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Anita Dolce Vita on Ungendering Fashion: A Decade of Queer Style Evolution

dapperQ EIC Anita Dolce Vita strides across the street on left, on the right is front cover of her book dapperQ Style: Ungendering Fashion
Anita Dolce Vita (L) photo by The Street Sensei, Cover of dapperQ Style: Ungendering Fashion (R)

Disclaimer: I’ve known Anita Dolce Vita for over a decade now. We met when she was producing a series on dapperQ called He said/We said where traditional male runway shows were reinterpreted in fresh queer editorials. I was the photographer on that shoot, and looking back now, I can see Anita was already manifesting a vision of a more inclusive fashion world.

Since that time, I’ve watched Anita’s evolution and continued on occasion to shoot for dapperQ. Thus, I was delighted when she asked if I would consider being photographed rather than the photographer for a unique, to say the least, book concept.

Fashion, not so long ago –and still now to much of an extent– was a skinny white girl’s game. Drape gorgeous clothing on a “hanger” walking down a runway and delight at the creation not the creature. But what happens when those outside of the accepted visual, the norm –sold to us from the time we open our first Vogue–walk the runway instead? This my friends can be revolutionary. And this is Queer Fashion –something that has found a home through dapperQ.

dapperQ runway show at the Brooklyn Museum ’23. Photo by Vanessa Dubois, fashion by SoidStudiosNY

As editor-in-chief of dapperQ, Anita Dolce Vita took an online representation of queer fashion, expanded it and brought it to the runway –especially with the epic annual dapperQ fashion show at the Brooklyn Museum. She has since brought it full circle through the publication of dapperQ Style: Ungendering Fashion. Read on to learn more about Anita and her amazing evolution.

I’ve always seen you as sounding the clarion call on visibility before it was part of our daily discourse. What started as a showcase for lesbians to be their finest dapper selves, transformed into a space of Ungendered fashion. What narrative do you think you began with, during the first days of dapperQ and how has it evolved?
dapperQ was launched in 2009 originally as the founder emeritus’ personal blog focused on masculine style. I was a contributor before fully taking over as owner in 2015 and expanding the platform to a web magazine, fashion show, and in-person education resources. For example, I started applying to produce panels at prestigious conferences and festivals, and dapperQ was accepted to be the first queer fashion panel to speak at South by Southwest.  

My four-year journey helped me challenge my own assumptions rooted in gendered fashion, unlearn the parts that no longer served me, and embrace the components that led to my femme liberation. For a period, as a feminine-presenting lesbian, I felt invisible while running dapperQ, particularly when I felt pressured to present a stereotypical narrative that masculinity was the only gold standard for queer women to aspire to and that femmes were (supposedly) already represented by cisgender, heteronormative, fatphobic, transphobic, ableist, and white-centered fashion media. Both of these ideas are rooted in the binary, and both are wholly untrue. As a result of my personal evolution and journey, the brand has expanded to be inclusive of the full spectrum of queer style and has grown into a multichannel media company with a comprehensive digital magazine, event production team, and thriving social media presence.

How do you see the impact of the magazine and then the show on the different generations in terms of expression, creativity, and politics?
dapperQ has created significant meaningful impact that is difficult to quantify in one answer. We have had readers, show attendees, models, and designers of every age say they felt so affirmed by seeing themselves represented in everything we create. This was particularly true before social media expanded to foster the growth of communities of common values that quickly became more accessible than the extremely classist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and transphobic traditional fashion glossies and shows that existed before our platform and that many of us grew up with.

But even with social media allowing for more visibility on our own terms, dapperQ continues to secure venues for our fashion shows – Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts/Boston, Institute of Contemporary Arts/Boston, South by Southwest, SummerStage at Central Park – that are of the same quality that cis heteronormative designers and models are able to secure, which gives us a seat at the table while maintaining control of our values and creative vision.

Lastly, I will say that dapperQ’s platforms – book, shows, speaking events, website, social media –  are of paramount political importance because queer and trans identities (use of restrooms, drag performances, gender affirming care) are being used by the far right to mobilize their voters and both politicians and those who want to see us completely erased are leveraging their political power to dismantle our democracy and rollback rights for all U.S. citizens. Tennessee Passed the Nation’s First Law Limiting Drag Shows. These types of laws are exactly aligned with other measures meant to control our bodily autonomy.

Through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, police weaponized “masquerade laws,” old codes that prohibited “costumed dress,” to punish queer and trans people wearing articles of clothing that didn’t correspond with the gender they were assigned at birth, Ryan, the author of “When Brooklyn Was Queer,” wrote in History.

