June is Pride month, a good time to celebrate and learn a little history. Pose, the new series from FX, provides a great opportunity to do so with its fun, compelling, and often moving account of the ’80s ballroom scene in New York City.
Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals (Murphy and Falchuk also produced Glee and American Horror Story), the show tells the story of the ballroom culture of queer and trans people of color in the late ’80s. It also features the largest cast and crew of trans people to date. In a time when queer and POC representation in media is slowly gaining headway and many trans characters are still portrayed by cisgender actors, this is an important milestone.
If you’re not familiar with the movement, ballroom is a subculture mostly made up of Black and Latinx LGBTQ youth in which participants “walk,” or dance, in competition for trophies and status. In a comprehensive piece for Rolling Stone, writer Les Fabian Brathwaite explains that a version of today’s balls began at the end of the 19th century in Harlem. The culture’s development corresponded with events facing LGBTQ populations during history. In the ’60s, as the Pride movement was born (started by trans women of color including Marsha P. Johnson), balls began to evolve into the version that became the template for the scene’s heyday of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Gay communities of the time period were facing horrors of a new and mysterious disease that claimed the lives of many of their loved ones. Balls provided a place to dance and “vogue” away the devastation of the AIDS crisis, if only for a few hours. Poverty, homelessness, violence, and murder were (and are) a constant threat for queer people of color, especially sex workers, many of whom participated in balls.
Ballroom participants often joined a “house,” a close-knit group or family helmed by a “mother.” Competition categories included themes like military or runway, and the “vogue” dance style was broken down into smaller categories focusing on a style of movement. Gender and “passing” came into play, with categories such as “Butch Queen” and “realness” (ability to pass for cisgender).
With that in mind, here’s a peek at Pose.
Balls were a place for members of a marginalized community to gather and be themselves.
As a character on the show explains, “Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else.”
Ballroom entered the mainstream in media with Madonna’s 1990 video for “Vogue” and, later, with RuPaul’s Drag Race. The terms “work” (or “werque”), “yass kween,” “throwing shade,” and “spilling tea,” among many others originated in the scene, and have since made their way into the vocabulary of white queer and straight folks in what some deem a form of cultural appropriation.
The ’80s are probably one of the most fun periods to explore sartorially; costume designer Lou Eyrich, who worked on AHS and Glee, created unique looks for the show’s characters. Many ensembles appear to be directly inspired by outfits worn by the subjects of the 1990 ball culture documentary Paris is Burning. Extravagant fabrics, dramatic silhouettes, wild color combos, and tons of sequins and feathers come into play. It’s costume porn in its finest form, and we can’t get enough.
Let’s take a look at some of the character’s fierce outfits on the show, and see how some of them are exact replicas from Paris is Burning.
Dominique Jackson portrays Elektra Abundance, the legendary mother of the House of Abundance.
Elektra’s looks are sleek, lavish, and opulent. The matriarch embodies the high-fashion aesthetic of the era.
Serving Diana Ross in Mahogany realness.
A look from Paris is Burning that no doubt inspired Elektra’s style.
Indya Moore plays Angel, a sex worker with dreams of domesticity.
Bright colors and a flair for fringe and fur define Angel’s wardrobe.
Competing in the “Weather Girl” category.
Angel’s pink shimmer eye and lip combo are both ’80s and contemporary. Her gold, almond-shaped nails are gorgeous, too.
Mj Rodriguez plays Blanca Rodriguez, the mother of the fledgling House of Evangelista.
Blanca breaks away from the House of Abundance to form her own house. As she explains to Damon, a teenager she takes under her wing, “A house is a family you get to choose.”
Statement leather jackets and hoops are a signature Blanca look, and her shoulder pad game is on point, on or off the ballroom floor.
Blanca slays in both evening wear and loungewear.
Pray Tell (Billy Porter) is a fashion designer and a ball announcer.
TV shows of the era, such as Dynasty, inspired competition categories.
“Military” is also a very specific category that rewards authenticity.
A few more stills from Paris is Burning, so you can see the influence it had on Pose (watch this documentary for a closer look at the movement):