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Thinking Kink: The Politics of BDSM Fashion

"Most of what we do is done in t-shirts and jeans and involves a lot of giggling." Cliff Pervocracy

Trying on my first "proper" corset—steel-boned, torso-flattening, and an illustration of ribs constricted by a corsetwith an appropriately high price tag—was a mixed bag. As my friend mercilessly yanked harder and harder on the lacing to achieve the four-inch reduction in my waist size that is apparently the aim, I couldn't help but reflect on how wonderfully feminine my figure looked, waist cinched in, boobs thrust up to somewhere near my chin, ass and hips splayed and firmly emphasized below. There was just one little problem: I couldn't breathe properly. Oh, or bend. Or even really sit down. As someone who likes to be physically flexible during playtime, I could see that this was an outfit for remaining stationary, and fantastic as it looked, that's not what I want from my clothes.

Watching the video for Beyonce's song "Green Light," I noticed how—as per many media depictions of BDSM—kinky clothing was often showed in its most restrictive guises, such as the agonizing-looking en pointe shoes Beyonce and her dancers are wearing as she crawls between their legs, or the corsets reducing B's waist to its internal-organ crushing tiniest. Although I should state here that modern corsets are constructed much more comfortably than their Victorian predecessors, any feminist who knows her history can't help but wonder, What's the erotic appeal in crushing your body into a piece of clothing that left many of our ancestors physically and mentally incapacitated?

Well, the fact that we no longer have to wear corsets, bustles, stockings, garters, etc., etc. means that wearing them can now be viewed as nothing more than a fun exercise in costuming. Now that we're free to wear whatever we wish, harking back to the dress modes of days gone by becomes exotic. Yes, corsets can be viewed as a symbol of women's physical suppression in the name of femininity, but since they're entirely optional, wearing one can also "reverse and transmute the social meanings" of restrictive clothing (Anne McClintock).

Beyoncé's "Green Light" video, lyrics here.

Furthermore, as Cliff Pervocracy says above, "kinky" clothing is by no means essential or necessarily present in any BDSM scene. For every kinkster who spends hours cleaning their $500-plus latex outfit to get ready for a play party, there'll be several others for whom Saran wrap will suffice, and others yet who are happy in jeans and high-tops. Yet the media seems unable to show women being kinky outside of the most rigidly feminizing outfits, and I do suspect that the need for these obvious visual symbols is partly to emphasize that even if a woman is being dominant, she's still "only" female—and of course to remind audiences they can still visually feast on her sexualized body. When I asked Bitch readers to point me towards portrayals of non-femme lesbian kinksters, they obliged in droves. However it was noticeable that these examples were largely outside of the powerful, mainstream media—I doubt we're going to see a female dominant in a lumberjack shirt and skate jeans on our TV screens any time soon.

legs in stockings and stiletto bootsLatex, leather, PVC and various other fabrics are of course a serious fetish for many, but the way our media tell it, you'd think they were the only options available for getting kinky. Looking at Beyoncé in a range of latex outfits in the "Green Light" video, all I can think about is the amount of sweat she must be accumulating under the hot lights, and hoping she's put on plenty of talcum powder so she can be peeled out of them again without losing the top layer of skin. Ditto Rihanna in "S&M," Madonna in "Human Nature," and don't even get me started on GaGa. Even though the most obviously kinky clothing is often the most uncomfortable to wear, and the most unsexy to actually get in and out of, the media presume that audiences need to be battered over the head with black PVC to realize that something is sexy and BDSM-themed.

Still, as Pat Califia puts it, "In an S&M context, the uniforms ... become a parody of authority, a challenge to it." A spike heel may appear to be a debilitating shoe one moment, only to be transformed a brilliant tool for stamping on your submissive's chest the next. The rituals of being laced into a corset, and later released with a triumphant gasp, can be the sexual thrill itself—ditto having latex pulled off you, or being caressed with leather gloves, or dressed in a onesie and cuddled by your dominant. Clothes don't make kink, but the meaning we assign to them can. The outfits people find kinky are likely to be as varied and complex as the wearers themselves.

