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DIY Aesthetics and Identity: A Queer Fashion History.

Updated: May 12

Guest Writer Santi Sorrenti, Founder of G(end)er Swap explores the history of the DIY movement and it's vital presence in Queer Culture today.

An image of Doug in red/black duotone. They are stood in the street with buildings behind them. They have pale skin with short dark hair and a beard. They smile, wearing sunglasses and a khaki coloured t-shirt.

by Santi Sorrenti

The Origins of DIY as a movement:

DIY, do it yourself aesthetics, is widely associated with the early punk movements and their respective youth subcultures that emerged in post-war Britain. An expression of rebellion, young punks used aesthetics to defy normative understandings of gender, family structures and hierarchy. DIY stemmed from an anti consumerist mindset dictated in the 60’s and 70’s and manifested in an aesthetic that privileged safety pins, ripped up clothing, charity shop garments and heavy hardware and work boots; and anything shocking.

DIY's place in Queer Fashion History:

DIY is also a key part of Queer fashion History, it was (and still is) used to reclaim space, to protest and to explore identity on a personal level. This subcultural movement is often placed in the shadows, though, in favour of mainstream movements that defied gender norms or social standards: early butch fashion of the 40’s was a resistance against feminine dress; the peacock movement in the 60’s was characterized by gender fluid dress among men, while the 90’s saw the emergence of guy liner. Meanwhile, the ‘unisex’ fashion craze in the early 2000’s platformed models such as Agnes Dean as the poster model for a ‘tomboy’ aesthetic.

The importance of the DIY movement in terms of how it informs Queer style across the decades, cannot be underestimated - especially when we think about it as a tool for political messaging.

Historically, in Lesbian activism around the 70’s, slogan t-shirts were utilised to express solidarity and to reclaim space - particularly making their mark in protests and pride marches. As Eleanor Medhurst, Founder of Dressing Dykes states, these t-shirts were used to stand with other oppressed groups within the LGBTQ+ community, “fashion, as a messaging device, is a tool to express solidarity. It is a material statement, physical evidence, a strengthening bond” (n.pag).

Clothing used as a political statement is still very much seen today. Medhurst demonstrates this via a picture from London Pride 2019 of an individual wearing a T-shirt constructed of DIY patches and marker writing that says, “LESBIANS FOR TRANS RIGHTS! Our trans family mean the world to us and our trans lovers don’t make us any less gay”. In this case, the individual used DIY techniques to create a clothing item that wouldn’t otherwise be available while also asserting their political views.

We see a similar use of DIY style to stand for LGBTQ+ rights in the 90’s. At the renowned Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF) protests happened after a trans woman was kicked off of the grounds. From this, Camp Trans, a trans inclusive camp event with a mission to bring down MWMF was formed. In Michelle Tea’s work, Against Memoir (an insight into queer misfit life in America), the depiction of DIY aesthetics including silk screened Camp Trans t-shirts and ratty t-shirts with a hand sewn anarchist symbols are a plenty.

London Trans Pride to no surprise held the same activistic fervor. As for myself, I wore a hand painted patch on the back of a denim vest I had upcycled using an IKEA blue plastic bag. My patch said TRANS PPL ARE THE BEST DRESSED. During the march I encountered someone wearing a hand painted shirt too that said “T4T”. We stood together for a photo opportunity: our DIY outfits both affirmed our own experiences and connected us to others.

It is important then to highlight DIY style culture within the LGBTQ+ community as more than just a protest tool but also as a mechanism that provides the freedom to explore your own identity, to create affirming garments (where the mainstream doesn’t deliver) and to connect to the community.

An image of a femme person of colour with long curly hair. They wear a black bra top and a red bedazzled skirt and a cowprint stetson hat. They lean on their red walking stick.

Style as Identity Exploration & Affirmation:

There is a lot to explore in terms of how DIY style lent itself to LGBTQ+ identity exploration and self affirmation. Ballroom culture that emerged in 1960’s New York among young queer people of colour is a great example. This underground ballroom scene was a way for individuals to explore various aspects of gender and class in a society where they openly could not. The balls were a spectacle of performances and self representation (Herzog and Rollins 2012) - using whatever resources they could find to serve a look. Although the subcultures are incomparable, we can see how other creative forms of DIY dress have enabled trans people to explore identity: cosplay, furry culture, and goblin/cottage core to name a few.

