Move over Playboy, sex as a fashion statement has gone mainstream, in fact some might argue it’s become conventional with seemingly every major, and minor, celebrity getting in on the action. No longer confined to dirty magazines and lewd Paris Hilton style boudoir tapes, sex is being used to sell everything from fashion, film and art to music – and this is nothing new, writes Indigo Clarke
For decades rock and pop stars have used risqué fashion to sell records – Elvis terrified the oldies in the 50s wearing drainpipe jeans to set off his alarmingly suggestive swagger, Jim Morrisson won the girls over with spray-on leather trousers tussled hair and sullen gaze in the 60s, Glam rocking all-girl band The Runaways singer Cherie “Cherry Bomb” Currie rocked the crowds in nothing but raunchy lingerie in the 70s and Madonna got her point across with conical brassiere and enduring obsession with all things erotic from the 80s through to today. And now, a new league of pop stars are unleashing the power of fetish fashion – and it seems the look’s got legs.
Queens of pop, and influential trend setters, Lady Gaga, Rhianna, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and even pre-pubescent singer Willow Smith are getting their fetish on, sporting harnesses and fetish-inspired pieces by designers including Bliss Lau and Zana Bayne, the latter of which says she is currently experimenting with "the extremes of what a harness can be.” Even our very own high-street favourite Topshop is mass-producing these fetish-inspired accessories, but contrary to popular belief, this is all rather old-hat – Vivienne Westwood was perfecting her Victoriana-meets-bondage wear back in the late 70s when it really was underground and taboo. Westwood’s London boutique, co-owned by music maven Malcolm McLaren, was straight-forwardly called SEX (an ingenious way to capitalize on the punk-shock value of the wares within). Actual bondage and fetish gear was on sale, as well as preliminary Westwood designs, snapped up by their subversive punk patrons – the most famous of which were Seminal punk band, The Sex Pistols, a group helmed by the legendary Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious and born out of their affiliation with the store, the band name itself serving initially as a guerilla rock’n’roll advertisement.
Westwood’s deft reworking of the Victorian corset and severe bodice was revolutionary – to reference the Victorian age, an era of repression and perpetual mourning, and sex it up with suggestive flashes of skin, high hemlines and daring necklines was something that had not been seen outside of the realms of pornography. And it wasn’t just rebellious punks buying into the provocative attire – Westwood’s unique aesthetic found willing audiences worldwide over in the decades to follow, and ignited an ongoing trend starting on the street with gritty, style-savvy punk youth like Sid Vicious, John Lydon and Siouxsie Sioux and soon moving into the league of couture. By the mid 80s, high fashion was fetish all over, advertising and magazine shoots were rife with severe tailoring and sleek, synthetic materials designed to appear as a second skin – just look at the audacious silhouettes of influential designers Christian Lacroix and Thierry Mugler. Not only did Mugler craft much of his architectural and severe creations in glistening skin-tight PVC and latex, but following Westwood’s lead yanked the strict, bodice-busting Victorian corset out of the museum, and into popular 80s fashion. Avant-garde designer Jean Paul Gaultier was, and still is, a key player in the fetish game – his underwear-as-outerwear corset looks, also taking direction from the staunch Victorian age but with a knowingly risqué Parisian touch, were era defining – he even wound up with the ribald nicknames, ‘Prince of Perversity’ and ‘Enfant Terrible’. Through the decades, Gaultier’s racy looks have been seen on countless pop-stars – Madonna’s booming pointy bras in her late 80s heyday were unforgettable, Kylie Minogue followed suit in the 90s and now Lady Gaga is on board – even collaborating with Gaultier himself.
In the late 90s, Tom Ford invested Gucci, a label that had become a little humdrum, with high-octane Hollywood glamour, sex appeal and all-out hedonism. Ford’s name is practically synonymous with sex following his shockingly overt advertising campaigns for Gucci, YSL and his eponymous line – who could forget the ad featuring a naked model with perfume bottle positioned between her legs, or the Gucci logo making for an interesting bikini wax-job, and Sophie Dahl naked in apparent throes of ecstacy over YSL’s Opium parfum. Ford’s suggestive campaigns and flesh-baring designs were one thing, the launch of patently fetish items including sterling-silver handcuffs and leather 'spanking’ straps, all stamped with the Gucci seal of approval, were quite another – sexual innuendo had made way for overt crudity.
In the 90s, following designers like Tom Ford’s lead, fetish-inspired products and advertising, though scandalous to a degree, were becoming increasingly acceptable. In this mood, Agent Provocateur launched in 1994, co-founded by none other than Vivienne Westwood’s son, Joseph Corré. Renowned as much for sexy lingerie as salacious marketing, Agent Provocateur well and truly lived up to its name with brazen commercials, one featuring Kylie Minogue in underwear riding a mechanical bull, and numerous campaigns with Kate Moss – one famously decreeing, ‘Let Them Eat Kate’. With each passing season, endless contemporary collections crop up featuring throwbacks to fetish and underwear, most notably Ohne Titel with their killer, ultra-sleek neo-prene confections, punk rocking designer Jeremy Scott playing up to his bad-boy reputation with rainbow hued and transparent pink-inspired PVC garments, and Joseph Altuzarra – who wore his inspirations on his sleeve with a recent collection blatently inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, featuring Catwoman-like latex cat suits stalking the catwalk.
Michelle Pfeiffer’s kick-ass Catwoman in Batman Returns was just one of many fetish and bondage clad film heroines, an early example was Elvira – the Betty-page inspired goth-bombshell of numerous b-grade 50s feature films. Jane Fonda was insanely hot as ‘Barbarella’ in the 60s, donning future-fetish leotards and bodysuits by designer Paco Rabanne. The unforgettable Rocky Horror Picture Show introduced the world’s most loveable ‘sweet transvestite’ in the late 70s, his penchant for sex-games, bondage and underwear making for the downfall of his unsuspecting stitched-up guests. The action hasn’t stayed put just on the screen either, of late, fetish clubs and burlesque shows in cities including London, New York and Paris are finding popularity among forward-thinking fashionistas. In London, risqué cabaret club, The Box (initially only a NY establishment) is the place to be seen – and to see some pretty downright kinky acts, avant-garde magazines including AnOther have been known to throw parties there – London’s Torture Garden, The Last Tuesday Society and Kink Cherry are also havens where fetish and high-fashion meet.
As if we were ever in danger of forgetting, leading designers are reminding us over and over again that sex sells, and who’s to blame them when we’re all buying. So play nice with your new-found sartorial fetish favourites, but be careful with those harnesses and handcuffs – it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, or worse, commits a fashion faux-pas.
Quote on Contributors page: "Sex and Fashion have such an intrinsic and symbiotic connection, and it was fascinating to chart a short history of the relationship for this piece - especially looking back on the London punk era, I've always loved Vivienne Westwood and the Sex Pistols!" Indigo Clarke