Back in the 1980s, the word “vogue” would have recalled little more than a magazine—that is, unless, you were immersed in New York City counterculture, where it had taken on another meaning entirely. After many decades in the shadows, the pageantry of the Harlem ball scene, a community of African American and Latinx creatives seeking to build their own world of self-expression through the medium of dance and DIY fashion, was poised to hit the mainstream.
In 1989, Susanne Bartsch held the first annual Love Ball as an AIDS fundraiser. Bartsch had witnessed many of these dancers and misfits “mopping” (or, to put it politely, borrowing without intent of return) from her avant-garde boutique off Spring Street, one of the first in the U.S. to stock designers like John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood. Duly fascinated, she invited them downtown for a ball like nobody had seen before. The judges included Vogue’s André Leon Talley, the supermodel Iman, and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne; somewhere within the crowd, according to queer folklore, was Madonna herself, witnessing the legendary Houses of LaBeija and Ninja storm the runway with their dips, pops, and spins. By the time the long, hot summer of 1990 rolled around, Madonna’s Vogue was topping charts around the world—eventually becoming that year’s best-selling single—and this subcultural movement had officially boiled over into the zeitgeist.
Looking back on the 30th anniversary of its release, Vogue should never have been the smash that it was. In an interview with Billboard, the song’s producer, Shep Pettibone, noted that they recorded it as a last-minute track in a basement studio for $5,000; within a week, the final cut was sent over to the executives at Madonna’s record label. While they instinctively knew the song deserved to be more than just a B-side, they struggled to figure out how the singer could release it between album cycles. Eventually, it ended up awkwardly wedged into the soundtrack for Dick Tracy—Madonna’s latest movie venture—despite it having nothing to do with the film at all. Against the odds, it became a runaway hit.
But it wasn’t just the song, and its unlikely mash-up of then-underground house music with a middle eight namechecking Old Hollywood filmstars, that captured the public imagination. It was the iconic video, directed by David Fincher, many years before he became the award-sweeping auteur behind films like Fight Club and The Social Network. The black-and-white, soft-focus visual took inspiration directly from the pages of the fashion magazines the dancers worshipped. (Rumor has it that Horst P. Horst even considered a lawsuit over the lack of acknowledgement for the inspiration he had so clearly provided.) And for anyone doubting Madonna’s commitment to the spirit of Vogue, you need only look to her MTV Awards performance from the same year. Dressed in full Dangerous Liaisons drag, she and her dancers flick their fans with all the glamorous nonchalance of Marie Antoinette, letting them eat camp.
The video itself was choreographed by and featured Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Xtravaganza, of the House of Extravaganza, who dressed up in cravats and spats to whirl around Madonna as she aped her Old Hollywood icons. They had style, they had grace, Rita Hayworth gave good face. Both Xtravaganzas would go on to choreograph her infamous Blonde Ambition tour; captured in flattering terms by 1991’s Truth or Dare, and later more poignantly in 2016’s Strike a Pose, which charted how this wider exposure began to compromise the integrity of the scene they came from, especially in light of the ongoing AIDS crisis. The latter also looked at how Madonna’s role in bringing the vogueing phenomenon into the public consciousness will always be linked to the febrile political context from which it sprung. Around the world, many were mimicking the playful, exaggerated gestures of the Harlem ballrooms with little clue as to the deeper significance those dance moves contained, leading to the eternal question: were Madonna’s efforts to spotlight this overlooked scene appreciation or appropriation?