Why I’m appalled that bondage is the new black
From the catwalk to the High Street, ‘fetish fashion’ is all the rage. But in an age of rising sexual violence, what message does it send to young women?
THE conundrum is one every woman has faced at one point or another: what to wear to a party when you know your ex is going to be there. In the case of Kim Kardashian, attending an event for the launch of estranged husband Kanye West’s new album, Donda, last month, the answer, it would appear, was a full-body, head-to-toe black catsuit, complete with gimp mask.
This she accessorised — as you do — with the couple’s two daughters, North and Chicago, the latter worn on her hip. One can only imagine what the poor child made of her mother being encased in shiny, black man-made fibres, with zips over her eyes and mouth. Naturally, the look went down a storm with Ms Kardashian’s 253 million Instagram followers.
Which is presumably why she decided to repeat it this week, as she arrived in New York ahead of the delayed Met Ball, fashion’s biggest night out in the Big Apple.
Head-to-toe black, this time in even more constraining leather, once again with gimp mask — the ultimate attention-seeking get-up for the ultimate attention-seeker.
If the notion of a 40-year-old mother of four stepping out in the kind of outfit more normally seen in the darker corners of a club in Soho strikes you as somewhat peculiar, then clearly you haven’t been paying attention. Because in the weird and increasingly grotesque world of celebrity high fashion, bondage is the new black.
Lady Gaga, Madonna and singers Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B and, of course, a newly liberated Britney Spears — even dear old Posh Spice (remember those shiny ‘sex trousers’?) — have all enthusiastically embraced the BDSM (that’s bondage, domination and sadomasochism for the uninitiated) sexual aesthetic, which favours tight leather, whips and chains.
You can barely move for pop stars and celebrities trussed up in variously eye-wateringly uncomfortable-looking outfits. Shares in talcum powder must be going through the roof.
AT THE Video Music Awards on Sunday night, Madonna appeared in an outfit so restrictive it was a wonder she could even draw breath, let alone sing.
To be fair, Madonna has always had a penchant for such things — she’s been dabbling in whips and chains for decades.
But where once such things were considered highly provocative, risqué, scandalous even, nowadays they barely raise an eyebrow. The bondage aesthetic — with its violent, disturbing undertones, its harnesses, dog collars, chains, latex and assorted other symbols of sexual power-play — has become not only mainstream but also, frankly, commonplace.
It’s not just the fact that people such as Kardashian see nothing strange in practically picking their kids up from school dressed in a leather gimp mask; it’s also that the fashion world — from designers to bloggers and everyone in between — seems intent on promoting the look at every turn.
Take, for example, Balenciaga, makers of the aforementioned Kardashian gimp mask get-up. Once synonymous with exquisite tailoring (its founder, Cristobal Balenciaga, was referred to as ‘the
master of us all’ by Christian Dior), the brand has lately become beloved of pop stars such as West for its ‘sports-luxe’ aesthetic (aka overpriced tracksuits and trainers).
It is now the go-to brand for people with more money than style, as exemplified recently by its £1,490 red-and-blue check leather shopper, which was widely ridiculed online for looking exactly like one of those £1 bags you used to take to the launderette.
But it is its diversification into high-end fetishwear — led by the brand’s creative director, Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia — that has served it particularly well. Gvasalia is frequently tagged by Kardashian in her social media posts, implying a certain professional synergy between the two.
And Balenciaga is not the only fashion house to jump on the BDSM bandwagon: Gucci’s latest campaign features a model, naked save for a pair of jackboots, brandishing a leather whip. No clothes, just boots and a whip.
And where the designers lead, the High Street follows. From Versace to Karen Millen, no brand worth its salt is minus a bit of studded leather this autumn.
Of course, the pornification of mainstream fashion and culture is nothing new. The sight of female pop stars and celebrities expressing their so-called empowerment by aping the aesthetics of hardcore porn on stage and screen has become depressingly familiar.
But this is next-level self-abasement, an almost complete surrender to a set of values that, even by the standards of the most liberal among us, is quite disturbing.
It is especially so when you frame it in the context of the wider debate around women and sexuality. In a world where young girls report increasingly violent sexual behaviour in men, where more and more women are finding themselves subject to extreme behaviours in the bedroom, doesn’t it seem somewhat contradictory for powerful women
in the public eye to be espousing a culture that has at its heart notions of humiliation and sexual debasement? Normalising such behaviour is, arguably, what leads to disturbed individuals such as the killer of Sarah Everard thinking that somehow their actions have legitimacy; or for men who strangle women to try to argue a ‘rough sex’ defence. It’s what leads impressionable young boys to demand acts of sexual depravity from young girls. Because while it might be fine for someone like Madonna to act out her fantasies on stage in pursuit of attention, or for Kim to indulge in a series of eye-catching stunts, these women — and those like them — live in ivory towers. In the real world, turning up at a nightclub dressed like that is likely to have consequences, not all of them perhaps desirable.
The worlds of pop music and fashion are hugely influential on impressionable young minds. If this kind of stuff is seen as cool and mainstream — which, thanks to the likes of Kardashian and Co, it undoubtably is — it will inevitably shape attitudes around sex and consent.
Doesn’t it seem odd that at a time when more and more girls and young women are speaking out about sexual assault, every stage and magazine page seems to portray another model in the most provocative and unambiguously sexual of outfits or situations?
And the truth is, for all the highoctane glamour and prohibitive prices, the attitudes and aesthetics of high fashion do eventually filter down into the mainstream.
We’re not quite at a stage where Marks & Spencer is selling latex masks in its accessories section, but companies beloved by teens and 20something such as Shein, New Look and Missguided are flogging cheap knock-offs of the shiny rubberised creations on the catwalks.
Thirteen-year-olds are bartering these things on second-hand websites such as Vinted, posting videos of themselves on social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. It is now completely normal to see a gaggle of schoolgirls on a night out dressed as though they’re auditioning for a job with Miss Whiplash.
And, of course, the truth is that the more people like me point out the inconsistencies of dressing like this in a post-MeToo age, the more I’m told that I’m a relic of an age where female sexuality was repressed by the patriarchy.
To which I would respectfully reply: maybe I am, maybe I’m not. But surely it’s better to be repressed than exploited for the cheap thrills and profits of others?