They might not rank on any mainstream Most Stylish lists

Okay, so they might not rank on any mainstream Most Stylish lists, but the second half of the 20th century did give the world some very fashionable lesbian films. Chained Girls – a pulpy, woefully inaccurate 1965 exposé of lesbianism designed to titillate more than to educate – is not one of them. It doesn’t get anywhere close to the glamour of 1971’s Daughters of Darkness, featuring Delphine Seyrig as an uncannily elegant vampire in sequins modelled after bisexual icon Marlene Dietrich. Or The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), in which the titular character, a fashion designer, looks as if she could have walked off the latest Gucci runway. Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! shares both genre and year of release with Chained Girls, but has considerably more style – even if it is a completely inadequate proposition of what to wear in a desert.

That doesn’t mean that the clothing in Chained Girls isn’t worth paying attention to. In fact, it’s a central motif in the sparse, low-budget production, directed by Joseph P. Mawra and produced by well-known sleaze peddler George Weiss – also behind Test Tube Babies (1948), Olga’s Girls (1964) and Ed Wood’s transgender docudrama Glen or Glenda (1953), a career-low for a destitute Bela Lugosi and widely regarded as among the worst films of all time. In Chained Girls, clothes are constantly being stripped off, rearranged, and used to signal sexual roles and identities, drawing us into the closed-off, secretive world of the lesbian, of the brawling butch and her dolled-up femme. Well, sort of.

First things first: despite what its title might lead you to think, Chained Girls is not a Women in Prison movie – arguably the dominant genre when it comes to lesbians on screen. (After all, it’s less threatening to a male audience when women are only having sex with each other because there aren’t any men around). If there are chains in Chained Girls, they are purely metaphorical – the socially-constructed binds which damn the “dyke” to “a lonely and despairing life”, “on the constant lookout for a partner with whom she can live and love, in a so-called, normal life” which – spoiler alert! – is not forthcoming. Rather than jailhouse romps, the pseudo-documentary cuts between filler footage of New York streets and a series of staged scenes seeking to explore the “complex problem” of lesbian life, interspersed with some dubious onscreen “statistics compiled from medical reports” – which generally offer entirely contradictory ‘facts’ to those bestowed by the voice-of-God narrator.

Primarily, Chained Girls centres around the roles, rules and relationships of butch and femme lesbians – the only two boxes which it says all “female homosexuals” supposedly fall into. (Although now reappropriated from an insult into a more neutral term, the word ‘dyke’ is used in the film as synonymous with ‘butch’ – always the sexual aggressor). “Science tells us that for every type of creature that walks the earth, there is a counterpart, and so it is also true with the butch,” the narrator shares, with the affected distance of a nature documentary presenter. “In this case, the feminine counterpart is known as the femme.” Although in 2019, these codes – unfairly scorned by 70s feminists for supposedly replicating the male/female relationships they actually subverted – are less rigidly embodied, such black-and-white categorisation is not wildly inaccurate for ‘practising’ lesbians at the time.

With precedents such as Stephen Gordon, the ‘invert’ protagonist depicted in lesbian author Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, the idea of the masculine gay woman had been stewing in – and, judging by the press campaign to ban the book, being suppressed by – the cultural imagination for decades. The codes of butch and femme, along with their clearly delineated standards of dress, were largely fostered and performed in lesbian bars, from those in Paris in the 1920s and 30s to those of Buffalo New York in the 40s and 50s, where older community leaders would educate the younger lesbians in how to dress, where to shop, and which tailor wouldn’t throw you out and call the vice squad for requesting men’s clothes be adjusted. Although class and race dictated the details, for the most part butches wore menswear, including trousers, while femmes took pride in emulating the most stylish trends of the day, wearing make-up and other traditionally female accoutrements – what outwardly marked the femme as lesbian was her proud association with the butch.

But just when you think Chained Girls is going to go into an analysis of these clearly defined standards of presentation, we’re instead informed that: “The majority of lesbians – though they might slightly modify their dress or hairdo – are indistinguishable from the majority of women with whom one would naturally associate.” This early line sets up the costuming for the film at large, which is as contradictory as the fake science. The first dyke we see is wearing a floral shift dress, an innocuous outfit which allows her, a female photographer, to entrap and prey on a pretty young model without immediately arousing suspicion (topical!). It’s all very Lavender Scare; while historically butches dressed butch to embody and draw attention to their queerness, in Chained Girls lesbians are like Communists: they could be anywhere, undetected, and are “always on the lookout for new recruits”.

