The Difference between Colorforms and Patent Leather
“But little girls don’t wear black.”
I’m five years old; I don’t know what ageism is, but I know it when I hear it. I don’t know what a sit-in is either, but I’m staging one (it is the late ’60 s after all). I’ve holed up under the dining room table and refused to come out until it is agreed that I will get black patent leather shoes for the holiday.
“It’s Easter, fercrissakes,” my mother says. “No one wears black for Easter. And besides, little girls don’t wear black. Black is for old ladies. You want to look like an old lady?”
She’s shot herself in the foot there. I already have a black dress. She bought it for me. Now I must have the shoes: They’re shiny, just like my Raggedy Ann Colorforms. I’ve recently learned the shoe material is called “patent leather,” and go around saying it in one of those odious loops that kids get into. Finally she agrees that I can have them but only in white.
This is the end of the world. Not only am I being denied the shoes, but now I’m being threatened with having to wear some ridiculous clodhoppers even Raggedy Ann wouldn’t wear (Raggedy Ann has black shoes). Your socks are white. If you wear white shoes they might as well be clear. And they don’t shine, not like the black ones do. I would rather stay under the table for life than wear white shoes or be in the company of people who prefer them.
My mother is a worthy opponent but I win this particular struggle for dominance. Not only do I get my black patent leather Mary Janes, but 40 years later I still have a pair. These have four-inch stacked heels, but they’re basically the same shoe, black as midnight and shiny as a lighthouse beacon. I also have five-inch fetish heels and black thigh-high PVC lace up stiletto boots.
And I’m still right about white shoes.
The Other S&M
I’d forgotten about that story until a wave of fetish-y fashion came into the mainstream marketplace—corset tops, spandex leggings and shoes that would be at home on Betty Page, all of which made me think about my own attachment to the severely sexy. Various incarnations of fetishwear hit the catwalk every few years, so it’s not like this stuff has never come out of the closet…or the dungeon.
This go-round, though, made me feel weirdly proprietary and possessive; a “Dammit, this is my thing,” feeling, when the truth is that it isn’t even my thing at all. I don’t go to fetish parties or participate in an S&M lifestyle beyond the odd dabblers’ foray into fuzzy handcuffs and blindfolds. I like dressing the part, but I have yet to feel the need to actually do a performance.
Does this, I had to ask myself, put me on a par with people who wear T-shirts proclaiming loyalty to colleges, ski lodges and hotels to which they’ve never been? Does loving the look of fetish but not participating in what seem to me like its attendant activities make me a total fucking poseur?
“You don’t need to be in a lifestyle. S&M is a lifestyle. Fetish you can do on your own—you don’t even have to let anybody know, depending on what your fetish is,” says The Baroness, a pre-eminent fetish designer whose philosophy is, “Every occasion to dress is an occasion to overdress.” Lady Gaga and Cyndi Lauper will be wearing her latex in a MAC Cosmetics ad this year, and more than anyone I can think of, The Baroness’ work transcends perceptual boundaries one might put on fetish clothing, leaving in the sexiness but adding so much playfulness, art and imagination—mermaids and cowgirls and nuns, oh my!—that the standard stamps and stereotypes vanish like a puff of smoke.
A “latex evangelist,” The Baroness, who says she is in the lifestyle, also claims the longest running fetish parties in Manhattan and is largely happy to see fetish style come onto the wider fashion stage. “When I go to an event I want to see fabulous outfits and if I’m just walking down the street and see someone in latex pants and boots in the winter just hanging out it certainly thrills me,” she says.
One of her missions has been to bring color, better-fitting items and styles for older women into latex. It was all “black and red and small garments,” before she changed people’s perceptions: “I’m really the one who got latex into the mainstream.”
“That was really important for me— I want to see it outside and every one should wear it everyone should love it.” If you’ve been hesitant to wear latex because it can be difficult to get into, you’ll love her tips that lube can help you slide into latex as easily as it helps you slide into other places.
The fact that I equate fetishwear like latex and PVC with a lifestyle, specifically BDSM, isn’t surprising, but the Baroness notes that a fetish doesn’t necessarily even have to be sexual. “Fetish is something that for you is imbued with something more.”
The origin of ‘fetish’ is something that has special magical powers,” the Baroness says, and according to Diciontary.com dates back to the early 17th century, from the Portuguese feitico meaning charm or sorcery, or artificial, and the Latin facticius. A fetish is something that bewitches us, that we find magically potent, to which we have untrammeled devotion.
You may remember the classic Trilogy of Terror, a ’70s horror film in which Karen Black is hunted down by a Zuni fetish doll. Reviewing a replica of the doll on his website, Michael Crawford describes it thus: “A fetish doll or carving is an object that the bearer believes harbors the spirit of someone or something, and provides special protections or assistance. They were often used for improving hunting or health, and made a connection between our world and the spirit world.” With a fetish, object, then, one feels transported or connected. It puts us in another mindset and that mindset need not be sexual. You could easily say some people have a fetish for Twilight or football or Star Trek.
“Now people think about it in terms of sexuality,” she says, “you need it for your sexual release.” It’s “something that gives you almost a sense of embarrassment because it’s so personal, if you were to see it out in public… you wouldn’t go “Oh, there it is,” you’d go “HUH!” she gasps. “And because it has a little thrill for you, you don’t need anybody,” so “you wouldn’t have to be in any lifestyle.” She equates solo enjoyment like mine to the way transvestites admire and touch themselves, just enjoying “how nice it feels to wear this silk, for example…and they are entirely alone.”
But what she soon diagnoses as my fetish—a fetish for the look—has an acronym all its own.
“It’s known as ‘Stand and Model’—the other S&M,” she says.
Titillation and the Look
http://www.chloebond.com/ |Chloe Bond] came into the world of fetish, not by predilection (at first), but by accident. While doing Playboy and other mainstream modeling work, Chloe and her husband/shooting partner Alec (fiancé at the time) learned about a Tampa fetish convention from a photographer and decided to go, albeit a bit tentatively, feeling like they would never fit in,” we worried that we would get there and everyone would be decked out in latex and leather, and we'd be the outcasts. Much to our surprise, it wasn’t like that at all,” she says and she found the fetish crowd to be “loving, open and friendly,” and totally non-judgmental of looks or kinks.
When they were approached about doing a bondage shoot, Chloe agreed and ended up loving it. She’s attended Fetish Con for three years now. “My husband and I have found ourselves in learning more about not only the industry, but the lifestyle.”
Chloe agrees that it’s the power in the clothing that I’m responding to; she loves the pin-up look and notes that her most sexy and empowering outfits she has are a “super hot leather under-bust corset that just screams: ‘I’m in charge!’ and “a costume I got for Halloween that looks very much like a dominatrix…I walk with a whole new swagger and have this new confidence about me.”
And that power of clothing transmits itself to the viewer.
“When you’re in England and you’re near the royal house and see somebody go by with a crown on, you’re going to react to the power of what that person is wearing,” says the Baroness. “There’s power in clothing.
“If you’re the only incredibly dressed person in a room, people will wonder, Who is that person? It must be somebody special because look how different that is from anything we’ve ever seen.”
And while people might be titillated by the dominatrix look, titillation is not her goal as a designer.
“I want your grandmother to see me dressed and say, ‘That is a lovely dress. What is that?’ And then we can talk about how she wore rubber girdles. I don’t know why I keep down the sexuality except that it’s so obvious.”
The Obvious Song
It’s obvious because, rightly or wrongly, people have come to associate certain materials with fetish, and fetish with BDSM. It’s all perception.
“People see a woman in stiletto high-heeled boots and think she’s a whore or a slut …others would just notice she has a Gucci handbag,” the Baroness says, bringing up the idea that it’s not just cultural perception, but personal perception. “The more that you as a wearer take it out into the mainstream…the more you are doing to make the image better,” so that “hidden” feeling is gone.
For Chloe, the look came first, but the lifestyle did follow it. It turned out, though, to be as much about bonding as about bondage.
“It started out just as a modeling thing, and as I met more people in the lifestyle and learned more, we found out there’s a lot more we’re interested in than we initially thought. It’s really just about giving new things a chance and trying them out. You might surprise yourself with what you like.” She and Alec participate in a monthly munch where like-minded kinksters have lunch, hang out and attend a local dungeon for a class in some kind of BDSM play. “I definitely love the clothes, but I think for me it’s not more about BDSM itself, and the family bond you get with other lifestylers. You never stop learning. That’s the best part.”
My own black-and-shiny seldom makes it out of the bedroom and into the streets for a variety of reasons—one of which is that, since everyone posts every breath they take on Twitter these days, having private pleasures has become more pleasurable than ever.
In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, artist Basil Hallward has something of a fetish for Dorian and refuses to divulge his identity, saying, “When I like people immensely I never tell their names to anyone. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us.”
I’m more a PVC/vinyl/spandex person—but there is one aspect of wearing latex in the presence of others that sounds like it would be an awful lot of fun, and that is the joy of having somebody shine you.
Latex, unlike PVC or vinyl, doesn’t start out shiny: it’s rubber so it’s got a duller finish until shined up. Latex, unlike PVC or vinyl, doesn’t start out shiny: it’s rubber so it’s got a duller finish until shined up. “When we make the clothes here,” The Baroness says, “you get the raw latex; it’s got powder on it, and it’s not very pretty so we shine it.” Some colors don’t benefit from the shine as much as others. For items, the Baroness uses Armor-All, which is effective and inexpensive and should be applied with a cloth. In a more sensual, sensory, one-on-one situation, if you’re shining clothes with people in them, you can use a lube and do it by hand. “Lube it’s ok to have it on your skin you don’t have to worry about it being near orifices,” (you can also use it to slide into a garment). Shining is something she teaches. “Some people are just abrupt when they touch you. When it’s a shining thing it’s more soft or strokey.” Basically it’s like getting a really great massage – there should be communication. It shouldn’t, she says, just be prefunctory.
“It’s a really great activity,” says The Baroness. “It makes you look better, it allows people to touch you if that’s what you want but you still have this layer of clothing on. When I teach people to shine, I’m very careful to teach them not to go near any of the naughty bits if someone you don’t know is touching you. Mostly I’m teaching about the time it takes. I want them to slow down time. It’s like hypnosis. If latex shining is done properly, it’s not so much like a massage as it is being a cat, having just been fed and sitting in warm pool of light and having your person pet you—that stroking, that calm.” The whole point is to induce that relaxation and it can only be done with slowness and sensitivity.
“A fetish slows down time for you so you can get lost in it.” This I can relate to. Powerfully.
“Everything is creamy,” she says, and her tone becomes creamy in talking about it: when you’re falling into the altered state of consciousness that sensuality inevitably brings on, that feeling that there is suddenly nothing in the world but you and your object of affection.
When she asks if I understand that moment, I say yes, I do. Actually I understand it about a lot of things. Confining myself to thoughts of My Dark Materials, though, I think, Yes, I can gaze at it like Narcissus at his own reflection. I may not wear them for weeks but the comfort the sight of them gives is inexpressible: Mine.
“Oh, you have a fetish,” she says when I tell her I get it. This isn’t in my notes – conversation with the Baroness gets a little intoxicating at times – but I remember her saying it. “You know when you said that you felt awkward?” she asks, referring to an earlier admission on my part that I get self-conscious when I wear my shiny publicly, even though I know it’s beautiful. “That’s one of the ways you would know.”
I feel like I’ve been diagnosed as a fetishist, and coming from the Baroness it feels like a coupe or a graduation. It doesn’t feel like a judgment. More like Dorothy getting the value of her own backyard, I have just finally recognized the significance of something that I’ve had all along.
I don’t know if it’s quite as strong as coming out of the closet. But now that I’ve looked at it, it’s definitely a matter that’s no longer under the table, anyway.