Subculture Capital: A Conversation With Valerie Steele On the Line Between Fashion and Fantasy And Her New Book About Queen Of New York Nightlife Susanne Bartsch

Thomas Skou

Fashion and nightlife are enmeshed in a seductive tango that relies on the notion of pleasure. I often wonder if the pleasure of fashion is about dressing for yourself or for being seen? One could make the same argument about going out on the town. Indeed, there are many ways fashion and nightlife mirror one another. Each is an art as well as enterprise; each is mercurial; each can convey status and each sets and rejects trends, most typically from the ground up. If you’ve ever danced in a packed club or slithered your way into an outfit, you know that both fashion and nightlife are a celebration of the individual body—how it feels, how it looks, how it moves.

In fashion historian Valerie Steele’s latest book, Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, which was released today by Yale University Press, readers can delight in a marriage of fashion and nightlife that examines each as an elevated art form. Her book presents approximately 200 looks from the personal wardrobe of Queen of New York Nightlife, Susanne Barstch. Bartsch, who is known not only for her elaborate parties, in particular, The Love Ball, which ultimately raised more than $2.5 million for AIDS research and advocacy, but also for celebrating the performative aspect of fashion as wearable art. New York, known to set the bar for both fashion and nightlife was Bartsch’s playground in the 1980s. And play she did, with a fantastic collection of avant-garde looks from Rachel Auburn, Body Map, Leigh Bowery, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, Mr. Pearl, Vivienne Westwood, and Zaldy. For the first time, Bartsch’s admirers can thumb through her wardrobe and feast their eyes on the corsets and headpieces, the bodices and gowns, the glitter and artistry worn by the impresario back when New York City itself was untailored, unsavory, and unadulterated.

Dr. Steele is the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, has curated or co-curated many innovative and award-winning exhibitions, including London Fashion, The CorsetFemme Fatale Gothic: Dark Glamour, Daphne Guinness, and many more. Autre was able to have a one on one conversation with Dr. Steele about Susanne Barstch’s place in the history of nightlife and fashion, subculture capital, and whether fashion is fantasy, or an intermingling of both.

Jill Di Donato: You talk about how democratic Susanne was—the motley crew that she brings together. But through experience in the New York club scene—especially the idea of the velvet ropes—there seems to be a paradox there.

Valerie Steele: That’s what Susanne’s contemporaries were pointing out. She was different because she was much more inclusive. Most of the club scenes were very much the velvet-rope type—keeping out all but the elite. She was much more about having a heterogeneous group coming, in terms of race, age, class, and sexual identity.

JD: What clubs did Susanne work with?

VS: Savage, Bentley’s, and Copacabana were the three main clubs that I mention. But there were events from any number of organizations, ranging from the CFDA to Armani.

JD: How would you characterize 1980s club fashion?

VS: In terms of what you see in the show, you see a lot of people from her world who are very much in that post-punk, post-glam look. They are highly decorated. There’s a lot of do-it-yourself and gender-bending.

JD: What do you think of punk today? Do you think it is dead?

VS: It exists on multiple levels. On one hand, new generations keep re-discovering punk styles. On the other hand, fashion designers keep reviving what they think of as punk style. Both of those things are happening simultaneously. They don’t mean the same thing. I realized that when I did my gothic show. Goth kids were doing something different than what designers were doing, but both were drawing on some of the same sources.

JD: What do you think of club fashion today?

VS: I really don’t know very much about it. It’s not—per se—the point of the show. The show was to explore the outer-fringes of the fashion world, the fashion underground, and its relation to the more commercial, mainstream fashion. My impression is that the club scene today has much less of an influence on the mainstream fashion system than it did in the past. However, that’s always subject to change. Fashion is always about pendulum swings.

JD: You use the term “subculture capital.” Could you explain that a little bit?

VS: The idea of cultural capital is that it’s an inherited capital—not necessarily economic—but certain cultural things. You went to a school where you learned certain things. You have the right kind of manners. You have inherited things from your culture that will brand you as a member of a particular elite. Subcultural capital, then, exists within various subcultures. You know the right kind of music. You might know the band personally. You would know things that were valuable within that subculture that would make you an “insider.”

"For whatever reason, I’m drawn to the hidden meaning of fashion."

JD: Do you feel all subculture will eventually become mainstream?

