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Beyond Menswear: On The Aesthetics of Queer Women in Country

Angel with a Lariat (1986)

by Vivien Holmes

The cover of Brandi Carlile’s eponymous debut 2005 album features her in a shaggy mop and a patched Boy Scout shirt, wrapped in some sort of flag. It’s very in line with the fashion of the time — Season 2 of The L Word was broadcasting at about the same time Brandi Carlile was produced, and it’s particularly reminiscent of that. Knowing Carlile was signed to Columbia Records by this point, however, it also speaks to a music industry that perhaps didn’t know what to do with her.

By contrast, kd lang had already cemented her offbeat vibe in the 80s, well-versed in the aesthetics of the bizarre before her big break. Often, lang’s style in this period evokes vaudeville and Weimar aspects from her beginnings with The Reclines, peaking in 1993 with her famous Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford — still an iconic queer touchstone.

Carlile’s latest album cover for In These Silent Days feels much more at home than her debut. The centering of Carlile’s giant white collar lit up with neon lights against a cool mountain background is one of the first covers of hers to highlight fashion in this way since her debut. It’s also very reminiscent of Amythyst Kiah’s Wavy + Strange cover, with its three-quarter angle bust shot in red and blue hues.

Of course it’s nothing new that queer women look great in suits, but there’s been an especially strong trend amongst queer women in country of feminized menswear lately. Not just the classic skinny black suits for skinny white women, but more of an expanse — both in who’s wearing them, and the styling alongside them.

Mercy Bell, for instance, stares out from the cover of her latest album Golden Child with cut-back nails prominently in the foreground and casual but perfectly-fitted double denim, plus a relaxed smokey eye — a look our editor Annie referred to as ‘Femme Bruce Springsteen’. Jaime Wyatt’s Neon Cross cover has a more glammed-up style, centering the embroidery of her white suit and the neon lighting in her surroundings, placing her squarely in a position of power. Likewise, Amythyst Kiah’s recent New York Times feature shows her in a baby pink suit jacket, a bolo tie, and a perfectly coiffed Afro mohawk, in line with her consistently-excellent style.

With all this, it’s worth looking at the broader context. In recent years, certain queer aesthetics have been welcomed into the fold of mainstream fashion. Lil Nas X’s recent Western-glam red carpet offerings are more than enough to show that, and the tradition of queer women favoring menswear is a rich one that it’s nice to see highlighted.

Looking at those kd lang album covers, though, I do miss the stranger side of things — the off-trend, the deeply weird. The neon-soaked faces of Wavy + Strange and These Silent Days and the simplicity of Neon Cross and Golden Child are all great covers for good albums, but occasionally I yearn for stuff that’s more off the rails. Angel with a Lariat, for instance, has the sort of cover you just look at in confusion for a while and get lost in, while maintaining a deeply-country core in the music itself. The current menswear aesthetic is couched in more classically-feminine, polished stylings, in a way that keeps it a bit more…marketable. 

So, we end up in the larger conversation about queer acceptance, commodification, and assimilation. It’s a losing fight, and the argument that people have bills to pay is often the one that wins over. That said, the slickness of the well-produced can be a little too squeaky clean. Mainstream and corporate spaces often desire the appearance of experimentation as much as actually giving artists space to experiment.

At what point, then, do the recurring aspects of an aesthetic move from ‘trend’ to ‘overdone?’ Country in particular has always had a deep relationship with class, and a lot of conversations in fashion are deeply influenced by how much money a person might have — or, in the case of a working musician, what kind of image the label wants to cultivate. This is all the more a consideration when it comes to marginalized artists.

Do we have something new and strange on the horizon in queer country fashion? There are places that look interesting, of course. Joy Oladokun’s Tiny Desk Concert announcement jacket is a gorgeous update of the staple embroidered-denim concept. Orville Peck got heavily moved into more mainstream circles in a way that still feels a little commodified, but his early videos with a more DIY aesthetic feature a gripping commentary on warped masculinities, even though he was already signed to Sub Pop at the time they were produced. Mercy Bell’s pink painted pineapple as an accessory on the cover of her self-titled album remains fascinating. Amythyst Kiah’s “Black Myself” video features a departure from her usual polished styling, with a more extravagant feathered outfit.

In the video for Carlile’s latest single, “Right on Time,” she’s featured in an all-silver sequined outfit with a blue sash attached at the shoulder that gives her an air of low-budget sci-fi by way of David Bowie, Tegan and Sara, and Perfume Genius. It’s representative of where this now well-established musician is at — with multiple Grammys and a bestselling memoir under her belt, she’s far more comfortable experimenting. Her invocation of Bowie looks great, the song is touching, and I do really like this fashion aspect to the video, but this evolution is in conversation with a style that’s been pushing the same gender and aesthetic boundaries for 50 years. It is of course different when done by Carlile rather than Bowie, but that glorious Angel With a Lariat cover came out on kd lang’s major label debut — only 16 years after the “Life on Mars” video.

The path of the queer aesthetic is a winding one, so perhaps this mainstream experimentation in the fashion world of queer women in country music is a positive signal for things to come. As a DIY kid at heart, though, I always find the more interesting work is the stuff that’s held together by safety pins and hope.

Vivien Holmes is a writer, community organizer, and musician based in Manchester, UK. Her writing has appeared in Salt Magazine and Fruit Magazine, and is forthcoming in Black Telephone. She organizes with Partisan Collective and Trans Mutual Aid Manchester.