Ball Culture: Inspiration from the LGBTQ Underground Scene

Pride month – there’s no more colorful month of the year. And what better opportunity to acknowledge a part of LGBTQ history that has influenced fashion, music, dance and culture for almost four decades?

Attention, legendary children!

We are about to give you the basics of ball culture.

Since the early 1920s (and possibly even earlier), LGBTQ people have been coming together, often in underground secret spaces, to celebrate the art of dressing a part, dance and creating a safe space for creative expression. In the 1980s, these gatherings, or balls, were where those often cast out from society (many black and Latino) could be whoever they wanted for a night.

And while many equate balls with drag shows, there is much more to ball culture than sequins and feathers. Runway competitions included categories like “Executive Realness” allowing LGBTQ people of color the opportunity to dress the part of a Wall Street executive—an option not available to minorities during the day. And for young LGBTQ kids kicked out of their homes, ball culture offered a family, shelter and safety.

Thanks to the summer’s breakout hit show Pose on FX, a new generation is getting schooled on what life was like for a segment of the LGBTQ community in the early 80s in NYC. Severe shoulder pads and all.

Pose is ground-breaking in that it stars/employs more transgender actors and extras than any other scripted show currently on the air, however, Pose is hardly the first show to document ball culture. In fact, any in-the-know designer should immediately move the documentary Paris is Burning to the top of their must watch Netflix list.

In addition to a primer on late 80s/early 90s fashion, Paris is Burning reveals the roots of voguing as a dance and art form, so named from the model poses seen on the actual pages of Vogue magazine. And as an emerging designer, the deeper your understanding of history, the bigger pool of inspiration you have to draw from for your future collections.

So sit back, children, and learn your ball culture. If you are a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race (anyone else #TeamAquaria this season?), Mama Ru’s catch phrases are about to make much more sense.

Houses and Families

At a ball, participants walked as houses. Houses were often named after fashion houses or beauty icons, for example, House of Saint Laurent. Each house has a mother who sets the tone/rules for the house and takes in new family members. Family members often adopt the last name of their house, not only showing their loyalty, but also creating a sense of belonging not provided by a biological family. And house mothers refer to their children as legendary.

Walking in a Category

Balls are made up of runway competitions and each competition fits into a theme or category. The emcee of the ball will call out, “Category is….” and all those who are participating will prepare to show off their best super model, evening wear, military, school girl, uptown/downtown, etc. garb.

Serving (Category) Realness

In order to win a runway competition, participants are judged on realness, or how likely they are to actually pass in real life as the individual they are representing on the runway. Serving Park Avenue realness means the participant could fit right in strolling down Park Avenue with the ladies who lunch.

Mopping

Because the ball participants of the 80s had very few resources, some mopped or stole the materials they needed to create their runway looks. We don’t advocate stealing at U of F, however, we know many designers are operating on a shoestring budget and therefore, studying ball culture can be pretty inspiring to see what those who had nothing can create on no budget at all.

Reading and Throwing Shade

To read another participant in ball culture is to ruthlessly insult another’s outfit, look, walk or presentation without breaking a sweat. Reading is in good fun, and thus, the phrase “the library is open,” often clears the floor for a good read. Throwing shade is a more subtle form of reading, saved for the most clever and witty of readers. The library doesn’t necessarily have to be open for shade to be thrown.

From Marc Jacobs to Alexander McQueen to Jeremy Scott to Vivienne Westwood to…the list goes on and on… designers have drawn inspiration from underground club scenes over the course of history. You can, too. Just make sure to learn your history before attempting to throw shade, darling.

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Kara Laricks is a regular contributor to the University of Fashion. She’s also a New York based women's wear and accessories designer. As the first winner of NBC's Fashion Star, Kara has designed collections for H&M, Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue. Her masculine meets feminine line, Kara Laricks, debuted at New York Fashion Week in 2012 and her S/S 2013 collection sold exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue. Kara's designs have been featured on the Today Show and HBO's True Blood as well as covered in Women's Wear Daily and on Style.com. Kara holds Master's degrees in both Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Kansas and in Fashion Design from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. An educator turned designer, Kara is dedicated to supporting emerging designers and inspiring others to follow where dreams lead.