Many of us can point to an iconic fashion moment that defined us. Maybe it was the skirt we wore every day in middle school. Maybe it was the pair of flared jeans with the butterfly embroidery. Maybe it was our signature red lipstick.
Many of us can also point to iconic fashion moments that made us feel things. Sexual things. Queer sexual things. In some cases, it just takes one outfit to make you realize you’re not as straight as you thought.
For some people, this moment comes when they’re watching someone wear something—a character in a TV show pulling on a denim jacket, or a celebrity walking the red carpet in a sleek black dress. It becomes obvious that they’re not just into the idea of looking like said character or celeb—they’re into them.
My “moment” came at the hands of Missy Peregrym in Stick It, a movie about a badass rebellious skater girl who’s also an extremely talented gymnast. Honestly, it’s not a very good movie. But I was obsessed with it for years, and I made sure to watch it every time it popped up on TV.
A couple still stand out to me. There’s Missy in the beginning, dressed “like a boy,” wearing baggy cargo shorts and an oversized T-shirt. She has a helmet on, and she’s with two other guys—so it’s obvious that the audience is supposed to think she’s a boy until she pulls off her helmet and suddenly isn’t. Then, there’s the scene where Missy slides out of an ice bath in slow motion, wearing a sports bra and underwear.
“It becomes obvious that they’re not just into the idea of looking like said character or celeb—they’re into them.”
These are such simple items of clothing: cargo shorts, a T-shirt, a sports bra, underwear. It wasn’t until years later—when I realized I had a thing for athletic brunette women—that I realized, Huh, Missy Peregrym’s character was an athletic brunette.
I’d always liked “too cool for school” skater boys with complicated pasts and messy family histories, but it took me several years to realize I also liked their female equivalent.
In the spirit of the sexuality-defining outfit, I chatted with six queer women and femmes to find out what iconic pop-culture outfit kicked their sexuality into gear.
“The Color Purple is a classic, but it’s also such a great example of black female sexuality,” Cameron says. “Shug is fluid AF, but when she’s with Celie (and lets her try on the dress), it’s this moment of tenderness and sapphic romanticism that two dark-skinned black women are rarely, if ever, afforded [the chance] to feel.” she adds, “It helped to expand my idea of what queerness looked like.”
Another iconic moment? “Atonement was also great, because Keira’s dress is sensual and sultry and long,” Cameron says. “And the sex scene that follows with her love interest in the library is whew.”
“Eliza Dushku in Bring It On was life-changing. I was 10 when the movie came out, and I just remember sitting up straighter when Eliza Dushku’s Missy walked into the gym for her cheerleading audition,” Selah says. “She had on, like, cargo pants with her keys on a chain… I’d never seen a girl look like her and dress like her before—tomboyish while still somehow feminine.”
Selah notes that while Dushku’s character got progressively feminine as the movie progressed, she still managed to “retain her edge and crassness—flipping her brother the bird while donning her cheer uniform.”
“[Then, there was] Jesse Bradford,” Selah adds, referring to Cliff, the character Bradford plays in Bring It On. “There was something so quintessential-’90s teenage boy about Cliff’s band tees and the pins on his guitar strap as he rolled around playing guitar… He was like a rebel to the preppy guys and the jocks without being a contrary asshole.”
Selah says that, at the time, she was “paying way more attention to the boy,” so naturally, she was rooting for Cliff in the film. “But I kept waiting for Missy to come back on screen,” she adds.
“I would have to say Cleo [a character portrayed by Queen Latifah in the movie Set It Off] definitely made me question my sexuality as a young person,” Quita says. “The way she dressed in baggy shirts and pants with cornrows completely broke open my understanding of what women, especially black women, were supposed to look like—and I was very intrigued.”
“I would also have to say that Shane from The L Word—in the Black vest with no shirt underneath—completely affirmed my queer questions,” Quita adds.
“Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy comes to mind,” Rockie says. “Poison Ivy emerging full-gala spandex glam from a pink monkey suit and then enchanting everyone with burlesque super powers set a very specific type for me. I have many types, but fluorescent red hair and good puns have a special place in my heart.”
“[My bi card] was dead-ass cemented… watching Lauren Patten play a nonbinary teen in Jagged Little Pill.”
“Mine is 100 percent Luna Lovegood [from Harry Potter],” Alaina says. “Luna’s look definitely made me feel things—it was a very quirky, witchy vibe, even for a movie all about witches.” Alaina adds that seeing a woman onscreen—particularly one who was so confident about her ideas and ability to be creative—was “really powerful.”
“I think by the time the fifth book came out I was starting to realize I was queer, and I definitely had by the time the movie was out,” Alaina says. “From her earrings to her glasses to her long blonde hair, [Luna] was just everything to me. Girls who are a little out of the box tend to get picked on, and I liked that Luna… was very beloved even if some of the other characters found her weird.”
Some queer women—before we realize we’re queer—seek to emulate the looks of the women who catch our eye. Maybe we just really wish we could look like that. So we buy the clothes we think will make us look more like them, and put off that aura we can’t quite define.
Others see these looks and immediately realize they’re head over heels—and not just for the clothes. And for others, it’s really a mix: You want to wear the outfit of the woman whose style just inspired you in this huge way, and you also want to date her. After all, the idea that all queer female couples come in a distinct femme/butch pairing is false, so who’s to say you can’t have the same aesthetic and, as an added bonus, borrow clothes?
Fashion is funny in the way that clothes can become so symbolic and so tied to who we are as people. You might realize it in the moment, or you might realize it years later, that you weren’t just admiring their outfit; you were experiencing their outfit, how it made you feel, and what it taught you about yourself.