(Excerpted from paper published for MA Thesis, SFU 2013)
I am interested in the role of the cigarette as a fashion accessory that carries deeply rooted social, historical and political meanings. The cigarette plays a symbolic role in shaping the aesthetics of identity for queer and lesbian smokers. The narrative history of the cigarette as illustrated in mainstream and alternative media reveals critical sartorial implications for understanding the construction of gender identity in the 20th century. The relationship between fashion, gender and smoking has important associations with queer identities and cultures that are evident in media discourses dating from the introduction of representations of the New Woman in the early 1900s. Has a distinctly queer dimension of smoking been woven into our cultural repertoire?
The social acceptability of smoking for women aligns historically with the emergence of fashionable masculinity. The sartorial aesthetic of the New Woman introduced women to smoking and the social meanings with which it was accompanied. The image of the New Woman was a modern manifestation of femininity that equated progress and emancipation with womanhood. “In ‘Young in the Twenties’ Ethel Mannin recalls how all the “ladies” who attended her parties “smoked, conscientiously, as the outward and visible sign of sex equality.” By the late 1920s, newspapers and magazines frequently featured images of women smoking, including on rare occasions, a pipe.
Following World War II, the rigidity of the McCarthy era in the United States influenced the organization of queer subcultures. Aggressive policing of non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality found institutional support, and the spaces in which queer communities gathered were limited to underground bars that underwent routine police raids.10
The bar cultures are a critical element in this investigation of queer women smokers because for most of the 20th century, bars were the only spaces within which LGBT people could find a sense of community. Thus, smoking, drinking and other forms of substance use became defining behaviours in identifying as gay or lesbian. In a series written for Slate.com about the history and future of gay bars, June Thomas reflects on her own experience coming of age at the gay bar,
I rarely go to gay bars anymore… But I feel bad about abandoning them. I still remember the terrifying, giddy excitement of my first forays into gay pubs and clubs, the thrill of discovering other lesbians and gay men in all their beautiful, dreary, fabulous, sleazy variety… Gay bars are my cultural patrimony and my political heritage. 11
10 Davis M, Kennedy EL (eds.): Boots of leather, slippers of gold: The history of a lesbian community. New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 67-90.
Faderman L: Odd girls and twilight lovers : a history of lesbian life in twentieth-century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, pp. 159-167.
11 Slate [Internet]. The Slate Group, a Graham Holdings Company; 2011. The Gay Bar: Is It Dying?; 2011 Jun 27 [cited 2014 Dec 9]; [2 screens]. Available from: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_gay_bar/2011/06/the_gay_bar_6.html