As a designer, I believe there are important distinctions between “Art” and “Design”, and I prefer not to appropriate vocabulary of a fine arts critical framework to describe objects of fashion. Although a gown is not a work of art, it can certainly be expressive and imbued with meaning – much like a flag.
Unlike a flag – which is representative of a community and requires a degree of collective consent to modify – designing a dress is an exercise in the individual creative license. These gowns weren’t made for anyone. They don’t represent anyone. They’re just a couple of pretty dresses.
Both gowns reference flags used by the LGBTQ+ community to express solidarity and pride: Gilbert Baker’s 1979 “Rainbow Flag” and Monica Helms 1999 “Transgender Pride Flag”. Neither dress is faithful to its source. They both interpret and modify the colors and meanings of the original flags’ design.
There have been several recent iterations of the Rainbow Flag that introduce black and brown stripes as a gesture of inclusion for the underrepresented BIPOC constituencies within the greater LGBTQ+ community. These changes have prompted some debate, exposing tensions between fidelity to the heritage and aesthetics of the original design versus the imperative to address issues of racial inequity.
The design of this rainbow gown attempts to resolve some of those tensions, integrating shades of black and brown with harmony and balance – a contiguous spectrum of blended color with no placement hierarchy – a carousel of contiguous, vibrant, and inclusive color.
The design of the Transgender Pride flag is based on reductive and flawed heteronormative color associations. It uses baby blue to represent masculine gender assignment and pink stripes to represent female-born identity, while… “the stripe in the middle is white, for those who are transitioning or consider themselves having a neutral or undefined gender.”
The truth of the transgender experience may be fairly represented by the flag’s white stripe, but I regard the use of pale pink and baby blue to describe cisgender identity as an unfortunate cliché. I’m a gay cis male, and I caught hell when I was a little kid because my favorite color was pink. The colors of this gown celebrate the transgender community with bolder, stronger color choices than Helms’ baby shower pastiche; optic white, shocking neon pink, and brilliant turquoise, with unexpected accents of sharp yellow.
Messing around with the design of a flag is risky business. As symbols of their community, any change invites scrutiny and risks causing offense. The design of a gown, however, is a much less serious exercise. Through fashion design, we can explore alternative configurations of color and meaning without all the fraught politics that are attached to the actual flag.
These are, after all, just a couple of pretty dresses.
P.S. These two beautiful dresses will be displayed in the AIDS Interfaith Chapel from June 22 to July 6. We hope you love them as much as we do!