When Glee‘s season 3 started, one of the things we were told was that Kurt’s outfits would be less outrageous — he’s getting older, he has a boyfriend, there’s less need to shock. And for the first four episodes, this was by and large true: there were fewer inexplicable pieces and gender non-conforming choices, and Kurt largely stuck to vests, dress shirts, trousers and stylish scarves. Sure, there were some outrageous accessories, but he’s growing up, not dead….
And then there was sex and Kurt Hummel’s fashion started knowing no gender once again.
At first I thought I was just seeing things as I watched too closely for all the ways I expected a heteronormative bucket of fail to get poured all over the first time narrative in 3.05 in a desire to appease straight audiences. But after watching 3.07 last night, I’m convinced that 3.05 marks a specific and intentional turning point regarding Kurt’s clothing that actually echos back to, among other things, season 1, and is designed to amplify the passing-related plotlines of the current season.
It’s all about the knitwear, starting with Kurt’s first outfit in 3.05.
Sure, he’s wearing a tie, but he’s also wearing one of those form-fitting knee-length sweater (dresses) that he made clear his dad abhors in S1 (he promised to stop wearing them to get his car, remember). It’s a brilliant outfit choice for the scene where Blaine’s nattering on about masturbation and Kurt’s unsure of his own desirability. The male/female content of the outfit combined with the ridiculous animal print and Kurt lounging on Blaine’s bed like a girl goes a long way towards saying, “I’m not like other boys, and there’s not even a short explanation.” But Blaine blows right by that and a conversation that starts about insecurity winds up being about flirtation.
It’s later in that same episode when we see the first of the many, many capelettes and ponchos we’ve seen since (and just in case you weren’t clear these capelettes are girl clothes, Rachel wears one in this episode as well, when she arrives at the Hudson-Hummel home to sleep with Finn for the first time). It’s that scene with Sebastian in the Lima Bean, and Kurt has this severe almost nun-like look going on, what with the high white and black collar, the amorphous shape of the cape over his chest, and the prim disapproval. But it’s important to remember that Kurt never intended to see Sebastian in this scene — this supposed to be him and Blaine engaging in their private routine — and therefore a private, relationship-centered moment, even if conducted in public.
In fact, outfits that are arguably supposed to be about Kurt and Blaine time (or at least Kurt explicitly addressing Blaine with the outfit), remain resolutely feminine in influence from this point on. There’s that equestrian moment in 3.06 in which Kurt is wearing something not only feminine in nature, but in which Blaine is solicitously helping him down from a chair he was standing on (said equestrian outfit, it should be noted, echos the polo motif in Blaine’s bedroom as seen in 3.05).
There’s also that hideous outfit involving the belted shawl/poncho and the leather Sunset Boulevard turban. And then are the three feminine outfits of 3.07 — the kilt (without leggings this time), the long grey knit turtleneck poncho, and the asymmetrical knit poncho worn during “Perfect.”
These clothing pieces aren’t just feminine for all the ways they aren’t masculine. Rather, they are all deeply representative of feminine modesty. Ponchos, in particular, minimize the figure and frequently show up in modest dressing blogs with a range of cultural emphases. That we also have Kurt covering his hair with greater frequency post-3.05 (sure, he’s always been into hats, but I have to argue this is different), particularly in that ridiculous Sunset Boulevard outfit, is also notable. In fact, the only time Kurt shows skin in one of his feminine outfits is when he has some leg on view in 3.07. But, if we argue for the school girl uniform reference, there’s a primness and social modesty connotation here too — regardless of what we’re all thinking on Tumblr.
But Kurt’s clothes haven’t gone entirely this direction. Not in the least. In fact, when he has to engage in public moments — such as his student council election speech (3.06) and election day (3.07) — he’s in masculine attire. Kurt Hummel performs a lot of things — queerness and femininity, of course, but also masculinity — when it suits his needs. There’s a discipline in that, a reading of and playing to the audience that he lacked in earlier seasons. It’s a savvy he’s acquired now, one that speaks both to politics and his own goals as a performer, even as it in no way impinges upon how he chooses to present himself in his private (even if conducted in public) life.
The big aberration here, of course, are the outfits he wears on his date with Blaine to Scandals and when he tells Blaine he’s going home with him (for sex) at the end of 3.05. Those are both what should arguably be private moments, and therefore, to fit the pattern above, involve feminine attire. But they don’t. At all.
My suspicion is that the variance here comes from two things: extradiegetically, to make it very clear that Kurt and Blaine are two gay boys; and intradiegetically, because Kurt is worried in both of these situations about proving man enough — first for gay culture, and then second, for his boyfriend who so clearly wants to be wooed and seduced (see: the Sadie Hawkins dance and Blaine’s interactions with Sebastian). In fact, extradiegetically, the auditorium outfit is actively hilarious, at least if you’ve been following the hanky code discussion over on Deconstructing Glee. That hanky code queer in-joke is, however, part of what makes Kurt’s adventures with gender so utterly subversive and queer.
For folks (largely queer folks) paying attention, Glee informs us that Kurt is happy and eager to be an aesthetically feminine partner in his relationship and play act at that very role… when it’s about his relationship. But that in no way makes him a passive, submissive or traditionally feminine partner; it doesn’t even make him a girl (sidenote: I loathe all the stereotypes it’s necessary to address to untangle what’s going on with Kurt, but it’s the world he, and we, live in). It places a heteroaesthetic dynamic around Kurt and Blaine, while firmly removing any hint of a heteronormative one.
That heteroaesthetic dynamic serves to amplify queerness for the viewer interested in queerness, but also to minimize queerness, by suggesting the actually rejected heteronormativity, for the viewier not interested in, or not comfortable with, that same queerness. This is a type of relatively outrageous passing, one that offers Kurt and Blaine safety both intra- and extradiegetically, without imposing restriction on their significantly queer gender expression and sexuality.
Finally, that Kurt’s feminine aesthetic choices evoke modesty seems to play into broader issues around his experience of sexuality. Kurt has, for all his “baby penguin” denial, always been a sensualist — it’s present in his fretting about fabrics, skin care, and even food (despite the toxic, self-restrictive tendencies we’ve seen there).
Since 3.05 we have seen him project physical modesty and avoid physical contact with people who aren’t Blaine (including, but not limited to, Rachel and the awkward hug that required warning; and Brittany and the lack of hug response/cringe thing), and it is emotionally touching as well as indicative of how much work he is having to do to both segregate his desire from the rest of his life and to integrate it into a necessarily public existence. This parallels neatly with the male/female dichotomy of Kurt’s presentation and additionally with the heteroaesthetic/queerness passing game he and Blaine are, I think, knowingly playing.