“Even when they think and live like men, lesbians for the most part generally enjoy the chic look of womanhood,” the narrator intones, meaning the women’s homosexuality is “easily hidden”, and that they are free to mingle comfortably in society. The ‘chic’ lesbians that appear on screen – whether rolling around in bed in an unconvincing one night stand, ogling a changing roommate in a college dorm, or taking part in a fake gay wedding – are all relatively feminine. Okay, so there are a few button-down shirts and pairs of trousers (also, a slightly crumpled trilby that gets shared around), but these garments aren’t exactly masc, and are sometimes worn with fishnet stockings, silk scarves and even thick winged eyeliner. It makes it impossible to tell where butch ends and femme begins – and the small cast of actors shifting between roles doesn’t exactly help.

Had the filmmakers ever come across a real butch?

Had the filmmakers ever come across a real butch? Were they too afraid to take a surreptitious trip into one of New York City’s gay bars for research purposes? Or, more likely, are the lesbians so feminine because even the most dominant of the dykes still needed to be eye candy for the male voyeur shifting excitedly in his grubby grindhouse seat? The scene where two butches fight to the death over a femme is the perfect example of this gaze-pandering – as they wrestle, their buttoned-up blouses pop open to reveal the lacy lingerie barely covering their bountiful cleavages. Sadly, we never catch a glimpse of the fabled “baby butches”, who “roam big city streets in large gangs, assaulting everyone who falls in their path” with lead pipes and chains. They probably would have had great matching looks.

There is one exception to all of this: the bull dyke. The only character in Chained Girls to have what could be considered anything close to a lesbian haircut (a signal to other gay women since the 20s, at least), she is the pipe smoking aggressor who rapes the poor debutante lesbian in the film’s climactic and bizarre initiation ritual scene. But still, the bull dyke doesn’t exactly resemble your standard-issue butch, instead wearing bizarre lace-up knee-high boots, a too-big striped blazer, and a beatnik-y black polo neck jumper. While some actual butches took to chest binding or sewing in the cups of their pointed cone bras to flatten them, this character’s ample breasts remain distractingly pointy. In a moment which shows the power and symbolism of clothing, the bull dyke helps dress the deb for her entry into lesbian society, encouraging her to remove her trousers and put on a skirt, thus confirming her role as a femme.

But it’s the film’s final scene which sees the bull dyke herself undress, shedding the outfit which marked her as the malevolent lesbian other to return to “a world, that if it discovered her true identity, would turn against her and destroy her”. Standing at a dressing table, she strips off, shedding her real self, her butchness, into a sad pile of clothes on the floor. The camera zooms into it before returning back to her, dressed; now, in heels, a blouse, and a pencil skirt. As she brushes her hair in the mirror, gazing upon her own reflection, the narrator talks us through the sad struggle of the lesbian, who may be forced to endure a cover-up marriage, who must live in a male dominated world and pretend to accept it.

And although Chained Girls is, for the most part, factually bereft, this bit isn’t so far from the truth: away from safe spaces like the bars, women did have to hide themselves, or face social ostracism, getting shipped off to the asylum for torturous aversion therapy or, if they were in service, being dishonourably discharged. “Homosexuality in women which is certainly not less common than in men although much less glaring, has not only been ignored by the law, but also, by society”, the narrator quotes “Dr Freud” – and although a slight misquote changed to suit the filmmakers’ purposes, it speaks to well-known and ongoing ideas of lesbian, and especially femme, invisibility. Even today, cultural images of lesbians are far less frequent or normalised in media than those of gay men.

Despite the idea of lesbianism being something which can be cured, Chained Girls does present it as something which is – and always will be – naturally occurring. And for all it’s laugh-out-loud campness (like the accusations that lesbianism is the result of a “neurotic fear of marriage” or the “unfounded hatred of all men”), as well as its genuinely offensive suggestions (warnings that it leads to suicide, drug addiction and prostitution) a modern reading of the film does offer some unintentionally progressive takeaways. Like the idea that hidden lesbian desires potentially “lie dormant” in every woman, not just a few man-hating ones. Or that lesbians “represent an impressive cross section of life”, and can be found in any number of jobs, from truck driving to the arts. Likewise, that lesbian identity isn’t fixed and unchanging: the function of clothing in the film, combined with the narrator’s assertion that “the butch of today might be the femme of tomorrow”, speaks to the performativity of gendered roles of all kinds, heteronormative and queer. As the saying goes: we’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.

Emma Hope Allwood is a London-based writer and editor, and currently works as Head of Fashion for Dazed Digital.