Among LGBTQ+ people, these laws were called the “three-article rule”: an individual had to be wearing three articles of clothing of the gender they were assigned at birth or else they’d be arrested. If you were assigned female at birth but caught wearing pants and a shirt, you could be arrested for failing to wear three articles of women’s clothing. 

While this rule became part of the queer lexicon, a law citing a specific number of articles didn’t actually exist on the books. According to historians, calling it the “three-article rule” may have originated as a way for queer and trans people to warn each other about the police or served as an “informal rule of thumb,” Ryan wrote.

The so-called three article-rule meant that anyone with gender variance could be punished for wearing clothing that made them feel good; a night out with friends turned political with fashion.

Queer style has emancipatory potential for all members of society right now and is critical to cover and understand as it pertains to policies that matter to many people right now.

We’re living in such polarized, often scary times as the pushback against LGBTQIA+ rages. Any thoughts about how to keep the faith and how fashion can be part of an attitude of both hope and defiance?
I think right now is a time to define individual and brand values in the queer style vertical. I have seen so many queer fashion influencers not take a stance on global issues right now because they were afraid to lose brand deals. But what Pride 2023, and especially Pride 2024, has taught us is that corporations were already moving away from LGBTQIA+ causes. Corporations were allies for profit, but soon found that they didn’t need to be allies to continue to inflate prices and make record breaking profits. They have abandoned us either way.

And while that is disheartening, we can now fight for liberation on our own terms, define our morals and values publicly (if deemed safe to do so), and not tie our collective liberation to brand deals. That is why I am so grateful that dapperQ is not my full source of income and that when dapperQ does obtain sponsorship support, we can be a bit more discerning about brands we work with.

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Excerpts from book, courtesy Anita Dolce Vita. Photos by Street Sensei

So let’s talk about the book, dapperQ Style: Ungendering Fashion
First of all, it was a blast to be a part of something so inclusive. When I read through it, what comes out more than even the intimacy and pain of some of the stories, is joy. A fierce joy of queer culture writ large. How did you decide to make dapperQ a book?
Honestly, I was just focused on producing the show and the website. As some of our readers know, I am a full-time clinical researcher. Back in 2015, I was working at a hospital as a research nurse and was leaving work for the day, grabbed my last iced coffee at the hospital cafeteria, and was headed for a NYC subway home when I received a call from a small publishing company. An editor at this company said they were a huge fan of dapperQ and wanted to publish a queer style manual and asked me to write up a book proposal as a formality but also a guide to how the chapters would flow.

I submitted the proposal, but weeks later, the editor called me and said that her firm felt that queer style was too niche and would not be successful as a book. That’s when I became determined to write a book! How is it that every cis het normative fashion magazine from Details to GQ to Vogue to Esquire to InStyle had a companion book, but queer style was too niche?

It wasn’t even a matter of dapperQ not being relevant enough to have our own book, but our communities not being relevant to have our own book? That got to me. I spent months polishing up the book proposal, secured an agent with New Leaf, and shopped the book around until HarperCollins signed me in 2019. I not only felt victorious in advocating for our community’s visibility in fashion media, but that I secured a deal for the book with a big five publishing company.

What was the book process like, and how was it different from creating and maintaining the magazine?
The print book vs digital magazine was a pivot for me in terms of my writing process. I was working full-time and had to work nights to start writing more methodically and on tighter timelines. Additionally, everything in print must be perfect when you publish it. There is no going back to edit words or remove content retroactively, like we do with digital articles, if necessary. That was a lot of pressure.

The other major issue in my writing process was that I had originally signed in October 2019, and we all know what happened in early 2020. I continued to write chapters, but photography was on hold with a big question mark over when we could all resume activities in-person.

I was writing a style manual, and as the pandemic roared on with our communities disproportionately impacted with morbidity and mortality burden, job loss, lack of gender affirming care, and so much more, I felt that a style manual was bad timing. I reworked my proposal to have the book be more about the celebration of queer bodies centering images and words of activist, journalists, artists, celebrities, influencers, and DJs who all have amazing style and have been at the forefront of advancing queer fashion. I was lucky to have an editor at HarperCollins who was 100% behind this pivot.

Senka Filopovic ©The Street Sensei

Are there any photos or stories that really jump out at you or perhaps surprised you? In terms what they convey? How they get at certain philosophies of living or surviving, certain strategies, joys?
This may be biased, but my partner’s story. She is a Bosnian Muslim refugee and part of the diaspora from the war in the 1990s. Her story of her family supporting her decision to dress more masculine since she was a young child challenges Islamophobic pinkwashing.

