From Deneuve to Curve to dapperQ:
A Femme’s Thoughts on Butch

By Merryn Johns

Deneuve incorporated butch style early on and as the issues rolled on, so did Curve, presenting masc and genderqueer style in spreads on a regular basis. By the time I came on board as editor in 2010, our community was experiencing a golden age of queer women’s style, much of it centered around communities in Brooklyn, New York. If you were a queer woman at that time, you undoubtedly heard of or knew about or were part of a growing culture of dyke designers, queer couturiers, masc models, and the image makers who were putting them on the map. And this new thing called social media! Early Instagram was doing what a lot of fashion editors used to do, but this time it could occur daily and it was completely inclusive and self-generated. To help me handle what was happening out there during my 10-year tenure at Curve, I tapped Anita Dolce Vita, a femme of color and founder of dapperQ, to comment on and coordinate the best of butch, dapper, and ungendered style. She reported back from fashion shows or put me in touch with style mavens, tailors, and nascent fashion houses, all run by queer and butch women.

Since the last decade, Anita has gone on to major success as a style writer, event producer, and author of dapperQ Style: Ungendering Fashion. The book showcases the self-presentation of a range of fashion-forward members of our community and how they show up every day as their authentic selves: models, journalists, activists, college instructors, designers, poets, and more. I caught up with Anita to find out her thoughts on butch, nonbinary, and ungendered fashion, and how far the scene has come since her time at Curve.

What is your earliest memory of identifying with style and fashion as an expression of identity? How did that manifest itself and did you feel it was successful?

Anita Dolce Vita

My first memory of identifying with style and fashion as self-expression was as a child. I have always been attracted to over-the-top feminine attire. Growing up GenX, I was a pre-teen in the latter half of the 80s, so I saw feminine as powerful, bold, colorful. I wanted to dress like Prince or the television soap stars with their high hair and power shoulders adorned with shoulder pads and poofy gathered fabric. Back then, even the hair bands that were supposed to represent some of the most desired forms of masculinity wore lipstick, high heels, and high hair.

The issue is that I was not successful at first. I grew up in a lower-income (by U.S. standards) family, so many of my clothes were hand-me-downs and rather “neutral” on the feminine-masculine spectrum. I use quotes around “neutral” because our society often deems neutral as white and masculine. Nevertheless, the hand-me-downs were not the drag queen, high femininity that I felt best represented me, even as a much younger version of myself. When I was in middle school, I would sneak trendy ensembles (think a single lace glove, off-the-shoulder midriff shirts) from my older family members’ closets into my backpack, transform into an 80s pop-star when I got to school, and swapped back into what I was sent to school in before I got home.

When did you realize you were a femme and was it a conscious choice/decision or rather a becoming?

Anita Dolce Vita

Again, as a child, I realized I preferred to present as feminine. I recall when I first assigned my first gym class at school and was forced to wear sneakers. I would literally cry when I looked at these big, chunky running shoes on my feet. Who knew that Gen Z would consider dad sneakers to be elegant footwear that is appropriate to pair with a gown so many years later? My knees are jealous, but I digress. Back to gym class. I negotiated with my gym teacher to wear patent leather flats with socks to gym, and I was, at least back then, still one of the fastest runners in the relay.

However, I did not realize that I was femme as a queer political identity until I was older. When I came out in the late 90s, there was this hard butch-femme binary for queer women. You were either-or, and if you were femme, the LGBTQ+ communities often looked at you as “not gay enough,” apolitical, and weak. The cis-het communities also often questioned whether you were truly “gay enough” because there were such heteronormative views in both communities about how one should be expected to present if you were part of the LGBTQ community. I started to proudly identify as femme to reclaim femininity as powerful, capable, and firmly queer.

Has fashion for lesbians and queer women always existed or has it mostly been visible along a butch-femme binary?

Anita Dolce Vita

Fashion has always been a form of self-expression and visual activism in our communities, whether it be wearing the pink triangle, flagging, leather, or the infamous white tank top. I could go on forever. But, I think what I am enjoying today is that our communities are breaking away from heteronormative indoctrination that states there are only one or two ways of presenting and existing as LGBTQ, and even heteronormative rules about what constitutes “masculine” and “feminine” are being dismantled. I love that I see GenZ TikTok influencers dressing butch and also painting their nails a traditionally feminine color—just dressing however they feel best represents who they are without so many binary labels and rules.

Did you have any butch role models, style icons, that inspired you?

Anita Dolce Vita

Definitely Lena Waithe. It’s the power-clash range for me. She is not afraid to mix big, bold colors and patterns. I would wear many of Waithe’s outfits adding my own personal twists.

What exactly motivated you to take over dapperQ?

