Shaun Cole on Constructing Gay Men’s Wardrobes in the 21st Century

9 October 2022, by Shaun Cole

In this week's blog, Shaun Cole, Associate Professor in Fashion at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton introduces us to his keynote paper 'Constructing Gay Men's Wardrobes in the 21st Century'. Shaun provides insight into his research process, based on a series of interviews, ahead of his keynote talk at this year's Costume Society Conference: Clothes Maketh the Man.

My Keynote paper ‘Constructing Gay Men's Wardrobes in the 21st Century’ considers the variety of ways in which gay men create their personal collections of clothes or wardrobe. Based on interviews conducted between 2012-2018 it addresses the ways in which gay men have considered the collection of clothes and accessories that they have amassed and how the choices they made in combining elements in a quotidian fashion constitute the wardrobe as a manifestation of their own personal aesthetic. 

Here, by wardrobe, I refer predominantly to an individual’s physical collection of clothes as opposed to the piece of furniture in which these are stored. Almost synonymous with wardrobe in one context is closet; but I avoid this term here, although it is a word used by some American and Australian interviewees, for its connotations not as an enclosed space containing clothing but as a state of secrecy, particularly around homosexuality, that has been extensively theorized and applied in many contexts to discussions of sexuality. ‘Wardrobe studies’ focuses upon the materiality of individual collections of clothing and the ways in which the owners organize and select from their collections. While my research did not conduct detailed examinations of individuals’ wardrobes, as proposed in Wardrobe Studies, it relied on extended interviews in what Ben Barry and Dylan Martin describe as sartorial biographies. However, the principle of considering how clothes are arranged and selected in ‘acts of dressing’ is pertinent to the understanding of both the material, symbolic and sensual relationships between dress and identity, a key focus of my broader research and this paper. Sophie Woodward describes both the ‘“orders” of the wardrobe, which may be based upon social roles (such as work clothing), functionality (such as gym clothing), type of clothing (such as trousers or shirts), colors, textures’ and the ‘act of dressing’ as ‘the moment when social expectations and personal preferences conjoin’. This is highly applicable to the ways in which my interviewees discussed their clothing choices in the context of their broader lives and multiple subject positions. This idea of intersectionality is key to my research approach in this subject.

Using quotes from my interviews, the paper will explore the ways in which gay men build their wardrobes or collection of clothes. It considers how these individuals each pull together and construct particular outfits or ensembles of smart, casual or sportwear garments based on different occasions and contexts. For some men a particular style of dressing is carried through all aspects of their lives, forming a kind of personal uniform, while for others a more ‘mix and match philosophy’ was important. It also considers their choices of patterns and print over plain colours, fondness for particular colours and how regulatory dress codes impact upon the way they dress and understand their own place in the world.

If this taster of Shaun's keynote paper has intriqued you,  find out more about Shaun's work and research here

Shaun is one of our keynote speakers at the Costume Society Conference 2022: Clothes Maketh the Man. To find out more and to book tickets, visit

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