From little black dresses and stilettos to chokers and chains, sex and secrecy are always in vogue; It's no surprise that the visually and materially stimulating fashion world encourages a sensual, even titillating gaze. Clothing fetishism is characterized as an erotic reaction to certain fabrics, like leather and lace. And while fetish fashion is typically associated with BDSM garb, a similar sartorial excitement tends to trickle down to the mainstream fashion world. Going off of that notion, is all of fashion fetish-oriented?
While some fashion experts credit the rise to the gay underground leather community in Post-World War II London, the public adoption of fetish fashion first occurred via unruly rock n’ roll musicians and latex-clad TV superheroes in the ‘60s and ‘70s—think Alice Cooper and Wonder Woman. The punk subculture that grew out of the ‘70s, epitomized by bands like the Sex Pistols, used BDSM themeology as its lifeblood. Vivienne Westwood absorbed it as inspiration for sexually-charged, bondage-laden, punk rock collections. By embracing counter-culture and fusing fashion with music, art, and sex, Westwood shaped the ‘70s scene and revolutionized fashion for generations to come.
Fast-forward to the underwear-as-outerwear movement that dominated the ‘80s, crystallized in the iconic Jean-Paul Gaultier cone-bra, worn by Madonna during her Blond Ambition tour in 1990. Beyond that piece, Gaultier was a guiding force in bridging the fetish world with haute couture—experimenting with rubber and latex, corsets and bodysuits, nylon tops meant to mimic tattooed skin. He evoked questions regarding sex and gender with skirts designed for men and looks that boasted unabashed eroticism. This push towards social progress remains a big part of fetish wear today. “There is a global power struggle tied to topics like gender, race, and religion. Everyone is fighting to harness control and be heard,” Habana notes. “Fetish culture is all about power roles, whether it’s being fiercely dominant or willingly submissive, and I think the fashion world sees that as the perfect metaphor for what we’re going through.”
Fetish wear can be used as a rejection of established power structures and as a form of empowerment. Mainstream fashion has likewise challenged the existing power structure; for years female fashion focused on presenting women in accordance with the male gaze. Common fashion practices have shifted with an effort to subvert the male-dominated power system, most notably with the debut of pantsuits in womenswear during the ‘70s. The powerful style saw a pointed evolution in the ‘80s with broad padded shoulders that teased a masculine silhouette. Today’s more sexually amorphous, gender-neutral fashions share the stage with fetish fashion in that they subvert preconceived gender and power dynamics. Fetish fashion and mainstream fashion aren't twins, but they’re certainly siblings; both of their trajectories have been informed by rebellion against existing power structures.
There’s a common and powerful theme in BDSM culture of subverting gender roles and not complying with how you're expected to behave or dress.
Along with high fashion houses like Moschino, many fetish-specific fashion designers are currently gaining traction through mainstream pop-culture. Zana Bayne, a New York City-based “post-fetish leather brand,” have outfitted the likes of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga in their signature S&M-inspired pieces. Chart-topping artist Cardi B wore a custom crystal-and-PVC piece by Creepyyeha, an avante-garde fetish-inspired lingerie company, in her most recent music video for “Bartier Cardi.” Just last year, Kim Kardashian sported a dress by specialty latex designer Atsuko Kudo. And while fetish has always influenced fashion, social media sees the trend gaining even more interest—Instagram tweens are wearing dog collars and fishnets under their jeans. Kylie Jenner shared countless selfies wearing corseted t-shirts with thigh-high boots and no sooner did the look hit Forever 21s and Urban Outfitters everywhere. The digitally-spawned case of ‘90s nostalgia brought out chain belts and chokers, reminiscent of the era’s goth and punk subcultures.
The recent workwear and military-inspired fad—overalls, carabiner keychains, work boots, bomber jackets, camouflage pants—could be a more subtle instance of fetish within fashion, perhaps even a light version of cosplay for the mainstream. “Men in uniform” has often been a term used to describe the fetishization of blue collar workers. Newly established brands like Peels stylize work shirts into customized crop tops and casual button-ups. The well-known workwear brand Carhartt has also gained popularity in recent years, collaborating with streetwear companies like Supreme and luxury fashion brands like Commes Des Garcons and Vetements. All this begs the question, can fashion fetishize anything? Tim Woodward, the founder and publisher of the contemporary fetish magazine Skin Two, concurs, “Fashion will always search for any look to exploit, be it cowboys, Roman Gladiators, Scottish tartan or whatever. The different looks come around in rotation, usually altered just a bit each time, to make it seem new.”
But is fetish-inspired fashion appropriating BDSM and kink culture? According to Mistress Velvet, a professional dominatrix, the answer is "yes." She argues, “Fashion designers who steal these fashion trends from spaces that they are not a part of, in order to make profit, are absolutely appropriating the culture. And while that could bring more visibility, I’m wary of its roots in appropriation. It would be really dope though if, for instance, a kinkster of Color became a fashion designer and was showing off these trends. It allows someone from the community to contribute to our visibility and allows us to speak for ourselves, as opposed to being spoken of.”
Many fetish retailers and designers, like The Baroness and Chris Habana, find this new appreciation of fetish fashion to be a positive influence, as it spreads awareness of BDSM culture and helps their businesses. Master Dominic asserts, “Sex and fetish are universal; none of us own it. It's not an inherited culture and we're not a section of society that has been systematically murdered or colonised. It's people into wearing latex and getting their asses slapped.” He adds, “There's a degree of secrecy in the BDSM community, but I don't agree with people who claim cultural appropriation over something which is almost impossible to assign ownership of. You might see an Alexander McQueen outfit which is clearly fetish-inspired being worn by a woman out to dinner and assume she's 'appropriating kink culture,' but how do you know she isn't into having her nipples set on fire in her private life?”