In the midst of a mainstream outpour of standardised gender neutral fashion however, these subcultures (and the revival of DIY aesthetics and alternative fashion) have been key to holding spaces for trans people to explore self expression. With this in mind, I founded G(end)er Swap in 2017, the first clothing outreach organisation here in the UK that supports trans and gender non-conforming individuals to access clothes and community. The organisation supports the Trans community with style workshops, clothing swap/pop-ups and digital style resources. My aim is to equip individuals with the DIY skills and creative inspiration to upcycle and construct ones own gender affirming wardrobe through sustainable fashion techniques (DIY, upcycling, mending, swapping, etc). Encouraging folks to be whoever and wear whatever, despite what boxes heteronormative society continues to perpetuate.

In addition to a series of outreach initiatives, G(end)er Swap has a style archive used as an educational platform for allies which highlights the voices of trans people and their relationship with style. An entry by Oska in 2019 (now the co-director of the org) states: “I don’t consider my clothes self-expression, I think inside I’m actually quite a sad person. My clothes are about who I want to be”. Oska’s musings suggest that they use clothes to ‘try on’ and experiment with an identity, as opposed to their clothes speaking for them. In another entry (2021) Iggy talks about cutting the sleeves off their Shirts when they were 16 explaining, “not yet knowing what gender or dysphoria were but knowing my chest made me uncomfortable and my legs lanky and muscular were somehow miraculously already made of boy.” Iggy goes on to say, “10 years later and cutting the sleeves off my t-shirts still affirms like nothing else”. A small DIY technique was crucial for Iggy to discover their identity while Oska uses clothes as experimental tools.

An image of a white person with short dark hair wearing a lot of bright colours.

DIY & Trans Resourcefulness:

The Museum of Transology provides more insight into the resourceful ways that LGBTQ+ folks have configured their sense of style. One entry shows how a person cut a panel out of their chest binder to extend the back of their other chest binders as they grew while another person embroidered a pronoun reminder for their teacher on a white T-shirt. In a style documentary on YouTube, non-binary writer Jacob Tobia, speaks about how thrifting was key to their initial gender exploration which provided the opportunity to cherry pick the clothes from traditionally ‘masc’ and ‘femme’ expressions and to choose how to use those pieces to adorn themselves. Jacob shows off their eccentric DIY look: a pair of cut off camo short shorts, a leather cuff they found on the ground and a leather jacket they cropped themselves for that ultra femme faggy glow (thank you leather gods).

Like Tobia, Oska created a digital resource for G(end)er Swap followers on how to DIY your school uniform into a more personalised fit: shirt tucking options, rucksack embellishments and hair ties. They also run a blog providing affordable DIY style advice for the LGBTQ+ community. While Roxy, a disability activist, painted her own skirt for the sake of creating queer disabled femme visibility where mainstream campaigns usually do not.


While queer history points to fashion as being a tool for defying gender norms, it rarely delves into how DIY aesthetics were used in a myriad of ways: for protest, activism but importantly for identity exploration, affirmation, sometimes for mere practicality and to connect with community.

The premise of my work with G(end)er Swap is very much anti-fashion. It doesn’t perpetuate mainstream style information nor does it channel gender norms through dress. Instead, I look to sustainable DIY and creative ways to create a gender-affirming wardrobe. A method that is historically contingent. G(end)er Swap was created because of the lack of style resources tailored for trans and gender non-conforming people. In response to this, we have facilitated exchanging and building resources with our community, creating a share economy of DIY style tips, tricks and available supplies and sources, starting an online Facebook groups to find affordable transitional items, shared upcycling techniques and organising swaps–and much more. Trans and GNC people have always been fashioning their own wardrobes using the resources available to them (and creating their own). A tool to materialise our own stories, to build community and to creatively manifest our desired futures.


Against Memoir, Michelle Tea

The Black Flamingo, Dean Atta

A photo of Santi - a white non-binary person with Brown eyes and long dark hair. They wear silver jewellry in their ears and around their neck. They also have a silver nose piercing. They wear a black tank top

Santi Sorrenti (they/he)

Santi is a DIY fashion activist, LGBTQ+ grassroots organiser, public speaker and consultant focusing on clothing accessibility. Santi is the Founder of G(end)er Swap - the first LGBTIQ+ clothing outreach organisation in the UK that supports Trans and GNC individuals to access clothes and community. Their mission is to create wider societal understanding (and celebration) of gender diversity - through the lens of style. They create and deliver style workshops and digital resources for the Trans community as well as creative inclusivity training for allies who run social enterprises.

You can find out more about Santi's work here.

If you are interested in booking Santi as a speaker, please get in touch with us at


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