Written by Eiro Issakidis
May 4, 2021
All photos are taken by Eiro Issakidis for the purposes of FS-8111 term project.
When I first began exploring the criminalization of various forms of dress as gay signalling devices, I planned to study the importance of clothing as a tool of coded language existing during a time in which male homosexuality was equated with criminality. I first investigated the green carnation, the bold red tie, the infamous ‘three-piece rule’, and the coloured hanky. What all these items have in common is that, at one time or another in history, they all served as signifiers of gay culture. These articles of clothing held the ability to transmit numerous meanings, chief among them the constant reminder of the necessity of keeping underground gay culture hidden from the heteronormative society which sought to criminalize it. The further back in history I delved, the clearer it became that I wanted to explore the modern western concept of the homosexual male, rather than the homosexual act, which led me to Molly Houses.
For my project I used the Playmobil Victorian 5300 set and lovingly named it My Molly Home, to create a reconstruction of Margaret Clap’s, affectionately known as Mother Clap’s, Molly house. Beginning in the bottom right room, the house recreates scenes from Mother Clap’s house as retold during her trial for keeping a house of sodomy in July of 1726 (Old Bailey, 1726). As the rooms progress upward in levels, we travel through history, exploring various gay signalling devices and subcultures. The home comprises eight rooms, decorated with a combination of Playmobil décor and hand-crafted items, all coming together to represent a variety of dress and moments in history.
criminalization of molly houses
Molly Houses gained their name from the term ‘molly’, which originally referred to a female prostitute, but in early 18th CE England came to describe “groups of men noted for their effeminacy and sexual interest in each other” (Bateman, 2004, p. 1). Comprised mostly of taverns or private rooms, Molly Houses served as the first modern iteration of a gay bar and therefore the first modern European homosexual subculture (Bateman, 2004). The so called ‘mollies’ who frequented Molly Houses had their own “ways of dressing, of talking, distinctive gestures and distinctive acts with an understood meaning, its own jargon” (Bray, 1995, p. 86). Bray specifies that the Molly House clientele were characterized in society by both the high degree of effeminacy and countless instances of cross dressing which occurred within the taverns. The author also argues that the regular appearance of Molly Houses in London resulted in a shift in focus on homosexuality at the time. Attention was no longer solely on the act, but rather included the person, and therefore their clothing as well. A series of raids on Molly Houses in London in 1726 led to hundreds of arrests, and ultimately hangings of those deemed guilty of sodomy (Bateman, 2004). Before this intrusion, it can be argued that for those who frequented Molly Houses, these taverns “became refuges and sanctuaries for men wishing to express their sexual and romantic desires without fear of the legal repercussions” (Harrison, 2018, p. 2), allowing us to read these Molly Houses as Molly homes.
As per her trial records, Mother Clap’s Molly House included a ‘marrying room’. While often a euphemism for sex, it was not uncommon for couples to engage in formal marriage ceremonies “celebrated with at least some of the formality of the heterosexual equivalent” (Norton, 2005, p. 7). In addition to Mother Clap’s house, “The Royal Oak… had a room called ‘the Chapel’, where men could get ‘married’ to one another. One molly wedding was celebrated between a butcher named Thomas Coleman and John Hyons, a French immigrant known as Queen Irons. They had previously been pilloried together and imprisoned for three months” (Norton, 2005, pp. 7-8). Re-imagined above is this wedding, had the couple been allowed the same pomp, circumstance, and most importantly, visibility as their heterosexual counterparts. The scene is complete with Mother Clap herself there to congratulate the couple.
Similar to recreating the heteronormative ceremonies of marriage, there are reports of men also engaged in birthing scenes in Molly Houses. “The primary accounts of … molly houses come from … writing such as Ned Ward’s The Mollies’ Club. It is from these sources that scholars have learnt … [that] men would take part in ritualistic ‘christenings’, ‘marriages’ and ‘births’, mimicking heteronormative home events within their own homosexual home space” (Harrison, p. 10). Similar to the moments after a “genuine birth”, reports of the events include “a celebration among friends and family, admiring the child and congratulating the parents” (Harrison, p.10). I, in turn, have designed what would serve as a child’s bedroom, complete with strollers, bunk beds, and a doting parent.
From Robert De Niro’s Sam Rothstein to Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, quintessential icons of swaggering masculinity have donned the red tie of the late 20th and early 21st centuries as an homage to male power. The characters’ unquestioned heterosexuality underpins their articulations of dominance, whether sexual, social, or physical. The character in the shot prompts considerably more questioning, the cluster of flowers around him suggesting a subversion of the classic interpretation of the red tie as masculinity. The room, presenting misleading harmony, invites viewers to question their own associations with clothing as a signifiers and contemplate the prior history which formed those associations.
In his novel Gay New York (2008), George Chauncy commented on the red neck tie as an enduring symbol for homosexuality, arguing that “gay men were highly visible in twentieth century New York… in part because so many gay men boldly announced their presence by wearing red ties” (p. 3). In this staging, the announcement is innuendo, reflecting the value of ambiguity and signification for the patrons of the Molly House.
