FETISH FASHION OR SADOMASOCHISM CHIC?

Flashback to Berlin 2019: it’s my freshman year, and my friend and I naively booked tickets to Berlin for spring break. Of course, that meant we had to experience the entirety of the underground night scene…including the sex clubs. We had done our research and knew we had to come dressed in our best dark, leather-studded adornments or risk being barred access at the door. The other stipulation was containing yourself in the queue, as even the slightest association with rowdiness could turn the bouncer against you. Dressed in an oversized faux fur jacket, mesh top, leather skirt, and boots, we made our way to one of Berlin’s most famous sex clubs. Best yet — it worked! This night was my first glimpse into the world of BDSM, and let me tell you, there was a lot to see. Now, fast forward two years, and my understanding of kink culture has yet to evolve much. That is until now. I am the first to admit it: I have developed an addiction to leather (or at least faux leather). If the number of leather jackets I have acquired in my closet doesn’t give you a sense of my obsession, then I can surely show you a few skirts, pants, and shoes to change your mind. I never once thought of this obsession as inspired by anything other than a desire to appear like more of a badass than I truly am. That was until I started reading up on the particularly kinky history of fashion. Fetishism is defined as an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion. I am not entirely convinced my leather collection qualifies itself as particularly kinky or has reached the level of irrationality to be labeled a fetish. However, this brought me down a rabbit hole of kink’s ongoing hand in shaping fashion as we know it, that of which I will divulge in this article. 

First and foremost, we must make an essential distinction between what qualifies as kink versus fetish. Although tossed around synonymously, there is a major difference between the two. Kink is subjective — it is something generally considered out of the norm of mainstream sexual activities. However, this definition exists on a spectrum. While one person may consider sex toys as particularly kinky, others may view this under the umbrella of “vanilla” sex. On the other hand, fetishes are a necessity to the person who possesses them, meaning that person can’t get aroused without the presence of their particular fetish. No fetish = no go. A second important distinction must also be cleared up, that being between clothing fetishism and fetish fashion. The latter is associated with an erotic reaction to certain fabrics or clothing, such as latex and lace. The former, on the other hand, relates to the physical wearing of BDSM garb. Unbeknownst to me until recently, the world of fetish and kink is at the heart of a lot of mainstream attire…

Cover of Atomage International Magazine No.3, 1981 

Kink saw its first climax (pun very much intended) well before the underground sex club scene started having its moment in Berlin. In fact, kink’s first surge dates all the way back to the 18th century when women donned corsets, tight-lacing, and harnesses as a staple of their wardrobe’s. It peaked again in the Victorian Era with the onset of silk and velvet as the latest trends. While silk and velvet are a bit on the tame side as far as kinky fashion goes, corsets are the epitome of the forbidden fruit of clothing, offering only an alluring glimpse into the silhouette being disguised. Corsets thus embody the duality of submission and dominance — the two pillars of kink. Latex is another wardrobe essential that dates back to the 1800s with the invention of the Mackintosh raincoat of 1824, a prized garment to the Mackintosh Society, one of England’s first modern fetish organizations. Latex has long been loved for its sensual pleasures, giving rise to the term “macking” — a fetish slang word for wearing rubber. However, rubber wearers and fetishists alike were gradually forced underground in the wake of conservatism that surged post-World War II.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman wearing a latex catsuit, 1992

Fetish fashion wasn’t gone for long. In fact, during the second half of the 20th century, materials from latex to leather had their moment once again with the second climax of kinky fashion. Leather, in particular, had a prominent role in shaping the 1950s gay scene. In fact, leather has developed into somewhat of a pinnacle of masculine queer identities, popularized by leathermen who normalized this attire everywhere from sex clubs to Pride parades to casual hookups. For queer men in 1970s San Francisco, leather accessories were used to signal an individual was interested in BDSM, and while much of the lesbian community has similarly adopted such leather practices, traditionally the leather scene has been associated with “dominant” men in search of “submissive” male partners. While a whole subculture of the gay community (and other leather enthusiasts) has been brought together by this leather obsession, giving rise to an array of events such as “London Fetish Week” and “Leather Prides”, there remains a dark side to this leather-clad world (and no I’m not referring to what happens in the bedroom). “Leatherphobia” is a real thing. For years, there have been links drawn between homosexuality, sexual deviance, kink, and immorality, manifesting itself in a real fear of kink amongst a community that truly sparked the second climax of kinky fashion.

While the gay community played a hand in the revival of fetish fashion, it simultaneously made its way to the runway. Designer John Sutcliffe had his hand in re-popularizing latex with the world’s first catsuit, while Jean Paul Gaultier sparked the return of the corset with his designs for Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour. The Versace Bondage Collection is another noteworthy sample of fetishes’ late-20th century revival. Released in Winter 1992, this collection saw the crossover of a lifetime, where BDSM met Wild West chic, pairing studded cowboy boots alongside skintight leather belts and buckles. The boldness of this collection was not lost on its audience, as it was met with staunch controversy for people that viewed Versace’s sadomasochism chic as exploitative of female sexuality. The nature of Versace’s collection was not to shame but to provoke confidence and respect for the powerful women dominating the runway. After all, BDSM is most known for its liberating potential, not degrading nature (well, depending on what side you’re on). Versace’s iconic gold-faced Medusa plated on the buckles of this collection is emblematic of the new wave of femininity that the late-20th century was to be characterized by, where female sexuality is empowering and refuses to be marginalized.

Versace Bondage Collection 1992, Look 84
Versace Bondage Collection 1992, Look 31
Versace Bondage Collection 1992, Look 37

We all have a bit of a dark side, but how did the pinnacles of kink fashion make their way into the closets of even the most “vanilla” individuals? For me, this can be wrapped up in two words: confidence & control. Versace was onto something with his embrace of fetish couture as a means to empower female sexuality. Similarly, we saw the gay community take to BDSM’s liberatory potential. So it’s not too shocking to learn that many of us subconsciously adorn ourselves in kink-inspired garb in order to spark confidence in our everyday looks. For some donning themselves in a range of leather, chains, corsets, and latex is used to come off as domineering, whereas for others gravitating towards more subdued and less abrasive styles helps them to channel a more submissive look, which is no less of an embodiment of confidence than the latter. Whether it be the confidence one gets knowing they look intimidating or in control or the confidence one embodies knowing they can make another person feel powerful, we all subtly embrace kink in our wardrobes. It thus makes sense that fetish fashion has emerged time and time again, helping us broadcast to the world the way in which we all feel and express confidence through the push and pull of submission versus dominance. Clothes themselves don’t define kink, however, the power and confidence they provide paired with the way in which we use them does. A spiked heel, while a mere accessory at one point, can quickly be turned into a tool for domination in the bedroom. Meanwhile, “macking” a pair of latex pants as a fashion statement can easily turn to someone’s sensual pleasure as they get pulled off later that night. As long as people continue to get kinky in the sheets, it seems as though fetish fashion is here to stay.

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