“When I think back on having lived through the time, it was like gay guys were escaping from this stereotype that was just inculcated into the culture of sissies and faggots,” says Woodruff. “Part of escaping from that was costuming. And it goes back to these American fashion lineages like cowboys, sailors, lumberjacks, mechanics. Things that are traditionally masculine vocations. [The clone] became this amalgam and then Parker really took off with it.”
But not everyone was equally free to wear the costume. “The clone look was certainly about a white gay man’s response and engagement with those archetypes,” says Ben Barry, the dean of the school of fashion at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, whose research focuses on fashion’s relationship to masculinity, sexuality, and the body. “The whiteness and the body-consciousness of it in terms of which bodies didn’t have the same privilege to wear it is an important element to highlight.” This was the other side of the coin. “There was this obsessive rejection of anything that was soft or feminine,” Calendo says, “and that’s why the clone period is one of conformity and oppressiveness.” (Looking back though, he adds with a laugh, “However, I was not above wearing a flannel shirt to get laid, you know what I mean?”)
Presenting as masculine in public was physically safer for gay guys, but the clone costume pulled double duty, Barry says, tweaking traditional masculinity while also signaling to other queer folks. “Clone as a word doesn’t do justice to the real kind of subversion that went around with that look,” he says. “A straight man wouldn’t style his jeans in that way. [He] wouldn’t wear that fit of a plaid shirt, wouldn’t wear that fit of a denim jacket. So it was drawing from the aesthetic but queering it through the fit, cut, and silhouette.”
This legacy of reaching back into (mostly straight white) Americana and bringing it to the queer-and-now is still alive and well. James Flemons often works Americana staples like tanks and trucker jackets into his gender-neutral eclectic basics brand, Phlemuns. He styled many of Lil Nas X’s early looks, including the 2019 Time cover that featured the singer in a red cowboy-inspired getup. Further proof that the clone isn’t dead: Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” video features an army of denim-clad doubles of the singer, along with the lyric “I wanna fuck the ones I envy”—which could be a pretty great clone motto.
Flemons has featured trucker jackets in his drops since 2017. “I wanted to design the classic Phlemuns all-American kind of jacket that you can just throw on,” he says. “I was looking to vintage Levis as inspiration. I’m very much into the seventies, and I always look for that one element that flips the garment on its head. So I added that pointed seventies collar on this really traditional style, and have just since then played with different fabrications.”
While preparing his summer releases—cutout tanks, backless t-shirts, and chaps that are more daring than his usual offerings—he’s been thinking about the way garments like these have become our current visual representation of queerness.
“I definitely think there is some type of specific garment identity or uniform in the queer stratosphere, and it ties back into those 70s and 80s roots of liberation for Black people and for queer people,” he says. “There’s this communal thing happening right now where people are more open that they’re trans and non-binary or bisexual and not just on the spectrum of being straight, gay, male, female. Society has just put these structures around us to keep us under control and in place, but we’re coming back to our roots that have always been there.”
It’s almost as if the label-less freedom of the early Post-Stonewall years—even if it was just a fantasy glimpsed through Parker’s work—is finally coming true, though without the clone look. What we’re seeing now is neither costume nor conformity. Instead, it’s a unified front.
Nathan Tavares is a writer and editor from Boston.