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Bear (POP) History: 3 Things You Definitely Need To Know

Bears have progressed from their subcultural, underground sphere to the mainstream culture, directly and indirectly influencing both queer and heteronormative spaces.

Besides the era of sleek metrosexuals, a hybrid of a (muscular) bear and a lumberjack is the dominant male image in the last decade. Furthermore, it shows no signs of losing its dominance in the near future.

I am fascinated by the increasing level of appearances of bearded, chunky or chubby men in the advertising, in flannel shirts or otherwise manifesting fashion codes of lumberjacks and other "masculine" professions. Whether we are talking about beer brands, network providers, or family insurance, the presence of bear culture’s visual codes in media space is undeniable as it anchors itself in reality, after all. In rare moments of idleness, when I dare to enter the void of our family’s TV, I play a game of bear hunt. What intrigues me in modern media is the presence of visual codes and iconography native to identity of gay bears. Every time I see these commercials I want to yell at TV: “You owe this to us! Your beards, flannel shirts, bellies, rugged boots and jeans, chest hair!” Before Tallinn Bearty blasts off I want to tickle your imagination (and beard) - whether you’re a cub or having silver fur to adorn your body, here are 3 pop culture curiosities from bears’ history you should know about.

1. The “invention” of Bears

To cultural and queer historians it is still unclear when the bears first emerged and (visually) established themselves. Moreover, what persists as a more problematic question is who and when actually utilized the term “bear” as a signifier for gay men belonging to LGBT+ bear subculture.

Arguably, the “invention” of bears is credited to George Mazzei and The Advocate magazine. In the magazine’s issue from July 26th, 1979 Mazzei offers a whimsical perspective on the categorization of gays and lesbians in his article Who’s Who at the Zoo.

He categorized members of LGBT community as animals, stating their general characteristics, diets, habitats, and domesticity. Among those animals, illustrated by cartoonist and illustrator Gerard Donelan, are bears of course. Whether Mazzei was the first to give bears their name or not, is still being argued. What he stated about bears is true: cuddly, extremely loving, and loyal. Oh, yes, and they shed on furniture.

2. Bears on the Run(way)

Three words - flannel, fashion, and bear(d)s – are enough to automatically think of famous bear fashion designers duo, Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra. While the impeccable style of these two and their obsession (this is totally an understatement) with plaid did strengthen the visual identity of bears and launched it far beyond a bear’s lair, there’s another episode in fashion history that speaks of presence of bears in popular culture.

In 2010, one of the members of fashion’s most iconic sextet, Antwerp Six, conceptualized his complete collection and runway show around bears - we are talking of Walter Van Beirendonck. Titled Wonder(fur), the designer's spring-summer 2010 collection and catwalk saw beards and bellies of all kinds wearing pastel and fluorescent baggy outfits perfectly matching bodies of models.

The climax of the show, with bears in long socks and bulky jockstraps perfectly channeled bear’s major fashion feature: the wonderful, wonder fur.

3. The Bear pride flag

In my (neverending) encounters with bears I am always a bit isurprised with many of them not knowing the origin of the bear flag they so often use, on their Facebook profiles or otherwise. So, to conclude this tiny history lesson, here's a quick fill in on the bear flag.

The flag was created in 1995 by a psychology student Craig Byrnes, who studied bears for his senior thesis. With the help of Paul Witzkoske, whom Byrnes asked to create different prototypes of his idea, the bear pride flag we known today was created: horizontal stripes with a paw print in the upper left corner, colors representing different shades of fur.


To find out more about bear culture's history and its bond with art and fashion, join us for lecture Between Art, Fashion, and (Sub)culture: Visual Identity of Bears on april 12th at the Estonian Academy of Arts.


(TB) Tallinn Bearty’s mission is to power bear brotherhood in a way that will advance equal rights for everyone, in or out of our own community, across borders.

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