Imagine arriving at the McDonald’s in Times Square at three o’clock in the morning to realize that instead of getting the happy meal you have been craving, an outrageous party is happening inside. This scenario is a fantasy in the New York of today but Michael Alig made this and other outrageous parties happen in the late 1980s. Alig and his close friend, James St. James, changed the New York club scene through the mid-1990s and pioneered a movement of social misfits referred to as “Club Kids.” Young adults who found themselves outside of heteronormative society used their bodies as canvases to express themselves authentically and craft their own identities in whatever ways they wished.
Club Kids like Richie Rich, Michael Alig, and Sacred Boy created unique, fantastical nightlife personas that truly made them come to life on the dance floors of Peter Gatien’s Tunnel, Palladium, Limelight, or Club USA. After Alig dropped out of Fordham University, he immersed himself in the underground club scene and soon became its most famous and outrageous character. As Gatien’s chief promoter, Alig hosted legal and illegal parties all over Manhattan where rules, judgment, and conformity were non-existent. Thousands flocked to his events to witness and party with the elaborately dressed, avant garde Club Kids pictured here. Although they were certainly not the majority in these clubs, Club Kids were the focal pieces of club nights and some were even compensated for appearing. According to good friend and nightlife impresario Steve Lewis, Alig had the skill to mix “…his club kids with the ravers, the model crowd, the art crowd, and the hipsters at Tunnel and Palladium” (Lewis 1). The barriers of judgment and elitism that currently plague New York’s club scene did not exist then as anything went and all were accepted. When mainstream society felt too exclusive, art students, college drop-outs, socialites, and suburbanites became whoever they wished to be on any given night. In her book, “Adorned in Dreams,” Elizabeth Wilson describes how “Fashion is, after all, ‘a form of visual art, a creation of images with the visible self as its medium’” (Wilson 9). For aspiring fashion designers and club kids Richie Rich and Leigh Bowery, the nightclub was a safe place where they could wear their handmade designs no matter how impractical, uncomfortable, or shocking they were. In this photograph, Bowery is pictured wearing one of his own handmade creations. Although he successfully held runway shows in both Tokyo and London, Bowery was a fashion designer for himself, first and foremost. In a 1986 interview, Bowery said, “Fashion’s a bit of a problem with me because you really have to appeal to too many people and I like appealing to maybe one or two. And then I like them to be interested in me but never dare copy me, so producing clothes for a long range of people is a problem.” Bowery’s quote is reflective of how Club Kids saw themselves as both individuals and creators. When the fashions they saw in store shops did not represent who they felt inside, Bowery, Richie and others bought fabric, sewing equipment, and make up to transform themselves into their nightclub personas.
Young adults from various backgrounds united under the Club Kid identity though it was their individual pursuit of self-expression and freedom that truly bound them. Though Bowery, Alig, Richie, James St. James, Amanda Lepore, and RuPaul Charles were urban celebrities at the time, they were a far cry from the new romantics and pop stars of the 1980s. These four gay men, a transgendered woman, and a drag queen, respectively, gained some degree of visibility and acceptance at a time when HIV/AIDS was still considered a “gay disease.” When “fashion only produces conformity,” these Club Kids and many of their friends wanted to be defined by the beautifully made, vibrantly colored creations they wore at night. When fashion became mass produced in the nineteenth century, “clothing…functioned as an ‘identity kit,’ reinforcing society’s distinctions between men and women…” (Nelson 22). Kabuki Sunshine and Astro Erle, pictured here to the right of Jodi Jingles, were among many Club Kids who were biologically male and wore make up, dresses, tights, and other articles of clothing typically designed for women. When James St. James and Leigh Bowery shared the stage together here, their costumes concealed their biological gender and even what their faces looked like. Through the art of disguise and gender ambiguous clothing, Club Kids were able to temporarily rid themselves of the demands of heternormative society.
Away from their families and classmates, Club Kids were finally able to dress how they wished without fear. Wilson describes how, “Fashion only produces conformity…fashion cements social solidarity and imposes group norms” (Wilson 5-6). For Club Kids, conforming to heteronormative society’s fashion would have caused them to be inauthentic to themselves. Their costumes reflected how they felt and how they wanted to be identified by others. Rather than being defined by conformist, dominant fashion, they wished to be identified by how they presented themselves as individuals and as Club Kids.
While many Club Kids participated in the subculture for recreational purposes, Alig, Bowery, Lepore, and RuPaul made careers of their nightlife personas. As their fame and influence in the world’s trendiest cities grew, mainstream culture sought to mock their scene while simultaneously exploiting it. If fashion produces conformity as Wilson asserts, then “…deviations in dress are usually experienced as shocking and disturbing” (Wilson 6). When Alig, Lepore, Bowery, Ernie Glam, RuPaul and St. James were asked to be guests on “The Joan Rivers Show,” “The Geraldo Rivera Show,” and “The Phil Donahue Show” in the early 19990s they were brought on to be made spectacles of. Though some audience members were accepting, others laughed loudly, scoffed, or made judgmental comments. In the face of ridicule and a lack of understanding, James St. James, simply said, “There are so many gorgeous people. Everybody’s gorgeous. In order to stand out you just have to be fabulous.” Though they were ridiculed and poked fun at, St. James and his fellow panelists welcomed the audience to join them. On daytime national television, the band of Club Kids bravely faced America in their most outrageous costumes without any apologies.
Young adults who found themselves outside of heteronormative society used their bodies as canvases to express themselves authentically and craft their own identities in whatever ways they wished. The days of Michael Alig’s “Outlaw” parties and club nights at Limelight are long gone as he is currently serving a long-term prison sentence in Elmira Correctional Facility. The scene quickly deteriorated by the late 1990s as a result of the scene’s rampant drug use, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s cleaning-up policies, Peter Gatien’s deportation, and Michael Alig’s arrest for murder. What remains, however, is the spirit of the Club Kids, a group of social misfits who dared to be different, embraced those differences, and constructed their own identities for themselves.
Lewis, Steve. “Why Michael Alig Is Still In Jail.” BlackBook. Blackbook, 19 Nov. 2012. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
Nelson, Jennifer L. “Dress Reform and the Bloomer.” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, 22 Mar. 2004. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.
Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Berkeley: University of California, 1987. Online.