Previously: A Visit to the Sex Toy Store, Some Like it Rough

Top image from Flickr user perpetualplum, bottom image from Taxwoman via Wikimedia Commons

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Comments

9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Costumes & Corsets

Thank you for another insightful entry.
I agree there is a fine line between dressing to suit your mood or take on a BDSM persona and self-objectification. By that I mean the expectation that Dommes spend all their time in latex catsuits and stilettos can be more of a fantasy projection than the reality. I've seen Dommes blindfold the sub so that they could get out of their heels and be more comfortable while they continued the scene. In Claudia Varrin's book Female Dominance: Rituals and Practices she mentions that when she really means business she wears combat boots, jeans and an old sweater, signalling to the sub that she's not there for his visual consumption.
However, I love corsetry. A corset can be a symbol of power. Being laced up in a corset can make you feel armored, untouchable and strong. Historically, corsets were worn as part of military garb by some men. A good corset also makes you stand up straight, which is wonderful for adopting a commanding persona.

This is tangential, but do

This is tangential, but do you mind if I correct a little of your information?

I suppose you could say that contemporary corsets are more comfortable than Victorian corsets because the widespread use of bras enables contemporary women to wear underbust corsets rather than (less comfortable, more immobilizing) overbust corsets, but beyond that, modern corsets aren't really more comfortable than Victorian ones (unless you're talking about flimsy commercial bustiers made of stretch fabrics). Most high-quality contemporary corsets are based on Victorian patterns. It's easy to mythologize Victorian corsetry as being crude and painful, but as a culture that produced corsets in high numbers for a wide range of customers, the Victorians were actually quite good at it. And while, yes, some victorian ladies laced very tightly to reduce their waists significantly, (much like modern tightlacers), many simply wore their corsets comfortably snug, to hold up their breasts and heavy skirts (which reduced their waists a little in the process, but was not as dramatic as most people today assume).

Corsets

I think this article makes some good points about bdsm depiction in the media, but in the end it still falls into the trap of being egocentric to its own cultural lens. The picture above depicts a woman's "deformed" ribs from wearing habitually tight corsets. Lots of people in bdsm DO wear their corsets every day and they would hardly think of their bodies as being deformed. Do we refer to people's ears or noses as being "deformed" after they get them pierced? How about tattoos? Body modification seems to only be considered okay when the practice is normative.

The description of wearing a corset here is also just plain wrong. You are not supposed to tighten a corset until it renders you immobile, and you are unable to breathe. Any corset maker will tell you that this is NOT what corsets are designed for and it is a good way to hurt yourself while doing horrible damage to your corset. Corsets are meant to be taken in gradually- they are not supposed to squeeze you uncomfortably. A well fitted corset should feel like a hug.

"A well fitted corset should feel like a hug."

I liked this description. My friend did tell me that I should start gradually by wearing a corset for an hour or so a day and 'work my way' up to getting comfortable with it, but I just didn't fancy it.

I agree that plenty of people do wear corsets without going to rib-crushing extremes, and obviously the picture is a drastic example of taking corsetry to its limits. However, there are also people within BDSM who do practise body modification and deliberately use corsets to achieve painfully-looking tiny waists. I think as feminists, it's worth examining what this fetishisation of the 'extreme' feminine figure means for women.

I'm not sure the tattooing/piercing example quite holds, because these are practises that both sexes indulge in (and bear in mind, these are not viewed as universally 'OK' - there are plenty of people who view both as 'barbaric' or 'self mutilation', and you cannot join the British police force if you have any tattoos that would be visible with your uniform on, incl. forearm tattoos). The fact corsets are unique to women raises questions about the asymmetric pressure on women to alter their bodies, even in subcultures that claim to reject mainstream pressures.

Although I do find the above comment about men wearing corsets as armour in battle very interesting, and this was something I was definitely unaware of!

Corsets for men (and women)

Thanks. You can read more about that aspect of corsetry here: http://www.romantasy.com/index.html?BodyURL=ZXQ/cyboutique/corset/men.html. I believe the fashion historian Valerie Steele also covers this in much of her work on corsets.

The Victorian corset is more popular now because it does create that exaggerated female shape that is culturally approved, but many corsets create different shapes; such as the Edwardian corset which came down very low on the hips, with a straight front intended to force the back into an "S" shape. Then there are Elizabethan corsets that are intended to compress the upper torso into a conical shape. Now we don't reshape our bodies with garments as much as we do with dieting and plastic surgery. The pressures to conform to the body type deemed "desirable" (very thin, flat stomach, small hips and huge breasts) are no less restrictive than the stays of the past, only we're told to achieve that shape through "discipline" and a little plastic surgery.

