashion? In what ways do social and economic conditions coincide with the politics of sexuality, the idiosyncrasies of personal practices, and the swirl of commercial images to result in broader shifts in cultural style? How can we reconcile the tension between youth, innovation, and subcultural creativity, and a highly adaptable, image-hungry, global industry? When does style become part of a life philosophy, or a broader social compact? How can fashion navigate the murky territory between resemblance, identification, and difference? Is it possible to actualize a new identity, or a new reality, through a rigorous regimen of self-presentation, even in the shadows of the commercial fashion industry? As the authors and artists who take part in this issue argue so forcefully, fashion never exists in a vacuum and is never "just" about clothes.
Editors Eugenia Paulicelli and Elizabeth Wissinger have productively framed Fashion as a survey of the status of fashion studies, a field that, as [End Page 10] they note in their introduction, has a complex relationship to feminism and gender studies...