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Iconic Gay Clothing Trends that Influenced Menswear

Long before Grindr existed, the hanky code was one way for gay men to hook up by wearing a color-coded handkerchief (also known as flagging). Fortunately, the U.S. decriminalized same-sex activity in 1961 so the need for discreet gay clothing signals slowly disappeared, but that didn’t mean all of queer fashion died with it. 

Quite the opposite, popular fashion brands are now creating stylish menswear trends with LGBT+ influences, such as gender-neutral t-shirts, utility kilts, and male rompers. Today’s most high-profile events are often treated like stages for groundbreaking fashion statements from the Met Gala’s camp theme to tuxedo dresses at the Academy Awards. 

Beyond gay apparel trends, LGBTQ+ representation is featured across national commercials, digital ads, movies, and TV shows. It’s no wonder LGBT buying power is now estimated at roughly $1 trillion dollars in the U.S., as stated in Nielsen’s 2021 LGBTQ report. 

There’s even a demand for gay clothing styles that can also be worn for less formal, everyday outings, like gay club clothes, sexy activewear, and pride outfits. You can now find gay outfits designed by not only top gay clothing brands, but also mainstream designers in a range of shops. 

From the gay leather scene to flashy drag culture, gay subcultures have subtly influenced menswear trends for decades–without even trying. Over the years, it has helped reduce the lingering toxic masculinity around what men “should” and “shouldn’t” wear. 

In recognition of how far gay clothes have come, here’s how the most iconic gay subcultures have influenced even today’s mainstream menswear trends. 


Influences & Origins: Leather Pride, BDSM culture, Tom of Finland, The Gold Coast Bar

With influences of moto and BDSM, the gay leather subculture dates as far back as the 1950s when men started imitating Marlon Brando’s The Wild One ensemble: leather jackets and biker jeans. Not long after, Chicago’s first leather bar, The Gold Coast, opened in 1958 quickly becoming a gay leather haven for all. 

Tom of Finland’s homoerotic art also put the gay leather scene on the map as an aesthetic part of pop culture and gay fashion.

Mainstream Gay Clothing Trends: Leather Fashion Harnesses & Leather Pants

Born from the “bad boy” aesthetic, today’s leather trends heighten and tone down masculinity all at once. Leather harnesses, prominent in BDSM circles and gay raves, are now worthy of the red-carpet scene, commonly styled with crisp button-down shirts and tuxedo blazers. 

Additionally, edgy biker pants have been revamped and revived on the runway, also an iconic gay fashion item in many of Tom of Finland’s illustrations. 


Influences & Origins: 70s Disco, Fire Island’s Tea Dances, EDM culture

The circuit party scene has mixed origins, but a very distinct, rave-focused gay men’s clothing style (one that requires very little of it). Some say the earliest version of circuit parties came from tea dances predominantly held in Fire Island where gay men could safely socialize. 

The 70s disco scene was another precursor that eventually led to the birth of gay members-only nightclubs. Of course, gay circuit parties would not be what it is today without the evolution of EDM culture.

Mainstream Gay Clothing Trends: Crop Tops & Short Shorts

Circuit parties are known for barely-there gay clothes, including crop tops and micro shorts. We’re not claiming these gay menswear trends strictly came from the circuit scene, but they are popular gay clothing staples for their body-exposing fit, also frequently worn for gym activities. 

Made famous by football jocks and beefy celebrities, crop tops and short shorts can be found at a variety of mainstream men’s clothing shops and gay stores today.


Influences & Origins: British playhouses, Vaudeville, cross-dressing, Madonna’s “Vogue”

Rooted in performance, the term “drag” was coined by British playhouses in the 1800s. The 1920s American vaudeville scene also provided a platform for cross-dressing performers, both male and female. 

After drag became more identified with homosexuality during times when it was criminalized, gay anthems like Madonna’s “Vogue” brought it back into mainstream culture, along with celebrity drag queens like RuPaul Charles. 

Mainstream Gay Clothing Trends: High-Heel Shoes & Male Makeup

High-heel shoes are not only a staple in drag performances and gay apparel, but also in mainstream footwear trends, particularly leather boots with a chunkier block heel rather than a sharp stiletto. 

Additionally, men’s makeup has evolved into a more commercialized industry with a less intimidating and more practical approach, like easy-to-use tinted moisturizer and acne-covering men’s concealer sticks. No longer sold at only gay clothing stores, male makeup has become so popular that some even argue that it’s unnecessary to label it by gender anymore.

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