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Taste The Whip

Published in RUSSH Magazine Issue 42. Words: Paul Bui 

As the elevator door slides open, a stone-faced woman skulks through. Her hair is pulled tightly back into a strict, shiny ponytail. Her leather lace-up boots are equally as oil-slicked, snaking their way up her thighs. A second-skin corset cinches her waist, as hips move rhythmically from side to side. A peeked military cap – recalling scenes of Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter – makes her seem disciplined and in control, as she keeps her gaze firmly fixed forward. In what could easily be mistaken as an entrance into the Torture Garden - London’s infamous fetish club – is in fact a model walking in Louis Vuitton’s recent Fall show. Vuitton, though, was far from alone – this once shaded subculture is fast permeating the mainstream.

“It is all about fetish, and an unexplainable obsession with things,” Marc Jacobs says of the inspiration behind Louis Vuitton’s Fall 2011 collection. “Whether it is for a handbag or fashion, it is about passion, something much more positive than a craze for something.” This notion of fetish for fashion is certainly not a new one. Coveting is no craze. Be it the neighbour’s wife or the latest Celine offering, it’s a sin most consumers are guilty of.  Yet while those deeply ingrained in fetish culture will testify that the desire for a particular object must satisfy a sexual need for it to be labelled a ‘fetish’, many in fashion might suggest otherwise.

Sigmund Freud attributes fetishism as predominately a male condition, where the “horror of castration sets up a sort of permanent memorial to itself by creating this substitute.” The substitute can take the form of any object - high-heeled shoes, sheer stockings or otherwise. This theory, however, remains highly debatable and the specific origins of fetishism remain speckled; from Chinese foot binding in the Tang Dynasty to the work of Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (who fortuitously introduced the premise for S&M in his 1870 novella Venus in Furs – a tale of a man worshipping a woman despite - and because of - the cruel and humiliating conditions she subjects him to).

While the psychology and origins of fetish prove varied, the fashion on the other hand, can be traced back to specific sources. In recent decades the fetishizing of certain fashion items – leather, heels, corsets and uniforms to name a few - has not only come to prominence through certain designers (Mugler, McQueen Westwood, Gaultier), but also social and cultural movements. Michelle Pfeiffer in a stitched-up cat suit pays homage to her predecessor, actress Dianna Rigg, - who plays a leather-clad Emma Peel in the 1960s show The Avengers. Similarly, it can be said that every time pop star Rhianna parades on stage in bondage gear, she references 50s pin-up model Bettie Page

Dita Von Teese, famed burlesque performer and fellow fetish enthusiast, has been a longtime admirer of Bettie Page. She tells me: “The first people to become burlesque fans were the fetish fans, people who actually knew who Bettie Page was long before E Channel documentaries. Bettie has had fans through the 60s, 70s and 80s. It’s just that it was more underground then, and I can tell you for sure that my very first fans were fetishists.

“I think that the appeal of both fetish and burlesque has much to do with the exaggeration of the female form, opulence and extravagance,” Von Teese continues. “I love dressed up sex, exotic, but with this haute-couture feel, like a Helmut Newton scene. For me, fetishism is really that. It becomes so beautiful when you combine the perverse with high-glamour… the degree of sex or nudity you actually show cannot equate to the level of elegance. One can be almost entirely nude, in a glamorous yet risqué predicament, yet still have more class than a fully-dressed Jersey Shore cast member.”

While Bettie Page brought her cheeky fetishism to the conservative forefront of the 1950s, it would be years later that a British designer would tune into the subversive zeitgeist of the 70s to unveil a new manifestation of fetish fashion. Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McClaren’s ‘Sex’ store on London’s Kings Road was iconic in the fetish world during the early 70s. Initially catering to prostitutes and misfits, Westwood and McClaren’s creations would subsequently adorn the backs of The Sex Pistols (whom McClaren managed at the time) and influence a generation of defiant youths. Bondage gear, studding, spiked collars and latex would eventually become perennial to any punk’s wardrobe. 

Dennis Morris - a photographer who spent a lot of time with Westwood and McClaren during the ‘Sex’ shop days and who was given unrestricted access to photograph the Sex Pistols on tour – looks fondly upon this era. “The Sex store was chaotic, anarchic but brilliant,” he reminisces. “It was for likeminded people - it was shocking for someone on the outside. You might feel like a naughty schoolboy and schoolgirl looking at dirty pictures, but that was the beauty.”