VS: I don’t think it’s so much that subculture becomes mainstream. I think aspects of subculture are constantly being appropriated by the mainstream. That can be painful for members of the subculture. When I did my book Fetish, I interviewed all of these leather guys. I asked, “What do you think of Versaci’s collection?” They said, “We hate it!” I asked, “Why? It’s so cool.” They said, “Now no one can tell if we’re people who mean it or who are doing it for the fashion statement.” The point is, the fashion system is a great, big vacuum cleaner that hoovers up all kinds of good looks. It vacuumed up hippies, punks, fetish, glam. You can’t blame the system; that’s what they do. But when it’s incorporated into the fashion system, it does mean something different. It doesn’t mean that members of the subculture can’t retain, for themselves, a different set of meanings. It just means that it’s no longer a secret subculture.

JD: Appropriation has such a negative connotation, but can it be a compliment?

VS: It’s inevitable. Just suck it up, because it’s going to happen. You can fight against it, but it’s like pissing in the wind. It’s not going to help you.

: You had said that fashion was the F word a long time ago. Do you still feel that way?

VS: That article was about the attitudes about academia in fashion, specifically, not in the culture in general. When I was in grad school, people in universities thought of fashion as bourgeois, conformist, anti-feminist, and superficial. Everything bad. I think there’s more of a respect for people studying fashion as a legitimate topic, in large part because of queer studies. Traditional feminism was anti-fashion, saying it was oppressive to women. Within the queer studies movement, there was a sense that fashion could be turned to one’s own purposes. It could be subversive or self-expressive. Eventually, that got through to people in academia. That said, there are still very, very few places where you can get a Ph.D in fashion. Very few. No room has been made for it in the academic framework, possibly because it’s such a cross-disciplinary field. Where would you put it? It’s like how women’s studies, basically, got dumped in the English department. Fashion studies—would it go in art history? It could fit there, but also in other departments.

Autre: Last year, The Museum at FIT lifted the photography ban, to the delight of Instagram feeds of fashion lovers. Did you have anything to do with the museum allowing photos on Instagram?

VS: Yes, I was very keen on that. The media manager and I did some research, and it became quite clear that museums all around the country were allowing photography. It was this old hold-out against a new generation—refusing to allow things to be photographed. I had to push to get that through. Other members of the museum were really anxious about it. But that’s how a younger generation relates to things. It’s very important to allow photographing in the gallery.

Autre: From Instagram, it seems the crowd-favorite is The Blonds piece, with the jaws. Do you have a favorite?

VS: Anything by Mr. Pearl. I’ve known Mr. Pearl since the eighties. I interviewed him for my Fetish book, for my corset book. I took him on a tour to the Fashion Institute to see their corset stuff. I’ve known him for a very long time, and I think he’s brilliant. He is the founder of high-fashion corsetry. It was very nice for me to see so many of his pieces that Susanne had saved. We showed them to a curator from Somerset House, and they’re going to be doing a show for Mr. Pearl in 2017 in London. It’s well-deserved. If I could acquire things from Susanne’s collection, it would be the jaws corset, and one of Mr. Pearl’s corsets.

Autre: In the “classic ten” context, what’s the one wardrobe staple you could not do without?

VS: Oh, I suppose shoes, don’t you think?

Autre: Anything particular—a heel? A boot?

VS: No, it depends. It could be a shoe, a boot, a sandal. It could even be a sneaker. (Before I did my first book, I knew nothing about sneakers. Now, I’m becoming obsessed with them.) But I do love hats. I have so many of them piled up. I don’t understand why there aren’t more hats.

JD: What would Susanne’s message to contemporary youth culture be?

VS: Accept who you are. Be pleased with who you are. I’ve talked to lots of people, and they’ve all said to me how encouraging and liberating it would be to meet Susanne. They might feel like a freak out in the real world, but she would come up to them and say, “You’re a superstar! You’re so cool!” I think that enthusiastic acceptance has been one of her great contributions. Whatever her spaces are—whether they’ve been parties or her store—they have been spaces of acceptance. Everyone talks about trans kids. Way back when she had her store, she had a trans person receptionist. She’s been way ahead of her time in that way.

JD: Is there something in Susanne’s work in particular that gives you inspiration?

VS: I’m drawn to things that are subcultural aspects of fashion. My friend Richard Martin—he used to be the director at FIT—said to me once, “Val, we always write the same book, don’t we?” All of his books were about fashion as art. All mine were fashion in terms of sex, gender, and subculture. For whatever reason, I’m drawn to the hidden meaning of fashion.

JD: Do you know if Susanne took her makeup off before bed?

VS: You know, I never asked her. But she’s Swiss German, so I bet. They are very clean.  

Find over 80 looks from Bartsch’s personal wardrobe at the exhibit, Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, which runs through December 5, at The Museum at FIT. You can purchase the book here. Intro text and interview by Jill Di Donato with additional reportage by Van Arthur.