I do like what you said about conformity even in counter-cultural groups. This is a problem not just in BDSM but in a lot of supposedly nonconformist groups. It's given me a lot to think about.

"A well fitted corset should

"A well fitted corset should feel like a hug."
I've always loved that comparison.

I went over to a friend's house recently wearing a corset, hung out for a few hours, and she was astonished that I could sit comfortably and that even after hours, I wasn't desperate to get out of it. Many people think that corsets are supposed to be uncomfortable, even painful, that you're not supposed to be able to breathe in them, etc. I'm always happy to show them otherwise.

This is a very timely post

This is a very timely post for me. My significant other and I are trying to decide what to wear to a fetish con this weekend. Part of what we're taking into consideration is what is considered "appropriate" attire. Pajama pants are out, despite the fact that most of our bdsm activity at home takes place while wearing them. I understand that part of the reason people go to a fetish con is to feel immersed in their community, and pj pants don't really add to that. But there definitely is an attitude in the bdsm community in general, a certain level of expectation when it comes to dress. The part that particularly bothers me is shoes. I'm not talking about the ballet boots like in the OP, just "sexy" or "fetish" shoes in general. Which almost always means heels. It's tough to get lost in the scene when you've got fresh blisters on your feet. Tough to wield a flogger when you can barely stand. On one particularly memorable occasion, I pitched forward as soon as I got in the door of the dungeon, grabbing on to the front desk to keep from falling on my face. Sexy.

Spot on!

"I pitched forward as soon as I got in the door of the dungeon, grabbing on to the front desk to keep from falling on my face. Sexy." - massive, falling-off-the-chair LOL at this! And I so know how you feel. Tottering around completely debilitated by one's shoes rarely feels as glamorous as it's supposed to.

I favour a nice pair of knee high Dr Martens - flat soled and comfy as heck, but still keeping the boot fans happy - when going to events. Heels are never much fun at an event that could last 5 or so hours - I prefer to save them for private play, where they'll inevitably come off within about 30 mins!

But you raise a good point. As Germaine Greer said 'high heels bring a woman up to a man's height whilst ensuring she cannot keep up with him', which does make you wonder why - both in 'vanilla life and the BDSM scene - we have eroticised something that limits women's freedom and comfort so much. It's hard to come up with an explanation that doesn't seem pretty anti-feminist. As someone who wears skate trainers 7 days of the week, I guess I can see the 'exotic' appeal of donning heels on a Saturday night - wearing certain things is much more fun if it doesn't feel compulsory or if it deviates sharply from your 'usual' mode of dress. But ballet boots or 7-inch spike heels are definitely off the menu!

I recently went to a play party where both PJ pants and onesies were being worn...guess if you say 'It's my fetish!' you might get away with it at some events ;)

...and hoping she’s put on

...and hoping she’s put on plenty of talcum powder so she can be peeled out of them again without losing the top layer of skin.

Anyone who wears latex with any regularity will tell you "DON'T USE TALC!" Not only does it clog your pores and mix with perspiration to create a sticky mess, it does your latex no favours either. Latex is best worn over an oily dressing aid, such as Vividress by Vivishine (notably the best available latex care products on the market). Not only does it actually care for your latex whilst wearing it, but it also means your outfit can slide about over your skin as you move, making it infinately more comfortable and leaving your skin super-soft to boot!

Even though the most obviously kinky clothing is often the most uncomfortable to wear

As other comments have stated, corsets aren't meant to be bone-crushingly uncomfortable if they are worn & laced correctly and latex is THE most comfortable clothing to wear because (when dressed properly, as above) it is as fluid as your skin and moves when you do. Decent quality leather gear is made from butter-soft hides and has to be one of the most sensual clothing materials out there (apart from silk! lol)

It's not what you wear, it's how it's made and how you wear it that makes the difference. Kinky doesn't have to mean uncomfortable. Same goes for footwear - if it's not comfortable, it doesn't fit you properly, so find something that does. Simples!