Mabel Hampton Oral History Project
Mabel Hampton was an activist, dancer, domestic worker, and out black lesbian who lived in New York City from 1920 until her death in 1989 (Ryan, 2017). She lived with Joan Nestle in the apartment that housed the first Lesbian Herstory Archives until her death in 1989 (Ryan, 2017). Joan recorded Mabel’s oral histories throughout the 1970s and 80s (Ryan, 2017).
These recordings display Mabel’s style and how she differentiated herself from other women and partners. Her testimony provides insight into early expressions of butch style. A running theme throughout her descriptions is that she liked what she liked and was unapologetic in her own personal style.
Ryan, H. (2017, October 25). Meet the black lesbian entertainer who lived her best queer life - in the 1920s. Them. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://www.them.us/story/themstory-mabel-hampton
Mabel Hampton talks about Lillian and more, January, 1988
Mabel talks about her long-time partner Lilian Forster and the differences between their personal styles. In her first impressions of Lilian, Mabel mentions that she was wearing a suit and Lilian was wearing a grey skirt with a blouse and coat over the top. Lilian dressed more stereotypically feminine, preferring dresses, while Mabel enjoyed wearing trousers. Lilian and Mabel met in 1932 and throughout the 30s and 40s in was uncommon for women to wear trousers outside of casual settings and lesbian bars (Medhurst, 2021). Even butch women in the 40s and 50s preferred to wear more tailored skirts over trousers (Medhurst, 2021). Mabel and Lilian pushed boundaries in the mid-century by exploring the butch/femme aesthetics through style (Medhurst, 2021).
Mabel discusses going to dances at the Audobon Ballroom in Harlem. She says that you would go there in drag, all dolled up and looking like Astor’s pet horse.
Medhurst, E. (2021, February 5). Mabel Hampton, Lillian Foster, and mid-century Black Butch/Femme. Dressing Dykes. Retrieved April 29, 2023, from https://dressingdykes.com/2021/02/05/mabel-hampton-lillian-foster-and-mid-century-black-butch-femme/
Mabel, Madeline, and Joan, undated
In this short recording Mabel comments that Lilian liked to wear dresses and she looked typically effeminate though she was never interested in relationships with men.
Mabel Speaks / Talks about Helen/ Mabel Hampton; Joan Nestle
Mabel talks about seeing a married woman and being followed to a club they were meeting at by the woman’s husband. She comments that the husband could tell that she was a butch from the way she was dressed. By contrast, the woman she was with was wearing a dress.
Mabel Hampton, Undated
In this interview Mabel speaks about style, individuality, and gender expression. She talks about how a lot of her friends were known as studs because they dressed masculine and had short hair. Mabel explains that she didn’t bother with cutting her hair, but she liked the suits, wearing pants and dressing masculinely. She says that when she dressed it was what she wanted to be, just herself and nobody else. Additionally, Mabel is asked if she ever thought of herself as a man because she wore men’s clothes. She says she never thought of herself as a man because she never liked men.