But there are 40+ stories featured in the book, and each one is so inspiring, ranging from learning to accept oneself in the face of hate to how designers can include more adaptive pieces in their collections.

What was the most rewarding aspect of creating the book?
Definitely the moment when the book was being featured and sold in Beaux Arts Court at Brooklyn Museum on the same night of our 2023 New York Fashion Week show! It felt like such an accomplishment for our communities that queer style had a moment in history where dapperQ in print was coming alive on stage, and conversely, that queer stories were captured in the print archives!

How do you see the larger “project” that is dapperQ, from the book now to all that led up to it.
My goal is to continue with the annual fashion shows, but also to speak and teach at academic institutions. I think it is important that people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender presentations think differently about both queer fashion and beauty as art and visual activism, and ultimately have a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with style.

I’m trying to get at the notion of fluidity and creativity. When I think back to the beginnings of visibility, queer culture was coded, often flamboyant, and often appropriated by artists and designers who hung out at certain known spots in the big cities. We seem less inclined to be trapped by the binary than we once did. Do you see it that way and do the stories from the book reflect that evolution?
First, on the issue of appropriation, Luna Luis Ortiz, once stated on Huffington Post Live that he saw firsthand how, several decades ago, designers would send in spies to their ball events who would steal ideas that were later seen in major fashion week runway shows. It’s really important that the queer community, which has been at the forefront of many style revolutions, play a prominent role in presenting and discussing our contributions, that original ideas are credited, and that space is created for queer designers and models.

With respect to dismantling binaries, dapperQ’s platforms reinforce that there is no one way of being LGBTQIA+. Just as there is heteronormativity, queer normativity exists too because we are all indoctrinated from birth to accept mainstream gender norms, beauty norms, and other hierarchies. It takes a lot to undo this damage, but queer style is one of the most powerful tools towards that liberation because many people, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity, feel pressure to conform to standards of beauty and style that do not affirm their core being.

How did you come up with the team that created the book?
I was the author, and The Street Sensei (aka Kim) was the photographer. I wanted to work with Kim because she shoots both mainstream binary luxury fashion as well as future-forward creative independent queer fashion, and has the eye to discern the personal from the commercial. She is able to tell a larger story while still centering the style. In the book, she speaks about how dapperQ’s website was so important to her while she was isolated as a Burmese masculine presenting queer at a primarily cis het normative white college. I wanted her to be a part of archiving queer style for another generation of readers who may need dapperQ as a lifeline.

The dedication is to your grandmother. When I think of unconditional love, I think of my own. She loved hearing my stories, and fostered my creativity and let me be me from as far back as I remember. Did you have a similar sort of relationship with yours?
Yes, absolutely! My grandma taught me to question everything (well except her – she was a Boomer). And that has helped me both in my science background as well as seeing things in creative and accepting ways in the world more generally. 

And then there’s your cats! Talk about our connection to those creatures and why they got the big shout out?
My cats! Well, they have been with me through school, moves, breakups, writer’s block meltdowns, illness. They always love me unconditionally and sit in my lap whenever I’m at the computer. I had to lock one of them out while writing this because he was laying on the keyboard!

How has your style changed over the years? And how much of it do you think comes down to being the face and heart of dapperQ?
Right now, I’m returning to my preppy and grunge/hip hop roots. I know these two aesthetics seem at odds, but they are both solidly GenX. I attended elementary school and middle school in the 80s and aspired to dress like the Brat pack (not the Brat trend we know from TikTok today).  I attended high school and college in the 90s and was all about the grunge and hip-hop baggy pants, body suits, and flannels. So, when I dress up, I aim for preppy, and when I dress more causally, I aim for grunge.

However, getting back to my roots has been a journey. As we discussed before, there was less fluidity in queer style 10-20 years ago. If you were a queer femme back then, you couldn’t just walk into a queer bar or party wearing white linen shorts and a flowy lemon print top without getting the side eye. The “approved” look was short jean shorts with ripped hose paired with a shredded tank top (all black of course), asymmetrical haircut, lots of tattoos, big black boots. And that is a fantastic look if that is your style. But, it was not my style and I tried so hard to fit in. I looked awkward because I felt awkward. I am so happy for the linen lesbians on TikTok today! I’ve donated anything goth gay that was in my closet.

A Few of Anita’s Favorite Things

Book: dapperQ Style: Ungendering Fashion
Movie/Series: Any scam documentary at the moment
Creative Inspiration: Music
Food: New Mexican cuisine
Trend that you like: That everything and nothing is in all at once.
Trend that you hate: Lack of authenticity – trend chasing.
Quality in a human being: Empathy
Person you admire: Bisan Owda
Quote to live by: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde

–Katya Moorman

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