I recall the excitement and suspense of walking through the underwear aisle of a local H&M, browsing through an array of toned upper bodies and knickers that clung to the nether regions. Multiple years later, more confident in my queer identity, I found this experience to be shared with an amusing amount of queer peers. There is a particular community aspect when thinking of queer feelings of (be)longing. Whether reading homo-erotic literature or watching ‘relatable’ content on Instagram pages; the queer experience is as disparate as it is universal, shaped by emotional development, physical environment, and cultural involvement. There is something to be said about the influential marketing campaigns that promote certain body types and that to some extent also participate in phenomena such as ‘queerbaiting’. However, these shopping experiences can be understood as a logical extension of the history of queer retail spaces.

The Female Gaze

Learning from Charles Worth and the Queer Origins of Couture by Abigail Joseph1 and Queer Space by Aaron Betsky2, among other literature, I hypothesised that there were queer roots to be found in the history of Parisian boutiques. Although scarce, the fragments of queer biographies named in these and other works, write into reality the possibility of expressing queerness in these real places3. Whereas homosexual cultural production previously flourished in the narrow streets of Paris before her Haussmannisation, the widening of the streets made it possible for the bourgeousie to fit her garments that were abundant with crinoline. Therefore, the upper class drove the forbidden love affairs to hide away in semi-public settings. In a time and place where the act of flânerie previously dominated the pursuits in the boulevards, this way of experiencing one’s surroundings while walking then led its practictioners through phantasmagoria of landscapes and streets, before culminating in the high-fashion stores of Paris.

Most painterly, Joseph describes the sapphism among clients at the first maison de haute couture of Paris: Maison Worth. Man-milliner Charles Frederick Worth was presumed to be a homosexual, in an attempt to be ‘cancelled’, as we would call it nowadays, by renowned writer Henry Labouchère in 1871. It was the lack of erotic interest in women that gave his homosexuality away, and being able to read the women in his salon for their lack of style. This not only influenced his female clients to project any inherent daddy issues onto the couturier, as he asserted his stylistic dominance, but established a space in which the women did not have to be concerned about certain advances by heterosexual men. Female cruising, a term coined by Sharon Marcus4, is a phenomenon identified by Joseph in Worth’s boutique. “The pleasures that Worth’s clients found in observing one another were compounded by the pleasures they (and he) found in being observed by him, and in observing one another being observed by him.” (Joseph, 2014, p. 271). Women seemed to be aroused by the looks of the couturier undressing other women, gazing at each other’s unveiling nudity. 

Catherine van Casselaer dissects similar stories of sapphic interactions inside boutiques in Lot’s Wife: Lesbian Paris5 through articles by Léo Taxil and Ali Coffignon. While both Taxil’s and Coffignon’s aim was to describe the proclaimed corruption through lesbianism that brought upon the decay of French civilisation, they hint convincingly at luxurious fashion stores as facilitators of sapphic interactions. Van Casselaer rewrites the close-minded narratives into a new understanding of how women could meet other women in boutiques, freed from the male gaze, after which they were welcomed into the so-called bandes lesbiennes and invited to their private sapphic bacchanalia.