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BY MELODY LEIBNER
COVER ART: LEIGH COHEN
When I think of a beautiful ballroom, coat-tails, gowns, and emerald jewels come to mind. I conjure images of a string quartet, expensive hors-d'oeuvres, and regal portraits on the wall. Although these balls are a ghost of the past, Ballroom Culture is fashion’s future.
What is Ballroom Culture? During the Harlem Renaissance (1920-1940), Black and queer youth in New York fought racial injustice, not through riots or protests, but through cat-walking, family, and fashion. They developed an underground creative collective by throwing “balls,” expressing themselves through voguing and sporting genderfluid fits before “genderfluid” even existed; through fostering self care and developing surrogate support systems for a community that had previously been isolated and oppressed, Ballroom Culture was born.
After curating a rich culture in Harlem full of music and art, the Black community was struck by a silent killer: HIV/AIDS. Experiencing some of the highest mortality rates in the nation, still to this day, generations of Black communities have been marginalized, faced with grief and loss. Rather than remaining distraught and oppressed, Ballroom culture became a performance of defiance, dancing for lives lost and posing to celebrate life. After battling another pandemic, secluded and silenced during COVID-19, a queer renaissance again emanates.
Previously only prevalent in the Big Apple, Ballroom has since gone global, and is revolutionizing fashion. It is a common practice to wear major fashion houses such as Saint Laurent and Balenciaga to these cultural Balls. Black and Latino LGBTQ attendees adorn exquisite ensembles to properly display their vibrant personalities; intricate eye-liner, statement shoes, and embellished outfits are currently displayed on pop-culture TV shows, including Rupaul’s Drag Race, and Pose. As Ballroom Culture surfaces from its discrete roots and travels overseas, it has reached the hearts of many European designers who are encapsulating the soul of Ballroom in their clothes.
Up and coming Dutch designer Yamuna Forzani integrates Ballroom culture into her collections and has used it as the keystone of her innovation for her whole fashion career. She embodies the mindset that clothes are not just what you wear, but who you are. And her clothes express just that: personality. Her unique ensembles are unlike anything else on the rack.
Ironically, she states that the fashion industry is vicious, and wants nothing to do with the harsh and cutthroat standards set in place by designers and brands before her—Ballroom is its own emerging entity, and the new voices of this community are writing their own, new rules everyday.
For her latest collection, Forzani threw a pop-up ball of her own called the “Utopia Ball” to showcase her newest pieces. She rejects the norms of runway modelling, criticizing one robotic model after another for how impersonal the walks feel to the audience. She, along with other Ballroom designers, want their models to live and breathe in their clothes—to dance and vogue in their clothes, and represent how their outfits enhance who they are.
Not to be confused with an elegant, historic and royal dance, Balls are complex competitions with different categories that participants can compete in. Forzani’s personal favorite is “Bizarre,” which involves making an installation on the body using unconventional materials. These unique tasks challenge designers to push the envelope of fashion as we know it.
Ballroom culture is an opportunity for fashion designers, dancers, lovers, friends and family to express themselves through their art. Non-binary designer William Dill-Russell exclaims that “clothing is an integral part of gender performativity,” and work like theirs is instigating so much necessary change in the fashion world. Many of these designers' goals do not include assimilating into mainstream fashion, however; their designs are a form of self expression, not products to be commercialized.
Ballroom figures are just beginning to emerge in mainstream fashion; “image-architect” Law Roach, currently a judge on Ballroom reality show “Legendary,” styled the jaw-dropping 2019 Zendaya met gala look. She sparkled in a modern Cinderella gown, as Roach trailed behind, dressed as her fashionista fairy-godmother. Ballroom is just beginning to spread its magic, and has become an instrument for identity, and sparkly swirly slide directly to the soul.