Is 'Rainbow Capitalism' Minimizing Authentic Queer Content?

by Nia Hunt

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday July 10, 2022
Originally published on July 6, 2022

The overwhelming commercialization of Pride Month remains a longstanding criticism among members of the LGBTQ+ community, with many taking to social media to bemoan and even ridicule such performative marketing ploys. TikTok is filled with videos of its queer users draping themselves in garish rainbow clothing purchased from Pride collections, only to change into an outfit more characteristic of their true personal style.

Derided as "rainbow capitalism," brands showing disingenuous solidarity with an increasingly profitable demographic is epidemic across a multitude of industries, but this pattern is particularly pernicious in the world of fashion. Rainbow capitalism threatens to minimize, if not erase, the innovations pioneered by queer creators in fashion, as well as the significance clothing holds for self-expression and defiance of gender norms.

Fashion has always been the domain of LGBTQ+ people, encompassing distinguished designers, dynamic drag performers, and everyday trendsetters often seeking community. Even individual pieces of cloth have been adopted as signifiers of one's sexuality, such as the handkerchiefs gay men used to discreetly flag at each other to make their presences known. The most famous symbol of queerness is itself a garment, one adorned by various opportunistic businesses during the entire month of June: none other than the famed rainbow flag.

In order to fully comprehend the exploitation by corporations of appropriating the rainbow flag — and by extension, queer aesthetics — knowing about the symbolism inherent in the flag is crucial. Its very existence is rebellious in nature, empowering and providing hope to a downtrodden group, and these values are represented by each of its colors. Pink bears the boldest, most subversive meaning of sex, complemented by colors like red, orange, green, and dark blue symbolizing life, healing, nature, and harmony, respectively. The rainbow flag is a creation born from resilience and togetherness by people ostracized for their gender and sexuality, and now that embodiment of their continuous struggle has been exploited by the domineering institutions that once denounced them.

LGBTQ+ people's contributions to the fashion world are far too vast and varied to be confined to rainbow clothing that few members of the community actually wear. As early as the late 1800s, Black and Brown queer people would showcase their extravagant ensembles across runways they constructed themselves at the first recorded balls. Famous musicians like Elton John and Freddie Mercury flaunted flamboyant attire during their electrifying performances, and many of the most renowned fashion designers, such as Marc Jacobs and Christian Dior, are gay men. These and countless other trailblazers have paved the way for fashion programs like "RuPaul's Drag Race" and "Queer Eye" to become immense successes, which have even provided cis and straight public figures the freedom to develop their own personal style by experimenting with gender nonconformity.

Companies perfunctorily plastering rainbows across clothing has become a subject of mockery, but corporations have begun to imitate queer aesthetics more authentically, a new tactic that is far less noble than it may seem. T-shirts emblazoned with the term "femme" often divorce it from its origin as a distinct sapphic aesthetic and repurpose it as a generic descriptor of femininity. The Venus symbol, typically depicted in pairs to represent homosexual attraction, is yet more lesbian iconography whitewashed by mainstream fashion brands, reducing it to a single character to resell as pop feminism. Barely an improvement above lazily produced rainbow clothes, replicating true queer style is a vain attempt at showing support for the LGBTQ+ community if the queerness of these looks is not portrayed in full.

Even the processes through which these Pride collections are manufactured are contradictory to the sense of justice intrinsic to LGBTQ+ activism. "Fast fashion" is a plague that permeates the industry as a whole, and its environmental harm is made even more immoral by the fact that these unsustainable materials are collected in countries where being gay or trans is punishable by imprisonment or even death. Fast fashion is commonly produced in China, a country notorious for its LGBTQ+ censorship and the human rights abuses inflicted upon the grossly underpaid factory workers assembling these products.

An effective solution to rainbow capitalism is to patronize LGBTQ+ designers, especially the most underrepresented members of the community striving for the greatest change in the industry. Black and/or trans artists have always revolutionized fashion in myriad ways, and that legacy is carried on through the burgeoning careers of modern creators challenging gender norms and advocating for diversity on the runways and behind the scenes. As the first trans woman to appear on an official New York Fashion calendar, Pierre Davis designs hand-embroidered wardrobes for wearers of all complexions, body types, and genders with her label No Sesso. Stoney Michelli and Uzo Ejikeme began Stuzo Clothing as a small T-shirt line, which has since evolved into a major streetwear brand worn by queer celebrities like Ruby Rose and Lena Waithe. The meteoric success of Telfar Clemens mirrors that of his predecessors Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly, all of whom are Black queer men whose visionary talents and tireless diligence established them as legends in their craft. With such a proliferation of Black LGBTQ+ designers redefining their industry, perhaps queer fashion can someday be freed of rainbow capitalism.