In control: why fetish fashion has returned
This week, 40 plus years after Vivienne Westwood first opened her SEX boutique, Kim Kardashian and Madonna have both shocked with fetish-leaning outfits. Madonna appeared at the MTV VMAs dressed in an Atsuko Kudo latex ensemble, leather gloves and cap, while Kardashian wore a face-obscuring, all-black Balenciaga look at the Met Gala (an intentional nod to Kanye West’s recent style). At the same event, Gossip Girl actor Evan Mock wore a studded gimp mask from Thom Browne. So why have these niche outfits gone mainstream?
“The re-emergence of fetish fashion is in part a reaction to lockdown,” says Professor Andrew Groves who curated Undercover, an exhibition which looked back at pandemic mask wearing in public spaces. “For the last 18 months, we’ve all been in a strange BDSM relationship with the government,” he says, “which has controlled our bodies, forcing us to wear masks and told us who we can kiss or touch. Adopting fetish clothing as fashion can be interpreted as a desire to switch the relationship, take back control and show them who is really in charge.”
The spectre of fetish fashion has been part of our modern visual vocabulary, whether that’s the outfits in WAP or Billie Eilish’s March Vogue cover. Groves believes our continuous exposure to such items make them less shocking.
“[Their] meaning is diluted,” he says, singling out 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 force has been weakened as a result of its unending dissemination.”