Fashion 101: History of Fetish Fashion - Part 1
- BY: MELISSA LOMBARDO
- Jul. 27, 2015
Fashion and fetish clothing have always gone hand in hand, evolving through the years together. Designers have often taken inspiration from the kink subculture, especially from fabrics. Back in the day, materials reserved for kink were items of luxury and wealth - furs, satins, silks and the like. Since the early 1900s when the rubberised Mackintosh coat made its first appearance, materials such as rubber, latex, and leather became icons of fetish. Leather has become commonplace in fashion, while rubber and latex have been used by a plethora of designers, from the reliably outrageous Thierry Mugler (pictured below is his 1997 insect collection), all the way to polished and refined Oscar de la Renta in his 2013 Spring/Summer RTW show.
Fetish is not necessarily about the person wearing the clothing, but about the clothing itself. While clothing tends to exacerbate sexual power plays, the fetish community’s mantra is ‘safe, sane, and consensual’. There are arguments of ‘fetish fashion as exploitative and misogynistic’ writes Valerie Steele in her book Fetish – Fashion, Sex, and Power (Oxford University Press, 1996), though Steele disproves this argument as she explores the ‘cultural construction of sexuality.’
Corsets have always been a large part of fetish clothing, and have had a long history of their own. The term ‘corset’ only came into use around the 19th century, before which they were referred to as ‘stays’. The origins of the corset are not entirely known, though it is estimated that stiffened bodices were worn as early as the 16th century, judging by the shape of ladies torsos in early portraits. Corset shapes changed over time to reflect the fashionable dress of the day, and it is not until the 1800’s that the typical hourglass shape and lacing structure we know today emerged.
From the middle of the century, new patterns emerged and corsets were made with elegant lines, gorgeous fabrics, and beautiful decorations despite being hidden beneath layers of crinolines. It is possibly around this time that corsets became a fetish item, though it is difficult to estimate as sex was tremendously taboo, and there are simply too few records of such things. French author Marquis de Sade wrote several novels and short stories with a violent view of sexual fantasy and was imprisoned for his writings, which have consequently caused a divided view of him as either a revolutionary libertine or repulsive pervert.
Around the 1890’s, tight-lacing (a fetish in itself) became so popular that physicians warned against corsets altogether, so a new style of corset emerged, which was ultimately worse for wearers health. The boyish silhouette of the 1920’s meant that the corset had given way to a girdle and bra combination, and it is not until Dior’s New Style in 1947 that the corset makes its return.
During the 20’s leather was introduced into fashion, heavily influenced by aviator Charles Lindbergh’s jacket, and later by Amelia Earhart. The popularity of leather increased both in fashion and in the world of kink, and eventually fetish made its way off the runways and into popular culture during the 60’s. Television show The Avengers features several lead actresses, notably Dianna Riggs as Emma Peel in her trademark catsuit, as well as several other leather and PVC pieces throughout the series’. Later, costumes were designed by Pierre Cardin.
An episode was actually banned in America as Riggs costume of a whalebone corset, spiked collar, and high-laced boots was considered too kinky. The Avengers: The Inside Story written by Patrick Macnee with Dave Rogers (Titan Books, 2008) contains a description of Rigg as “a strikingly clad Queen of Sin”. The show was incredibly ahead of its time, with all of its female leads not only kinkily dressed, but possessing a hitherto unseen depth of character.
Continue: Part 2