All too often I whine and moan about how San Francisco has lost its weird. Thinking back to when I moved here 22 years ago, I remember being astonished that, having felt like an outsider my entire life, I had arrived in a city where I could not possibly be different enough to even begin to stand out. Lately it’s felt like a homogenous smear of tech buses and young white entrepreneurs, baby carriages and golden retrievers. Even our naked people got fig-leafed.
But then I actually bother to look, and am reminded that we have drag cabaret and a transgender film festival and Burning Man and Day of the Dead and myriad and sundry popups of food and art and literature and theater. It’s still there, but 22 years ago there wasn’t the howling beast of a booming tech economy to drown it out.
One of the great anchors of San Francisco’s counterculture is the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Since 1979, the Sisters have employed a high-camp combination of extreme drag and religious imagery, donning habits and painted in exaggerated, neo-Kabuki style. With a mission “to promulgate universal joy and to expiate stigmatic guilt” they have been tireless activists in the city, raising funds for worthy causes and promoting community wellness and safety.
If the outfits seem outrageous, it’s worth noting their provenance. They derive their over-the-top sensibilities from Federico Fellini’s 1972 oeuvre, “Roma,” wherein there is an ecclesiastical fashion show of grand and marvelous proportions.
The Sisters got back to their fashion roots in the past few years with Project Nunway, a fundraising event pairing the Sisters with designers in a Project Runway-style competition. The contest this year, the event’s fifth, required that designers use recycled materials, and spend no more than $100 to compose their outfits. The evening sparkled with music, dance and, of course, fashion. It recharged my gay batteries and reassured me that San Francisco hasn’t gone completely milquetoast. Yet.