From Forgotten to Forefront: Chester Weinberg’s Fashion History and the Fight Against HIV/AIDS Stigma

Following Silhouettes: Fashion in the Shadow of HIV/AIDS, SAMESH is again working with The David Roche Foundation to present another world first exhibition – Style and Spirit: The Fashion of Chester Weinberg. Featured prominently in Silhouettes, Chester Weinberg was the first known fashion designer to die of AIDS-related illness in 1985. HIV stigma saw Chester written out of history books, and SAMESH are resurrecting his story.

SAMESH Team Leader Skye Bartlett is curating the exhibition, and we heard from him about Weinberg’s life, death, legacy, and relevance in the fight against HIV stigma today.

Who Was Chester Weinberg?

Weinberg was an influential and important American fashion designer. He was part of the new wave of American designers to be taken seriously internationally, along with people like Oscar de la Renta and Halston. While he was very influential in his day, he is now primarily remembered as the first designer to die from AIDS-related illness in 1985.

Weinberg’s Death

In the early ’80s, Weinberg was the design director for Calvin Klein Jeans, which then was the biggest brand in the world. In 1985, he died very unexpectedly, confronting fashion executives with the AIDS epidemic for the first time. Though he was much loved by the fashion industry, moves were made by fashion executives to distance themselves and the industry from Weinberg for fear of plummeting sales.

Weinberg’s Erasure from History

As part of the research process we were able to connect with people who knew Chester including his partner, Patrick Lehman, who said it was like a Soviet-era book – his photograph suddenly wasn’t there. His design work was no longer written about. He was essentially eradicated. It wasn’t until 1995 that his name appeared in the Encyclopedia of Fashion, and even then, it was a very brief excerpt. Fashion tried to pretend he wasn’t as important or influential as he was. Rock Hudson’s death, a few months after Chester, from AIDS-related illness shifted some perceptions within broader American culture, but the stigma remained.

The Impact of Weinberg’s Work

He wasn’t inspired by French fashion. Until that point in fashion history, Paris was seen as the ideal example of what women should wear. Weinberg wanted a different sort of woman. He wanted a woman to feel relaxed but still look beautiful. They shouldn’t be trussed up and given weird silhouettes to conform with what French designers were making women wear. Personally, my favourite thing that women responded to was that he put pockets in all of his dresses. Women’s clothing until the 1980s almost NEVER contained pockets.

Weinberg’s Increase in Prominence

Until SAMESH’s Silhouettes exhibition, he hadn’t risen much in prominence. His biography has been written, but as a publisher hasn’t picked it up, it’s currently unpublished. His work is in several major American museum collections but is rarely shown. Until his appearance in Silhouettes, his work hadn’t really been re-evaluated since his death.

The Response to Weinberg’s Work in the Silhouettes Exhibition

Audiences and critics instantly responded to Weinberg’s work in Silhouettes. Four of his pieces were featured — almost the largest amount featured in the exhibition by one designer. Visitors to the exhibition photographed his work the most. His story really connected with a lot of the audiences and critics. Most of the other names in Silhouettes people were aware of in passing, but Weinberg was a name completely unfamiliar with audiences.

The Difference Between Weinberg’s and Halston’s Work

Halston was very much about glamour while Weinberg was more focused on comfort and relaxation.

By Halston’s death in 1990, the AIDS epidemic was much harder to ignore because about 10 major fashion designers had died between Halston and Weinberg. Halston’s death was the tipping point when fashion execs said, “maybe we should start acknowledging our industry is being decimated, raise money, fundraise, etc.”

In many ways, Halston and Weinberg are bookends to the early days of the AIDS epidemic in fashion.

Collecting the Works of Weinberg

The challenge in collecting for an exhibition of this scope is that these are couture clothes – very expensive in their day. These pieces are beloved by the people who wore them, and their availability is limited. Even though vintage fashion dealers may not be familiar with his branding or story, they’re aware of the extraordinary quality of the clothes he made, and they charge accordingly.

We’ve been very lucky to acquire some clothes that were worn by and can be traced back to celebrities and socialites he dressed for the exhibition. Some examples include a suit worn by Babe Paley (who you will currently see on TV played by Naomi Watts in Feud: Capote vs the Swans) and a green dress worn by Judy Peabody who later became a very famous AIDS philanthropist because of the death of her friends including Weinberg.

What the Exhibition Aims to Accomplish

We hope the exhibition sparks new conversations about the legacy of stigma from the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic. It will illustrate how far we’ve come in addressing that stigma, but also what work is left to do. I hope it will also highlight to people of the loss of creative genius during the AIDS epidemic, while exposing this era of history to new audiences.

Style & Spirit: The Fashion of Chester Weinberg will show at The David Roche Foundation House Museum at 214 Melbourne Street, North Adelaide, SA, 5006 from 8 November 2024 – 25 January 2025.

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