Breaking norms and creating community through fashion

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Fashion has always held an important role within LGBTQIA+ communities. As a celebration of self-expression, fashion enables queer people to express themselves, signal their identities, break down norms, and create community. I sat down to talk with Lulu and Adam, Director and Vice-President of Expression, about how they are using fashion and creativity to spread these same values across Durham and the North of England. 

Last year, Expression showcased its inaugural fashion show in Durham in the summer of 2023 establishing itself as Durham’s LGBTQIA+ fashion show. This year, Expression: Generation 2 is back and spreading its wings even further. After the huge success of last year’s show, Lulu recognised that “we are [now] in this unique position where we can go and get other people involved, we can move to other areas of the north”. This has led to the development of Expression as a business independent of the university: Expression Entertainment CIC. It has already put down roots in Leeds and is looking to continue its expansion over the upcoming years while remaining dedicated to its Durham show.

Expression was born out of a lack of LGBTQIA+ events of that nature in Durham, especially following COVID. “When I first joined Durham, if you wanted to have a gay event, you went to Osbournes and that was it” Lulu shares. For those of you not aware, Monday nights, also known as Rainbow Rooms, is a popular gay night at Osbournes, located just off Elvet Bridge. Lulu went on to explain that a fashion show seemed the perfect type of event to broaden the spaces for LGBTQIA+ people. “Gay people have always used fashion to kind of signal to other queer people that they are one of them … you can build a community just purely through clothing which I’ve always found a really interesting part of gay history”. In recognition of this, last year’s theme centred on gay fashion throughout history, and featured walks dedicated to groups and periods like the dandies, the Ancient Greeks, and Y2K, as well as a memorial walk to the AIDS crisis.

“Fashion is such an important, visible part of breaking free from the gender binary”

The importance of fashion in breaking down norms is also of great significance for trans and non-binary communities; “[Fashion] is such an important, visible part of breaking free from the gender binary. And even outside of those communities, that binary is not very helpful for any of us. As such a visible part of gender expression, just wearing fashion proudly that works against these norms is a form of protest … and that is what I’d like to focus on this year”.

Building on this, Expression’s theme for this year is Queer Revolution and Evolution. “It’s like a twofold theme. The revolution part takes inspiration from historical queer revolutionaries, the idea of pride as protest and revolutionising heteronormative norms … and the evolution part is about asking ‘where do we see ourselves, as a community, going from now?’” 

However, it is clear that Expression’s theme of revolution and evolution goes beyond just the looks they will be showcasing on the runway. It is also part of the figurative fabric that defines Expression as an organisation. A key part of this is the evolution Expression is already undergoing, through developing ties with the local communities where they are based. Within the Durham branch of Expression, Adam explains that “the decision to move away from the university and become a company has enabled us to connect the student queer populations to local queer populations … I think it [will] create a much more cohesive community in Durham”.

Recognising the divisions that do exist within Durham between locals and students, Expression wants to ensure that they provide a space that is open to everyone. Adam points out that the majority of queer events in Durham are advertised as student nights; “we are kind of monopolising events and services for the queer community… To be able to open up Expression as an event for the whole community would be a good step in the right direction”. Lulu highlights that this is more important than ever given the current state of the world. “Especially post-COVID, social isolation is a real bad thing and we have been looking for an opportunity to work with the community, in the community surrounded by other queer people”. 

Unfortunately, this need for a cohesive queer community is particularly salient at the moment. The work that Expression is so passionately committed to can be recognised within the larger national and international picture where LGBTQIA+ communities are increasingly the targets of discrimination and hateful rhetoric. “Some people have the misconception that ‘oh your community is fine’ now that you’ve got all these rights but it’s not the struggle to just get those things, it’s the struggle to hold onto them when you’re under constant fear that they could be taken away at any point”. 

But as big as the issues are at the moment, Lulu and Adam still have hope that Expression will have an impact, especially on the local and individual scale. “I do believe a lot of bigotry and stuff comes from ignorance because they haven’t talked to anyone who’s in the community and they’ve [only] seen caricatures or, you know, awful videos online… We’re going to convey that, OK, well, we don’t bite! If you do want to learn and you’re not here to basically facts and logic us of being gay then yeah, come talk to us.”

“Community is defined by the ties we forge with each other”

Creating an LGBTQIA+ community is at the heart of Expression’s mission as an organisation. This year, Expression is making a concerted effort to reach out to as many groups as possible, in particular, international and religious groups. Talking about their own identity as Jewish and queer, Lulu explained that “I feel like a lot of people think you can’t have some sort of religious aspect and be queer … but that’s really not the case”.

Wherever you were born, whatever your religious beliefs, class or identity, Expression wants to make clear that it will welcome you. “Community is defined by the ties we forge with each other. One of [our] main priorities this year is establishing really good working relationships with different groups here in Durham and Leeds”.

Talking about the expansion of Expression, Lulu, who is the director of the wider Expression brand, Expression Entertainment CIC, admits that “I do want to focus on the north as I’m from the north and there’s not that much public stuff for queer people to do and engage with. I want to reach out to more northern communities and be like … you need a place where people can go and just be themselves because [they] may not have that kind of centralized [space].” Having expanded into Leeds this year, Expression has set its sights on Newcastle one of the next areas it plans to expand to. 

Yet geographical expansion is not Expression’s only goal as a CIC, Lulu is also committed to tangibly helping the communities that they are based in, through their charity contributions, providing work experience and upskilling those who work for them. “In the future, I would like to use some of the money raised to send volunteers from less advantaged backgrounds where university may be inaccessible to get NVQs so they have a qualification.” In the meantime, Lulu is focussing on bringing in more people to Expression and “I’m just helping them build up skills they already have and develop skills they want to get … and foster those community links”. 

From speaking to Lulu and Adam, it is evident that Expression’s goals are substantial however seeing what they have achieved already can give us all faith that they are on their way to great places. And while Expression may be very serious in its ambitions, it is also incredibly clear that they are making sure to have as much fun as possible along the way. “I’m having the greatest time of my life right now… it’s absolutely unparalleled”. Talking about why Lulu stayed involved after graduating, Lulu explained that she couldn’t bear to fully hand it over; “I was like, no, this is my baby. She is going places”. And having seen everything Expression is up to, it would seem that ‘she’ certainly is. 

You can find out more about Expression at their website www.expressionentertainment.com and follow @durham_expression on Instagram to keep up to date with everything happening in Durham. 

If you are keen to get more actively involved with Expression this year, model applications are open until Friday 24th November. If you want to get involved in other ways (or miss the model application) you can email expression.fashionshow@gmail.com.

Photography credit: Expression Entertainment CIC

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