Anita Dolce Vita

dapperQ was founded by Sterling Herr and was more of a personal blog chronicling a very specific type of masculine style, rather than a magazine and production company dedicated to the full range of queer style, which is what it has evolved into today. When I took it over, I saw an opportunity to represent and create visibility for our communities’ style and contributions to fashion that were not represented in binary glossies. As the mainstream press started to take notice of our work, I started getting invited to attend New York Fashion Week shows. The issue with these shows is that I was not able to publish any content that was relevant for our readers. That is when I decided we should have our own shows. Our shows started off as small projects in dive bars and have now expanded to be featured at the California Academy of Sciences, the Museum of Fine Arts/Boston, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, and now nine consecutive years during New York Fashion Week at Brooklyn Museum.

Since this piece for Curve is focusing on butch style, can you tell me some of the ways dapperQ served that aesthetic and identity? ‘Dapper’ was a term with a lot of currency as well as ‘boi,’ ‘masc,’ ‘futch’…

Anita Dolce Vita

Established in 2009, dapperQ is one of the world’s most widely read digital queer style magazines and is a preeminent voice in queer fashion and beauty. The platform was created for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender presentations to think differently about both queer fashion and beauty as art and visual activism, and ultimately have a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with style.

The term “dapper” means neat and trim in dress and appearance. The brand’s name was conceptualized to reclaim the term dapper, which in mainstream fashion was used to mainly describe a very specific type of white, cis-het man. dapperQ is gender expansive, queer, political, and inclusive. When providing visibility to readers who dress along the butch spectrum, dapperQ celebrates a wide range of style from the Harlem Renaissance suit and bow-tie aesthetic, to the sporty dyke, to the sartorially smart streetwear stud. dapperQ not only provides this visibility through our website, shows, and books, but also serves as a resource, providing style guides on how to measure for a suit that has more traditionally masculine silhouettes and shop guides that list queer-centric brands.

Curve was thrilled to bring you into the magazine as a contributor and contributing editor at a very hot moment for this area. Can you sum up what was happening in our culture between 2010 and 2020 for queer women and style? To me it felt like a seismic shift. This might be a great place to mention how you branched out into live NYFW shows.

Anita Dolce Vita

This decade was such an interesting time for queer fashion. Let’s just start with Instagram alone, launched in 2010. Setting aside some of the problems social media has caused, one of the most positive impacts Instagram has had is the democratization of beauty and fashion. Queer people no longer had to wait for Vogue and GQ to provide us visibility and invite us to the fashion table. We created our own communities of common values, reimagining our own definitions of luxury and style and comfort and authenticity. Sure, mainstream media teased us with a KD Lang/Cindy Crawford [Vanity Fair] cover from time to time. But, they never gave us a full-time seat at the table, and they certainly were not inviting plus size, disabled, trans, and Black and brown people who existed at the intersection of LGBTQ identities a seat at the table! Many of the people featured in the book are influencers, activists, and DJs who were at the forefront of the Instagram queer fashion visibility movement, and some of them I also featured in Curve fashion articles, such as Charlotte “CB Glasser” Alexander and Ari.

During this decade, we also noted that mainstream fashion media and brands became obsessed with “gender neutral,” which provided some visibility for models like Casey Legler and Elliott Sailors. But, the narrative was still focused on “gender neutral” defined as whiteness, thinness, and heteronormative masculinity. A brand would launch a line of sweatpants, cast a thin, white, androgynous model for the campaign, and call it revolutionarily “gender-neutral.” However, this was not a real investment in diversity or dismantling binaries in fashion.

Counter to this, we saw a rise in queer-centric suiting companies that focused on more traditional masculine tailoring, from the now-closed Saint Harridan to the still-thriving Sharpe Suiting. These companies were dedicated to serving and celebrating butch clients in a more intersectional, inclusive manner, and many showcased collections on our runways.

Your book is subtitled ‘ungendering fashion.’ Do we need to connect the dots between earlier butch style and what’s happening now? In your introduction, you seem to suggest it is a continuum and an evolution.

Anita Dolce Vita

Our mission at dapperQ is to ungender fashion. Fashion does not have a gender. It has been gendered for specific reasons as a tool to maintain strict binaries and hierarchies. Given that femininity and masculinity are constructs and leveraged as tools in mainstream society to keep a certain order, it is also important for us to interrogate how LGBTQ+ communities can either mimic similar limiting and harmful norms or challenge and reclaim fashion on our own terms. For example, there is no right or wrong way to be butch. There was a time when I first came out that queer women had to pick a side: butch or femme. Furthermore, there were these same sets of rules of what constitutes the correct way to embody masculinity that were very toxic in many ways. Our communities have evolved so much since then in terms of fashion. There is no right or wrong way to present who you are through fashion along any continuum of feminine-masculine or gender spectrums.

Visit dapperQ and get the book.