Unlike many fashion trends, it is clear that punk fashion had a cause and catalyst. A rebellious spirit sparked the adoption of fetish wear.  “We were the new kings and queens and gods,” Morris says of the punk movement. “England was going through a depressive period, economically and socially and something had to happen. We wanted more than what our parents wanted. We came out of the 60s and felt like we weren’t offered what we were promised. Fetishism is freedom. You express yourself openly and punk is the same. It comes from the same mindset. It’s about not suppressing anything and expressing yourself however that may be.”

For decades later, many figures would follow in Westwood’s path, shining a light on the world of fetish through their work. During the 80s Thierry Mugler sculpted the female form in rubber, plexiglass and chrome, adding a touch of sci-fi and fantasy to the erotic. Revered photographer Helmet Newton captured our imaginations through sexual but sophisticated images. Meanwhile Jean Paul Gaultier would redefine the trend of innerwear worn as outerwear through his masterful corsetry work. As such, Gaultier was commissioned to produce costumes for Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, giving us that conical bra. He tells Lynn Hirschberg in a 2001 The New York Times interview: “When I was a child, my grandmother took me to an exhibition, and they had a corset on display. I loved the flesh colour, the salmon satin, the lace. She explained that a corset was meant to help you, to make you stand up. It was a solution that I thought was beautiful. The gold conical bra was just an extension of that idea.”

Some die-hard fetishists may feel exploited by elements of their obsessions weaving its way into mainstream fashion. However it is evident that the exposure designers, stylists and photographers have illuminated onto fetish has helped facilitate acceptance for this once misunderstood subculture. “Thierry Mugler infused fetish into his work, and Madonna into hers” Von Teese says. “But they were in it, they went into the real fetish scene, they didn’t just send stylists in there to check it out.  That’s why their work was so slick and good!”

Fast-forward to the present and fetish can be seen as a key trend this season. Along with Louis Vuitton’s show, other designers such Giles, Mark Fast and Alexander McQueen also portrayed facets of fetish in their collections. Sheer panels, uniforms, PVC and bondage structures all made an appearance on the runway. “We looked at the clichés of kinky fetish things,” Jacobs says. “The symbols that are attached to those clichés and we incorporated these in prints and embroidery; a high heel, a glove, a mask. We also looked at clothes and accessories associated with uniform fetishes, like riding trousers, a military cap, an admiral’s cap.”

For Marc Jacobs, it was not just about the clichés; his clever take on fetish delves deeper into the mindset of obsession as he relates it back to the commodity of fashion. “Fetish has a positive side,” he says. “It’s an inexplicable or unexplainable sort of concentration on or obsession with something. I think that also means commitment, it means discipline.  You can talk about sexual fetish, but you can also talk about the fetish of dying to have a bag or new shoes or a new dress. I think instead of thinking of it as a dirty thing, it’s really a very beautiful thing.”

Von Teese, on the other hand, does not really subscribe to this idea. “I think the word fetish is used to loosely,” she defends. “Do I have a fetish for digging my 7-inch unwalkable Louboutin stilettos on my lover’s chest? Yes. Do I have a fetish for buying the latest It bag? No. Because that’s an improper use of the word ‘fetish’ - the mainstream use of the word, if you will. If someone can actually have an orgasm - without self-stimulation - while handing over their credit card to buy that bag, well, that’s having a real fetish. And I would like to see that.”

For most, an obsession with fashion is rarely sexual.  However Jacobs argues that it extends beyond just an obsession, requiring unyielding discipline and devotion. In his eyes, a fetish can be something that holds an extraordinary bond, no matter what the nature. “We are all so obsessed with fashion that we have given our lives to it,” he says. “This is what our job is. We are in the office seven days a week, sometimes 24 hours a day. If I had an obsession with racing cars, I would be a racing car driver. Or if I were obsessed with horses, I’d be a jockey.  It’s a very unusual version of a passion, it’s beyond commitment. It requires such dedication and such devotion - I think that’s what a fetish is.”

Original article was published in RUSSH Magazine issue 42.