Kunsthal tells the much-needed story of ballroom culture with ‘Deep in Vogue’

The exhibition ‘Deep in Vogue’ opened this weekend in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. Anyone who thinks they only come to see beautiful pictures is mistaken. The exhibition pays homage to balsa culture and provides context for a subculture formed by and for queer and transgender, black and colored. The connection with the fashion world was initially the main reason why FashionUnited visited, but in the end it was about so much more than that. ‘Deep in Vogue’ is a much-needed lesson for many and gives the story of ballroom culture so many more layers. Spoiler alert: It’s more than just voguing

The exhibition is created in close collaboration with Amber Vineyard mother of the first Dutch ballroom House of Vineyard. She fits in with house member and sheep Elly also saw the tour during the press inspection. Ballroom culture has become more and more in the media in recent years, thanks in part to the Netflix series Pose. Like the exhibition, the series zooms in on the houses, the balls and the vogue. The exhibition gives all these themes space in different spaces with the help of videos, photos and some fashion items.

The exhibition starts with the space above the houses, while in the background you can hear some sounds from videos that sound promising. These houses are the self-chosen families in the ballroom culture. The culture has its origins in the 1970s in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. Gay men and transgender women, both black and colored, experience exclusion and discrimination both outside and within the LGBTQIA + community. The houses act as their family and provide them with a safe place when needed. It is not inconceivable that people at that time and also now are left without a home when someone’s sexual preference or gender identity becomes known.

The striking thing about the showroom is that the names of these houses are often fashion-related. You have House of Mugler, House of Dior, House of Chanel and House of Saint Laurent. Vineyard explains during the tour that the ballroom culture is undocumented, so much of the information in ‘Deep in Vogue’ was obtained through conversations with prominent people in the community. The reason why many of the houses are attached to fashion houses has never been written down, but Vineyard quickly manages to come up with an explanation. The houses are mainly named after the mothers of the house. For example, one of the ballroom pioneers is Octavia Saint Laurent. Especially in the 1990s, supermodels were seen as the pinnacle of beauty. These supermodels were an example, a wish of many members of society. Many aspired to a place in the fashion industry, but due to their color or sexual orientation, there was no place for them. Ballroom culture was a world where everyone could be whatever they wanted. That is one of the reasons why the names of the houses got a fashion twist.

Legendary Dee Legacy, House of LaBeija ‘Kilimanjaro Ball’. New York, September 1990. Photo © Chantal Regnault

The exhibition ‘Deep in Vogue’ is more than just looking at pictures, it opens your eyes

The fact that society offered (and offers) little space to queer men and transgender women is why balls were founded. A safe place where these members could be what society forbade them. Consider, for example, the category of ‘executive realness’ (becoming the CEO of a large company seemed like a distant dream at the time) or ‘femme queen’ for transgender women. The balls have different categories where the houses show their most talented members. Vineyard says there are now more than 60 categories in the European scene. Where it once started with the ‘face, body, fashion, reality’ and femme queen category for transgender women, crossovers quickly followed, not to mention the ‘performance’ category. Impressive pictures of these balls and the associated categories can be seen in the second room. The exhibition zooms in on how the first ball came to be and tells this story through videos, but Chantal Regnault’s striking black-and-white images also provide an intimate insight into the world of ballroom culture. If you want to briefly imagine yourself at a ball, you can enter the hall via a catwalk with all sorts of important expressions from the community. This way you go around ‘own it’, ‘carry’ and ‘give us face’. During the press premiere, Amber and Elly walk proudly on the catwalk, and various guests from the press follow, sometimes hesitantly, with their walk.

The legendary voguer Willi Ninja in Thierry Mugler clothes. New York, June 1989. Photo © Chantal Regnault

The third room is probably the room that most people come to the exhibition for: the Vogue. For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon: Voguing is a dance style associated with ballroom culture. Despite popular belief, voguing did not necessarily occur in ballroom culture, let alone a dance created by Madonna for her song ‘Vogue’. As mentioned before, it is not determined exactly how voguing occurred. Elly explains that the most accepted story is that it originated in a prison where there was no entertainment. Here, the prisoners mimicked the poses from Vogue as best they could, which was later turned into music under the balls. By putting this pose into music, the dance style we know as voguing eventually emerged. It shows that the fashion world is strongly intertwined with the ballroom culture, without being aware of it for long periods of time. The five elements of voguing can be seen through a video installation. Voguing knows ‘hands performance’, catwalk, duckwalk, spins & dips and floor work. Several members of House of Vineyard are featured in the videos. Opposite her hangs a video of Willi Ninja, Voguing’s godfather.

Last but not least is of course the clothes. Not only does the category ‘fashion’ and the various subcategories such as ‘bizarre’ revolve around fashion, in each category everyone will look their best and the clothes should help with this. ‘Deep in Vogue’ shows different outfits in several categories. The final outfit in the exhibition is acting and honors the icons of ballroom culture. Unfortunately, many ballroom pioneers are no longer present to tell their stories, but ‘Deep in Vogue’ certainly gives the visitor an introduction and a lesson in the importance of this community. Ballroom gives people who face discrimination and stigma on a daily basis a world where they can be themselves completely. In the context of ‘love your neighbors’, a visit to Deep in Vogue should be a must.

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