Last month’s Fussed explored The Psychology of High Heels and the cultural meanings attributed to them. One of the key points raised was the fetish connotations of the stiletto; feet and high heels rank highest in the most common sexual fetishes. If we continue to rummage a little further into the fetishist’s closet, a leather item is likely to be hanging. Yet, like the stiletto, it is also another fashion staple that appears all year, further exemplifying the complex relationship between power, fashion and fetish.
To understand how the fetish filtered into mainstream fashion, we need to look at the word itself, as ‘fetish’ has a broad meaning and usage. Although it is a term commonly misinterpreted as deviant erotica, ‘fetish’ has not always been associated with sex. The word ‘fetish’ originally meant ‘charm’ or ‘obsessive fascination’ and stems from the 15th century Portuguese word fetico. For example, this word was previously applied to the talisman the Portuguese encountered revered by native religions. Power is transferred from an original source to an object, giving this object an unnatural, ‘fetishist’ power. Relating to this to our modern-day understanding of the high heels ‘fetish’, the desire has been displaced from the foot to the high heeled shoe itself. We can also trace this concept back to well-known theorist Karl Marx and ‘consumer culture’. Marx’s notion of ‘commodity fetishism’ examines the consumer’s fascination with man-made products. For consumers, the product has more than an economic value.
So surely we are all, on some level, fetishists? Generally speaking, we place an excessive value on our smartphones, on a pair of heels, and money itself – notes and coins rather than the monetary value of them – demonstrating how we develop unnaturally strong attachments to consumer goods. It is social pressures that create this sense of value– we should consider why we are convinced that we cannot live without an iPhone/Blackberry, or that an outfit is not complete without a show-stopping pair of heels? The fashion industry has fuelled these nonsensical ‘fetish’ values on the items themselves rather than the function they are designed to perform.
Fetishism, yes, fashion, yes, and so why not add another ‘F’? Freud redefines ‘fetishism’ as we more commonly perceive it– that of sexual experience, no less. For Freud, a fetish fills the void of the lack of ‘maternal penis’; the absence of which is noted by the male fetishizer as a child. According to Freud, the fetish is usually associated with the last thing the boy saw before his disturbing discovery of his mother’s genitalia (eg. feet, shoes, underclothing etc.) and remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and protection against it. A far-fetched theory perhaps, but Freud’s emphasis on the relationship between fetish and sex is the concept that has stayed with us today.
In today’s modern society, fashion provides fetishists the opportunity to play out ambivalent impulses and tastes commonly labelled as perverse. It is an environment we deem as ‘safe’ in pushing the boundaries and being brave enough to look different. Fashion trends also reflect current-day desires, fears and fantasies. In making the move to exhibit private desires publicly, a withheld narrative is performed by the body. Joanne Entwistle comments in The Fashioned Body that ‘all clothing is erotic’ because it is so closely connected to the body. Modern sexuality is rooted in the sexed body, making the things we use to decorate our bodies somewhat sexually charged. Within every industry, ‘sex sells’, and fashion –increasingly used as an outlet expressing liberation, empowerment and sexuality – is definitely no exception.
Leather has been dominating catwalks and the high street this season and is considered a leading symbol for fetishism. It is noted by many critics as the most sensual material, in terms of its feel, smell and sound – there is nothing quite like it. Essentially a second skin, an animal skin, it gives wearers ‘animalistic and predatory impulses’, claims Valerie Steele, author of Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power. She also links leather to German aviators from WW1, cowboys and motorcyclists, commenting on how leather has permeated the fashion world since the 1960s YSL catwalk and the 70s punk movement.
Leather is just one ‘fetishist’ example that can be linked with these theories to demonstrate our modern-day notion of ‘fetish’, rooted in commodity production and sex. From both Marx’s and Freud’s perspective, leather is inextricably linked to fetishism. In a more explicit ‘sexually fetishist’ context, leather straps and harnesses provide both restraint and relief, which is evident even when worn in a more casual manner. In both the bedroom and the boardroom, leather embodies power, control and pleasure. In a real and metaphorical sense ‘leather is versatile’ but at the same time, tight-fitting and body-defining. Its smell and texture is often associated with luxury and seen as a worthwhile indulgence, just don’t try and convince anyone from PETA that.
Images: style.com & nowfashion.com