Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Revolutionary Chic

Boots worn by Dr. Mary Walker when she was a physician for
the Union Army during the Civil War.

Happy Fourth! On this day of celebrating revolution, I'd like to honor two American revolutionaries who challenged status quo thinking about fashion norms, women's rights, personal freedom and gay rights. Civil War surgeon, Dr. Mary Walker, and Gay rights leader, Harry Hay, though born eighty years apart, both braved arrests, hostility and scorn living lives as nonconformists and fighting for freedoms that are taken for granted today. And both used what they wore to radically tell the world who they really were. I recently learned about these two inspiring individuals at the current exhibition Out at the Library at the San Francisco Public Library.

Dr. Walker in her Union Army uniform, about 1864-65.  Possibly wearing the boots pictured above.  From the book, Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919, by Sharon M. Harris.

Radical causes often require radical attire which can be inadvertently chic because it's worn with the utmost sincerity, personal meaning and practicality. Dr. Mary Walker, born in 1832, was a feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, prisoner of war and the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army. She faced constant hostility her entire life. She is the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1917, the medal was revoked but Mary refused to give it back and wore it every day until she died. It was posthumously restored sixty years later by President Carter.

Photo circa 1900.
From the book, Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919, by Sharon M. Harris.

An advocate for dress reform (women wearing clothing that was comfortable and sensible), Dr. Walker at one point stopped wearing women's clothes entirely and dressed only in male attire for the rest of her life. Hard to imagine today, but because she wore men's clothing, she was arrested many times for disturbing the peace and "masquerading in men's clothes." Her rejection of social norms didn't win her many friends. Dr. Walker died alone and penniless in 1919.

Photo from the SFPL exhibit, The Life of Harry Hay

Harry Hay, 1912-2002, was one of the earliest leaders in the LGBT rights movement. In Los Angeles 1950, Mr. Hay founded the first gay rights group in the US, a secret group called the Mattachine Society. This was an incredibly radical thing to do as at this time as California law (and many other states) made it illegal for homosexuals to assemble in public. And the Psychiatric Association officially stated that homosexuality was a mental illness. One of the members of the group was fashion designer Rudi Gernriech, creator of the topless bathing suit and other groundbreaking modern clothing. During the Cold War, Mr. Hay was kicked out of his own group because of earlier Communist party connections. But in the 60's he continued to be a devoted activist for progressive politics: antiwar protests, Women's Strike for Peace during the Vietnam War and a Native American rights.

Twenty-five years later, Harry and his partner, John Burnside co-founded another group, the Radical Faeries. It was and still is a brotherhood based on political activism grounded with spirituality. First worn in the National March on Washington in October 1987, Harry created this camouflage skirt. It's the perfect radical chic concept, co-opting something militaristic and making it a revolutionary statement for the Radical Faeries. He said camouflage reflected "mother's colors", the colors of the earth. And according to The Bay Area Reporter, "Partial to Native American jewelry in the late 1960s and 70s, Hay could often be seen wearing a necklace and a single dangling earring to ensure, he said, that he would 'never want to be mistaken for a hetero.'"

From the exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library, "Harry and John in Skirts Walking Away From Camera" photo by Steven Baratz, 1994. Harry Hay and John Burnside were life partners for forty years.


  1. That last photo is a heartbreaker, isn't it? Lovely post!

  2. Fantastic post from the boots to the skirts!