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The evolution of fetish in high fashion

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Leather gear, jockstraps, bandanas, and latex. Garments that were only seen in the queer community’s underbelly have now crept their way onto the runways of New York, London, Milan, and Paris. Fashion can be painful, but why are these designers turning into full-fledged sadomasochists? Is it because the fashion industry has a bad reputation for appropriating every culture they see, or maybe is it because queer sex is painfully chic? For the industry’s sake, let’s hope it is the latter. 

The gay leather scene dates back to the 1940s but really started breaking ground (or skin) in the 1960s thanks to Touko Laaksonen, the Finnish artist known as Tom of Finland. Tom’s homoerotic drawings depicted hypermasculine men in leather jackets and caps. As Tom’s drawings spread across the globe, queer men started dressing like his characters. Queer underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger debuted his now iconic film, Scorpio Rising, in 1963. The experimental film combined homoerotic scenes of bikers with the occult. In the 1970s and 1980s, the hanky code was created as a secret code to signify a fetish. For instance, a black bandana worn on the left meant you were a heavy S&M top, whereas a black bandana worn on the right meant you were a heavy S&M bottom. Our underground kink community would become public when it hit the streets in 1984 with the BDSM street fair, known as the Folsom Street Fair. Now that you know your history, let’s get into the fashion.

Versace

Gianni Versace was one of the first designers to bridge the gap between fetish and fashion with his FW92 collection titled “Miss S and M.” Versace shocked the fashion industry when models walked down the runway in dresses adorned with harnesses and straps. To this day, the “Miss S and M” designs are some of Versace’s most highly coveted pieces. This wouldn’t be the only time that Versace referenced fetish wear. For their FW14 menswear collection, Donatella Versace sent male models out in leather jackets and chaps, studded codpieces, and bandana-printed briefs. It should be noted that the bandanas were in blue, white, black, and brown. I will let you look at the hanky code to see what the Versace models are into. 

Moschino 

Some designers make subtle hints and nods with their references, but Jeremy Scott is not one of those designers. Scott put on a hypersexual spectacle with his FW18 menswear show for Moschino. Designs consisted of sartorial tailoring styled with gimp masks and latex. One model looked as if he had jumped straight out of a Tom of Finland drawing, clad in a leather jacket and pants that were restricted with cuffs and locks. Models in latex catsuits and briefs were styled with harnesses and fisting gloves. This collection was a tour de force of fetishistic fashion. 

Thom Browne

Thom Browne is known for his gray and tweed tailoring. So when he presented his SS23 menswear collection with short skimpy skirts and exposed jock straps, it had the fashion conservatives grabbing at their pearls. Models had anchor motifs on their coats, as well as anchors falling over their faces. Sailors are often synonymous with homoeroticism. Take Jean Genet’s novel titled Querelle of Brest (1947), for instance. The story follows Querelle, a homicidal queer sailor, as he explores his sexual identity. Browne’s closing look was the pièce de résistance: a model dressed as a tweed cowboy danced down the runway with tweed chaps and a tweed codpiece with a Prince Albert piercing dangling from the end in the shape of an anchor. It doesn’t get any gayer than this.

Rick Owens 

It should come as no surprise to anyone that fashion’s Prince of Darkness, Rick Owens, is amongst this list of designers. Owens has been very public about being queer and growing up on the fringes of the queer underground, so he never shies away from pulling inspiration from the underground. His FW24 menswear collection was an intimate gathering held in his house in Paris. The show opened with Owens’ protégé, Tyrone Dylan, sporting inflatable latex boots. For a handful of looks, Owens collaborated with Parisian rubber courtier and member of the BDSM community, Matisse Di Maggio. Di Maggio is known for their fetish couture created with recycled rubber. Di Maggio created beautiful coats for this collection using discarded bicycle tires. 

Ludovic de Saint Sernin

In February, Ludovic de Saint Sernin made his New York Fashion Week debut. The collection was created in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Robert Mapplethorpe was a brilliant photographer who was famous for his extreme black-and-white photographs. Mapplethorpe’s subjects varied from flowers to members of the queer BDSM scene in New York City. In his collection, De Saint Sernin highlighted Mapplethorpe’s incredible range, with designs featuring his floral photographs as well as looks celebrating the fetishistic. Look 25 consisted of a model in a full leather ensemble with a red leather bandana in his back pocket, which is hanky code for fisting. Models in leather face masks, assless briefs, and laced-up dresses dominated the runway, turning the kink all the way up. 

What was once seen as seedy and obscene is now trendy and provocative. In fashion, looks and trends come and go, but unlike fashion trends, this part of queer culture and history will never be démodé. Fetish gear is visually striking, but it stands for so much more than aesthetics for those of us who are queer. When a designer has no ties to these queer subcultures, it can become a problem. But when a designer is queer and digging into their culture and history, it is beautiful to share that with the world through fashion and art.

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