This room, dubbed the Carnations Room, is dedicated to Oscar Wilde and his infamous green carnation. In his novel, English Literature in Transition, Beckson explores the rise in the visibility and meaning of the green carnation. Since the “image of the green carnation has often been associated with Oscar Wilde, writers on the subject have provided extravagant accounts that have acquired the status of venerated fact rather than ingenious fancy.” (Beckson, 2000, p. 387). After appearing at the premiere of Lady Windermere’s Fan with a green carnation adorning his lapel, the flower in its unnatural colour became a trademark symbol of Wilde, and also his sexual orientation. The green pigment is especially important when positioning Wilde’s colour choice against the panic which occurred surrounding arsenic green in the early nineteenth century (Matthews David, 2017). This “unnaturally coloured” flower directly links “literally toxic greens and invert sexualities,” opening up the discussion of the complex relationship between “fashion, chromophobia, and homophobia” within the context of nineteenth century England (Mathews David, 2017, p. 107). Beckson illuminates the connection between the carnation and sexual orientation, stating that “in nineteenth-century French slang: the word for carnation—that is, oeillet—also means “little eye,” the slang term that French pederasts used for the anus (Beckson, 2000, p. 390). Despite no evidence of direct mentions of the carnation in the Old Bailey trial transcripts, Wilde historian H. Montgomery Hyde, in his account of Wilde’s trials in 1895, has stated that Wilde’s “habit of wearing in his buttonhole a carnation artificially coloured green, a distinctive emblem which he knew to be worn by homosexuals in Paris, was speedily taken up by his youthful admirers on this side of the channel” (1973, p. 57). Exploding with green, the room features a hand-crafted carnation ceiling.
Paving the way for gay bars and the creation of an entirely gay space, Molly Houses served as both the first iteration of a gay bar, and first modern homosexual subculture (Bateman, 2004). I wanted to explore a modern iteration of the gay bar, and how its proliferation has challenged norms within society. Along with homosexuality, gay bars were legalized in Britain in 1967 (Clements, 2014), over two centuries after the Molly House raids of 1726. As stated previously, Bray argues that the materialisation of molly houses resulted in the focus of homosexuality no longer being on the act, but rather the person. This evolution, in conjunction with changing representation of gay bars, brought to mind for me La Cage aux Folles (Molinaro, 1978) and its American remake The Birdcage (Nichols, 1996). The film’s portrayal of the main characters, owners of a gay bar, challenged “traditional representations of family,” both revealing and helping move forward society’s attitudes towards both sexual orientation and family (Hanet, 2012, p.169). Featured in the bar setting, in homage to the films, is a gilded birdcage, complete with two flamboyant love birds.
The last piece in my Molly Home, is the S&M attic. To cap the project off, so to say, I decided to showcase S&M culture as décor. Previously seen as one of the last gay subcultures to be accepted into the mainstream, S&M leather style, including motorcycle riding gear, harnesses, and leather accessories such as chokers and bracelets have been utilized by high-fashion designers such as Gianni Versace, whose 1996 leather heavy collection was said to have “disgust[ed] wealthy women in Dallas” (Vänskä, 2014, p. 453). Placing this room in the attic was an intentional choice. As you make your way through the rooms, the farther away you move from the criminalization of homosexuality in western society, and the closer you get to general acceptance of gay culture. As history evolves to accept those previously deemed to be criminal, it is clear that the gay signalling devices explored above played a larger role than one may think at first glance. Through these garments and accessories, those who would have been persecuted and targeted could claim their identity, in whatever small way they could.
The Red Tie Room, Carnation Room, and S&M Attic all feature hand crafted items which further the project’s engagement with the spotlighted items of dress.
One thousand hand punched flowers of varying materials and colours cover the boardroom floor of the red tie room, juxtaposing the modern heteronormative “red power tie” with the previously homosexual associations of the red tie.
The Carnation Room ceiling is comprised of ten green paper carnations. The tissue paper evokes the delicately splayed petals of the flower.
Lastly, the S&M Attic features vinyl walls and flooring, reflecting the trussed figure held in the room. The ceiling comprises over twenty chains cut to varying lengths, along with more tape and glue than one could imagine would be needed to hold it up…
Below is the scene I would arrive to nearly every morning when my ceiling would buckle under the weight of the chains at some point in the night!
Bateman, G. W. (2004). Molly Houses. GLBTQ, Inc.
Beckson, K. E. (2000). Oscar Wilde and the green carnation. English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 43(4), 387-397.
Bray, A. (1995). Homosexuality in renaissance England. Columbia University Press.
Chauncey, G. (2008). Gay new york: Gender, urban culture, and the making of the gay male world, 1890-1940. Basic Books.
Clements, B., & Field, C. D. (2014). Public opinion toward homosexuality and gay rights in Great Britain. Public Opinion Quarterly, 78(2), 523-547.
Ellis, H., & American Psychological Association. (1925). Sexual inversion (3rd, rev. and enl. ed.). F.A. Davis.
Matthews David A. (2016). Tainted Love: Oscar Wilde’s Toxic Green Carnation, Queerness, and Chromophobia. Faiers, J., & Bulgarella, M. W. (Eds.). Colors in fashion (pp. 106-114). Bloomsbury Publishing.
Harrison, A. (2018). “[A] place to take off the mask”: Georgian molly houses as homes. Retrieved from Academia.edu.
Hanet, K. (2012). Fun with Fairies: Representation of Gender Identity in La Cage aux folles and The Birdcage. Australian Journal of French Studies, 49(2), 167-182.
Hyde, H. M. (1973). The Trials of Oscar Wilde. Courier Corporation.
Molinaro, Ã. (1978). La Cage aux Folles. United Artists.
Nichols, M. (1996). The Birdcage. United Artists, Nichols Film Company.
Norton, R. (2005). Recovering gay history from the Old Bailey. The London Journal, 30(1), 39-54.
July 1726, trial of Margaret Clap (t17260711-54). Old Bailey Proceedings Online. (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0)
Vänskä, A. (2014). From Gay to Queer—Or, Wasn’t Fashion Always Already a Very Queer Thing? Fashion Theory, 18(4), 447-463.