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Boys of the Barbary Coast

Reimagining an era when men dressed like they meant it.


The artist Nick Aitken asked several friends to pose as models for his photo project, Paper Dolls.

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The polka-dot necktie on the monocled businessman, a sailor’s collar stays, the embroidered paisley lining of a bishop’s robe. San Francisco may have been a rough-and-tumble town during the gold rush, but guys dressed sharp. Or at least they did in the imagination of San Francisco artist Nick Aitken, whose latest project, Paper Dolls, is a portfolio of 55 portraits of contemporary subjects dressed to the nines in 19th-century-and-earlier garb.

The photos, which will be exhibited at the Academy in the Castro on September 28, adorn a series of playing cards depicting gay men—plus two female wild cards—re-creating the fashion and flair of San Francisco’s past. Aitken, who studied fashion photography at the Academy of Art University, designed, lit, dressed, shot, and edited the images himself. Aitken says the outlandish costumes give the men a flamboyance that’s been stigmatized in this era of jeans and hoodies. “Back then, that stuff wasn’t looked at as gay or feminine,” he says.

The photo subjects include current mayoral candidate Mark Leno (dressed as a particularly floral western sheriff ), drag queen Peaches Christ, and others from Aitken’s life—including his primary care physician. Following the exhibition, the cards will be on sale at the Academy and


Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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