This week, more than 40 years after Vivienne Westwood first opened her SEX boutique, Kim Kardashian and Madonna were stunned with fetish trending outfits. Madonna appeared at the MTV VMAs dressed in an Atsuko Kudo latex ensemble, leather gloves and a cap, while Kardashian sported a black Balenciaga look that darkened her face at the Met Gala (an intentional nod to Kanye West’s recent style). At the same event, Gossip Girl actor Evan Mock wore a Thom Browne studded gimp mask. So why have these niche outfits become mainstream?
Historically, fetish clothing has emerged in the light of day after economic recessions or major events, such as WWI and WWII, 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 mask use in both bedrooms and on the catwalks as a nod to the tedious shared trauma we’ve all been experiencing for the past year,” he says.
“The resurgence of fetish fashion is in part a reaction to confinement,” says Professor Andrew Groves, curator of Undercover, an exhibition that looks at the use of pandemic masks in public spaces. “For the last 18 months, we’ve all been in a strange BDSM relationship with the government,” he says, “that has controlled our bodies, forcing us to wear masks and has told us who we can kiss or touch. Adopting fetish clothing as fashion can be interpreted as a desire to change the relationship, regain control, and show them who is really in charge. “
The term “festish” was first defined by the French author Nicolas Edme Restif de la Bretonne in the 18th century. “It became popular in the 1920s with the French company Yva Richard that sold hats, lingerie and shoes,” explains Jennifer Richards, a tutor at the Royal College of Art. “They were also known for creating a steel cone bra with studs, “she says, a forerunner of the Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra that Madonna made famous. Richards adds that the work of fashion designer Rudi Gernreich in the 1960s was highly influential on designers like Helmut Lang, who popularized the fetish look. “Gernreich’s work was a reaction to the overt sexualization of the body of the time,” he says, “it sought to remove the stigma of shame and embrace the body in its entirety.”
The spectrum of fetish fashion has been a part of our modern visual vocabulary, be it the outfits of WAP or the cover of Billie Eilish’s March Vogue. Groves believes that our continued exposure to these items makes them less impactful. “[Their] the meaning is diluted, ”he says, highlighting the gimp mask. “[Its] progression from fetish to fashion object by Westwood in the 1970s, then reinterpreted by [fashion designer] Margiela in the 1990s and now worn by Kanye West exemplifies [that] its strength has weakened as a result of its incessant diffusion. “
Still, Richards believes there is an important message to take away from wearing these clothes. “These garments allowed for both transformation and empowerment,” she says. “If we look back at Freud’s original theory, then fetishism is about control. At a time when we are trying to be more open and transparent about sex, these clothes can be a way to start to regain control for ourselves. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism