I recently received this anonymous note from a reader of my advice blog, LoveBeastly.com:
I’ve been considering getting into leather. This isn’t because I find it particularly attractive compared to other outfits — other guys can be just as sexy. But because I’ve noticed on cruises that the leather parties seem more cruisy with guys having sex and going up to their cabins. The trouble is, I know it is strongly associated with BDSM, and I have absolutely no interest in that at all.
The writer went on to ask if it is acceptable to wear leather at these events while having zero interest in kink. I was admittedly stumped on how to answer.
In my life, I found kink — sex acts that generally involve power play like domination and submission, and typically involve a host of tools and accoutrements like rope, cuffs, blindfolds, and gags — before I discovered the looks associated with it. I started having kinky sex before I knew there were visual dress codes (leather harnesses, biker jackets, rubber suits, and so on) for the sex I loved.
It was incredibly empowering and liberating to learn, when I finally attended a large-scale leather and kink gathering, that these sexy people in these awesome clothes were my people. Kinky people looked so cool, and that meant that I — a chubby, newly HIV-positive, young gay man with crushing body dysmorphia — could look cool, too.
That was many years ago, but I still feel proud of the strong, sexy, globally recognized sartorial markers of kink — and, to some extent, protective of them. The reader who submitted that question seemed to want to borrow the look of my community without loving it. And that bothers me. The word “posing” comes to mind.
But is posing such a crime? Are all leather-wearers kinky? All of them? Kink and fetish looks have been incorporated into mainstream fashion for decades. From Vivienne Westwood to Alexander McQueen, we’ve seen hoods, chokers, harnesses, and rubber on the runway for years. With mainstream franchises like Fifty Shades of Grey and recent red-carpet moments (actor Timothée Chalamet wearing a Louis Vuitton by Virgil Abloh harness at the 2019 Golden Globes; Adam Rippon, an out Olympic figure skater, wearing a harness with his Moschino tuxedo at the 2018 Oscars), the world may now be desensitized to kink — numb to shock value, sex-positive, or sex-apathetic — and fetish may be just a look after all.
Should it be? And if so, what do fetish looks define if not — fetish? This is an interesting question in a time when leather bars are struggling to stay open across the United States and Europe, and large-scale leather and kink events, like the famous Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, have been canceled with only vague plans of returning. With the loss of the fetish underground, it feels like we’ve lost fetish itself. What does that mean for people of the future who need to find their sex tribe?
Famed San Francisco leatherman and self-declared “bondage enthusiast” Kristofer Weston — who co-hosts the sex-ed YouTube channel Watts the Safeword with his pup, Amp — is part of my sex tribe and gave me some context: “Leather originated as a masculine look, as a way of rejecting the effeminate stereotypes gay men were given in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. We donned the hypermasculine biker uniform to feel OK with ourselves.”
But that hypermasculine ethos has evolved in recent years — in Weston’s mind, for the better. “As we have been more and more accepted in society, we have felt less of a need to don the hypermasculine garb and become less concerned with traditional gender roles.”
Evidence of that evolution is seen in the drag burlesque vedette Violet Chachki, who is genderfluid. Chachki won season 7 of the drag competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race and has a distinct brand heavily inspired by kink and fetish looks. (It’s no surprise that they are close with the legendary burlesque star Dita Von Teese.) “I like to think that true kink is an attitude and a desire that doesn’t rely on clothing,” Chachki told me.
“It might be annoying to see people who aren’t a part of the kink community adopt fetish aesthetics, but at the end of the day, it’s just material, some hardware, and stitching.”
“Much of life is performative,” Chachki said, “including kink and fetish, even if it comes from a real place. No one should be gatekeeping clothing of any kind.”
Weston seemed to agree: “Most kink and fetish looks are a form of costume anyway.”
I asked Chachki why they made fetish a part of their brand. “Maybe going to Catholic school my whole life and being forced to wear a uniform has something to do with it? I’m not sure, but I’ve always been excited about anything I wasn’t supposed to be excited about. Fetish aesthetics have always excited me. I’m a visual person, and I love visual extremes and aesthetic discipline. I’m definitely more sexually kinky than most people, I’ve learned, but I exist in multitudes.”
With both of these folks, sex seems to be at least part of their desire to wear what they wear, but it’s not the whole story. Their words told me: clothes can make someone feel powerful, and that has implicit value beyond what they like to do in bed.
I haven’t answered my reader’s question on my site. I am hoping, actually, that this article acts as a kind of answer. Leather and fetish have been “just looks” for a long time now, I think. While anyone has access to clothes, fetish wear should also be treated as the markers of a culture and respected the same way we respect clothes worn by ethnic and regional cultures.
Since the 1970s, this distinctly queer subculture has taken in everyone with almost no price of admission beyond a sex-positive attitude — all body types, skin colors, and abilities have found a home with us — and in that time, we’ve powerfully mobilized to support those with HIV and continue to lead global dialogues on consent and sexual health and safety. This culture must be respected. You can wear our clothes without having the sex many of us love — you just have to believe sex is beautiful.
Alexander Cheves is a writer and sex expert whose book debut is expected in late 2021 from Unbound Edition Press. @badalexcheves
This feature is part of Out's 2021 Fashion Issue. The issue is out on newsstands on August 16, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.