This week, more than 40 years after Vivienne Westwood first opened her SEX store, Kim Kardashian and Madonna were both shocked by some fetish-leaning outfits. Madonna appeared at the MTV VMAs wearing an Atsuko Kudo latex ensemble, leather gloves and a cap, while Kardashian wore an all-black Balenciaga look that hides the face at the Met Gala (an intentional nod to the recent style by Kanye West). At the same event, Gossip Girl actor Evan Mock wore a studded gimp mask by Thom Browne. So why have these niche outfits become mainstream?
Historically, fetish clothing has come to light after economic downturns or major events, such as World Wars I and II, and Lou Austin, co-owner of fetish site MegaPleasure, believes it is linked to collective trauma. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this pandemic triggers a resurgence of the wearing of masks both in bedrooms and on the runways as a nod to the shared tedious trauma we have all experienced over the past year,” she says.
“The re-emergence of fetish fashion is in part a reaction to the lockdown,” says Professor Andrew Groves, who curated Undercover, an exhibit that revisited the wearing of pandemic masks in public spaces. “Over the past 18 months we’ve all been in a weird BDSM relationship with the government,” he says, “that has controlled our bodies, forcing us to wear masks and telling us who we can kiss or touch. Adopting fetish clothing as a fashion can be interpreted as a desire to change relationships, take back control and show them who is really in charge.
The term “party” was first defined by the French writer Nicolas Edme Restif de la Bretonne in the 18th century. “(It) became popular in the 1920s with French company Yva Richard selling hats, lingerie and shoes,” says Jennifer Richards, a tutor at the Royal College of Art. “They were also known for their creation of a studded steel tapered bra,” she says, a precursor to the Jean Paul Gaultier tapered bra made famous by Madonna. Richards adds that the work of fashion designer Rudi Gernreich in the 1960s had a great influence on designers such as Helmut Lang who popularized the fetish look. “Gernreich’s work was a reaction to the overt sexualization of the body at the time,” she says, “he sought to remove the stigma of shame and embrace the body as a whole.”
The specter of fetish fashion is part of our modern visual vocabulary, whether it’s WAP outfits or Billie Eilish’s March Vogue cover. Groves believes that our continued exposure to such objects makes them less shocking. “[Their] the meaning is diluted, ”he said, pointing to the gimp mask. “[Its] passage from fetish to fashion object by Westwood in the 1970s, then reinterpreted by [fashion designer] Margiela in the 1990s and now worn by illustrious Kanye West [that] its strength has weakened due to its endless dissemination.
Yet Richards believes there is an important message to be taken from wearing these clothes. “These clothes have enabled both transformation and empowerment,” she says. “If we go back to Freud’s original theory, then fetishism is about control. In an age where we try to be more open and transparent around sex, these clothes can be a way to start taking back control for ourselves.