In the queer world, gay icons often seem created for gay men, appropriated for queer use based on their campiness rather than their status as a trailblazer or potential as a role model. Female queer icons in particular are a rare breed.
As a queer women and vintage stylist, I thought maybe my spheres of interest were never destined to meet. Idolizing the fashions of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, decades in which female queer icons were scarce, is mostly just an exercise in frustration.
But then I found Marlene.
An unapologetic bisexual during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Marlene Dietrich exuded style and sex appeal. She created one of the most supreme moments in queer cinema in Morocco (1930). Though she may not have wholly avoided the stereotypically gay male “camp factor” (Just a Gigolo (1978), enough said), she may be the sexiest, most visible queer icon in film history.
That’s right. In the 1930s, you would’ve had a shot with this woman. Let’s just marinate on that for a second.
One of the most powerful ways to own your history is to embody it. I decided to take that idea literally, and to channel the styles of historic queer women as a way to celebrate our history. When it comes to Marlene, the moment to reproduce was a no-brainer: her notorious tip of the hat to her bisexuality, the tuxedo scene in Morocco.
Known in theatrical circles for her beauty and tendency to court scandal, Marlene first achieved notoriety with the revue It’s in the Air in 1928, in which she performed the duet “Best Friends” with fellow actress Margo Lion.
The song begins innocuously enough with bored housewives on a shopping spree, but things get real gay real quick as Marlene and Margo flirtatiously compare their lingerie shopping haul while wearing corsages of violets – a known symbol of lesbianism. That Margo, known to be a lesbian, and Marlene, known to be bisexual, were rumored to be lovers just fanned the flames.
Though she was certainly boy-crazy, Marlene had always been a little lady-crazy, too. Growing up, Marlene had many crushes on women, from silent film star Henny Porten, to a girl in her older sister’s class, to her schoolteacher Mademoiselle Breguand.
Dietrich was sex. Her stage and screen magnetism and signature portrayal of the steely femme fatale caused critic Kenneth Tynan to describe her as having “sex without gender,” an aphorism that may have been more accurate that Tynan knew.
That’s not to say Marlene’s bisexuality was not well-known in Hollywood. Close friend Ernest Hemingway would often rib her about “her girls,” which included a lofty list of babes like writer Mercedes de Acosta, Canadian whiskey millionairess Jo Carstairs, and actresses Claire Waldoff and Marti Stevens, and songbird Edith Piaf.
She did as little to hide her affairs with women as she did to hide those with men. Which is to say very, very little.
That one of the most enduringly glamorous, endlessly idolized women in Hollywood happened to be queer may be one of the most serendipitous events in queer pop history. I suspect her bisexuality had more than a little to do with her enormous sex appeal and the public’s fascination with all things Dietrich.
Even during periods of unemployment, Marlene never courted media attention, and never had to. She was blazed into cultural consciousness, a living definition of “glamour,” and, happily for lady-loving ladies everywhere (myself included), the definition of a Queer Icon.