Fetish As Fashion
Over the last forty years there has been as increasing interweaving of fetish iconography (harnesses, bondage gear, latex/leather/rubber, corsets, “cruel shoes”) into avant-garde and high fashion. Though first touched on by fashion designers as a way of shocking the press and masses, fetish paraphernalia has now become commonplace and part of the fabric of fashion. By charting the slow trickle of fetishism from the shadows onto the runways, it is possible to see the increasing acceptance of sexuality (in even its most so-called “deviant” forms) by the media. The cultural discourse of fetishism and its relationship to fashion is clearly elucidated in the work of fashion historian Valerie Steele, whose books Fashion & Eroticism and Fetish explore fashion as a “symbolic system linked to the expression of sexuality—both sexual behavior (including erotic attraction) and gender identity.” Though the word fetish originally meant a magic charm or “a fabrication, an artifact, a labour of appearances and signs,” the definition was extended by the early 19th century to include anything that was “irrationally worshipped” and by the end of the century to sexual deviations. Fetishism is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of the American Psychiatric Association as “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviors involving the use of nonliving objects (e.g. female undergarments)”—while excluding those that fetishize particular body parts, this definition clearly shows the connection between the arousal of lust and specific garments.
Sexologists have divided fetish garments into “hard” (often tight and constricting garments or shoes made of leather or rubber) and “soft” (lingerie and fur). Unlike “soft” fetishes, which have always been bought from fashion stores and are part of the traditional fashion industry, “hard” fetishes have only been sold through specialist catalogues and stores. Very much a fringe and secretive subculture for most of the twentieth century, by the late 1960s and 1970s the sexual liberation movement had led to a reappraisal of sexual deviations and an increasing visibility of kinky imagery in the press. During the Seventies other subcultures (primarily punk) began to incorporate elements of fetishism into their outfits—dog collars, harnesses, rubber clothes and pornographic t-shirts (showing fetish icons, cowboys, in a state of half-undress) were all sold at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s London shop, SEX, which outfitted the Sex Pistols and other much photographed members of the punk movement. The anarchic styles of punk quickly influenced well-known fashion designers—Zandra Rhodes produced a collection of fetishistic slashed and safety-pinned clothes in 1977. The work of photographer Helmut Newton brought elements of both soft and hard fetishism into the pages of Vogue throughout the 1970s—barely dressed models in stilettos, sheer thigh highs and satin lingerie were often shown with whips and other BDSM paraphernalia. According to Xavier Moreau, Newton’s agent, “Those years with French Vogue, the fashion editors were ransacking tarts’ shops and S & M emporiums in Pigalle for the accessories that would make Helmut want to photograph the couture clothes.” For those designers making their start in Paris at the time—Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Azzedine Alaïa—Newton’s worldview of strong, sexually rapacious women was highly influential in defining their own vision for feminine attire. Montana became known for his sexy leather outfits, including leather versions of the infamous “dirty old man’s trench coat.” In 1980 Alaïa began making grommeted leather gauntlet gloves and very tight-fitting leather skirts that clearly took form and idea from fetishism but were worn by all the French Vogue editors to the collections, which started an uproar for his designs.
Since the 1980s many fetish subcultural styles continued to be assimilated into the mainstream—first being taken on by other subcultural groups then fashion insiders, before being picked up by high fashion designers and then copied by mass-market manufacturers. The trend for underwear-as-outerwear took specifically erotic, fetishized garments and made them into high fashion. While punks had begun wearing thrift store bras and girdles as outerwear in the late 1970s (as part of a reaction to the bra-less hippies before them), it was designers such as Dolce & Gabbana who brought bra tops, bustiers and girdle panties to the runways. Vivienne Westwood continued to delve in fetishism by introducing corsets into her collection for autumn/winter 1985—though grounded in research on 18th-century originals, Westwood’s corsets still exploited and played with the forbiddenness of fetish dress. Starting with his fall/winter 1984 collection, Jean-Paul Gaultier combined the pointed cups of 1950s bras with the radical cone shape of some fetish lingerie to create dresses with exaggerated cone breasts and his infamous cone bra for Madonna. Mugler throughout the 1980s and 90s produced an array of corsets as did Alaïa, who also designed wide cinched leather belts and leather corsets.
The Nineties provided an intensification of these influences. The British designer Helen Storey’s 1991 collection reappropriated bondage clothing to represent women’s anger and to shift the discourse around bondage from restriction to liberation. Provocatively titled “Miss S&M,” Gianni Versace’s fall/winter 1992 collection worked fetishistic elements into glamorous eveningwear. As Steele writes, “the collection was less about women’s issues than about rebellious, transgressive, unapologetic, pleasure-seeking, powerful in-your-face sex.” Punk’s version of fetish dressing reappeared on many of the runways in 1992 and 1993—from John Galliano’s spiked dog collars and leather jackets paired with tiny thongs for spring/summer 1992 to Versace Couture’s safety-pinned dresses for fall/winter 1993. It was designers like Helmut Lang and Martine Sitbon who pared fetish’s elaborate harnesses down into minimal straps and lean cutout garments whose avant-garde appearance felt completely new. As Sarah Mower wrote of Helmut Lang, “You could pass in the straight corporate world while secretly laughing. Who knew that Lang was surreptitiously encoding the imagery of bondage harnesses, trash-bags, bra straps, and rubber into those clothes? They didn’t. We did.” Lang remade many of the tropes of fetishwear in his own minimalist sensibility—his spring/summer 1992 collection was filled with wet-look fabrics, leather and rubber-bands used as garter belts, while his longtime fascination with uniforms also tied in with the fetish world’s common lust for such garments.
Fetish symbols have become such an ingrained part of fashion that they appear now more often as references to designers past than to actual BDSM gear. Bondage straps have appeared in collections as diverse as Jil Sander’s Spring 2016 collection and the studded strappy high heels of Valentino (who also produced a very fetish-friendly transparent studded PVC raincoat for spring/summer 2013). When questioned about their use of bondage and fetish details, many fashion designers discuss how they are empowering women through these devices—the dominatrix remade as the Amazon power businesswoman (à la Helmut Newton’s photographs) capable of more than holding her own in the boardroom and the bedroom. While fetish dress has been commodified and merchandized to suit fashion trends, the fetish lifestyle continues to exist on the fringes of “normal” society. High fashion designers have copied “the style, if not the spirit, of fetishism.” Valerie Steele writes that, “the attraction that many women have to fashion—and fetish fashion, in particular—may be related to their desire to assert themselves as independent sexual beings.” By reinterpreting these garments that have become highly fetishized by men, women are supposed to then gain their own sexual power—a concept highly problematic to many feminists who feel that these fashions still bow to the patriarchal male gaze, particularly since so many designers are male. Offering a differing opinion is a female designer who began wearing actual fetish clothes in the early 1970s as a subversive FU to society—Vivienne Westwood remarked of her corseted and highly restrictive designs in 1995, “I would like to think that the avant-garde lady of fashion is not hiding her feminine power.” While fetish-inspired fashion clothes might not hold the same shocking charge they once did, there is still an element of controversy and an erotic frisson inherent in them.