From Gags to Gaultier: The Fetish of Fabulous

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Though sexual fetish expression has long run underground, it has often made its way into the cultural consciousness through fashion, specifically in times of social upheaval. For example, what would later be understood as sexual fetishism first became codified during Industrial Revolution, an era which saw vast changes in women’s suffrage, the rise of labor unions, and civil rights, among many other social justice movements. While hundreds of years earlier “fetishism” meant the worship of non-human objects for their possible powers, it was first used with erotic association in 1887 by French psychologist Alfred Binet to describe people sexually interested in inanimate items, like clothing. Not unsurprisingly, it was also high time for corsets, which later became highly fetishized garments. It’s even said that some women appropriated the famously confining garment for their own desires, experiencing the constriction not just as the style of the day but as pleasure.

Similarly, the latter half of the 20th century also saw tremendous change as people sought to escape rigid and oppressive societal structures, as they do today. Alongside this desire for change rose Helmut Newton’s fetishistic photography of the 1970s and beyond, his models once upon a time wearing or riding saddles, no horse to be found. Leather harnesses outfitting punks appeared in Vivienne Westwood’s famed Sex store in late ‘70s England. New York “Queen of the Night” and Warhol muse Dianne Brill regularly donned rubber and fringe for nights out at legendary club Palladium in the 1980s. In 1992, Madonna released her book Sex as Mistress Dita, and featured acts of S&M in its pages (as well as Naomi Campbell). The ‘90s through ‘00s also featured S&M-inspired collections of Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Alexander McQueen, among others. In recent years, Marc Jacobs, Moschino, and Hood by Air have continued the tradition. And latex and/or PVC, once relegated to fetish communities, is now worn by major celebrities like Lady Gaga (to meet the Queen of England, no less); and Joan Smalls, Candice Huffine, and Gigi Hadid in the 2015 Pirelli Calendar shot by Steven Meisel and styled by Carine.

With social change, aspects of fetish culture that began in secret in the mid-20th century also later moved into the mainstream. Tom of Finland’s erotic renderings of muscled men, often in leather or engaging in S&M practices, were first published in underground homo-erotica publications like Physique Pictorial during the 1950s, but are now celebrated. Around the same time, Bettie Page became a bondage pinup sensation in magazines once upon a time sold covertly, but her visage is remembered now as a fashion inspiration. Michael Leigh’s 1963 book The Velvet Underground, which chronicled sexual subcultures including S&M, later inspired the iconic band to take its name. And lest we forget, of course, about Rihanna’s “S&M,” released in 2010 or the 50 Shades of Grey book and film phenomenon.

Fetish costuming, author Frenchy Lunning posits in the 2013 tome Fetish Style, allows “the subject’s relief from the restrictive conditions of the body, class, status, race, gender, and the culture that has always bestowed layers of repressive identities, restrictions, and codes onto the subject.”

As we continue through an era of great social change, fashion and culture continue to be inspired by the fetish community, perhaps because of its ability to offer practitioners a regular, sometimes secret, rebellion. If fashion can’t have the full fantasy of a leather-coated life outside the norm, then at least it can have one on the surface.

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createdAt:Thu, 17 Jan 2019 21:43:48 +0000
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