I'd totally run for International Ms Velvet. Or International Ms Fuzzy Fabric Of Any Sort.
September 25, 2012 2:34 PM   Subscribe

How did leather, latex, and vinyl get to be the most popular and celebrated materials in the kink/BDSM world - as opposed to say velvet, silk, organza, lace, muslin?

I get that other fabrics are also in use esp in subsections of the kink/BDSM world, but how did it become more common to have, say, International Ms Leather to represent kinkdom, rather than International Ms Velvet? Why was leather, more than other material, the most common shorthand for "kinky"? Is this a region-specific thing?
posted by divabat to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

Velvet, silk, etc. are all things that "vanilla" people use in the courtship/mating ritual. They've been used to gussy us up for hundreds, even thousands of years. Leather, latex and vinyl, however, are more recent innovations in the process and were embraced as overtly sexual wear by the BDSM community long before they became more vanilla-acceptable. Plus the most stereotypical item of BDSM is the whip, which of course must be leather.
posted by Etrigan at 2:50 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Because you sweat in them.
posted by roger ackroyd at 2:52 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, sweat. Also they smell. (In a good way. Or at least in the right way.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:59 PM on September 25, 2012

I suspect it may have something to do with cleaning as well. Latex and vinyl just need a wipe down. Leather has a whole ritualistic and very hands on process (see: bootblacking). Velvet and silk, on the other hand, do not handle fluids well at all.
posted by platypus of the universe at 3:00 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

As I understand it, part of what happened is that the modern (gay male) kink scene grew out of an odd corner of the post-WWII biker scene. The (self-proclaimed) oldest continually operating gay organization in the US is a motorcycle club. Early leather bars were basically what happens when you intersect "gay bar" and "biker bar."

I don't know if this is the beginning of the kink/leather connection. I'm not aware of any link between SM and leather before the 1940s — I mean, it's "Venus in Furs," not "Venus in a black leather Greek fisherman's cap with a chain around the brim," amirite? — but I suppose there could be one. But that's where the modern leather scene traces its origins, and I think the modern leather scene is responsible for a lot of the current association between kink and leather more generally.

Tom of Finland is also a big cultural vector for this stuff, and again that goes back to the post-WWII era — a lot of his art played off of military uniform fetishes (including, controversially, Nazi uniforms), which meant a lot of leather boots and jackets. He also picked up on the gay biker thing that was going on in the US, and did a lot to spread that image. And from there you get the punk scene adopting leather and SM imagery, and Mapplethorpe, and....

None of this explains where the dominatrix-in-a-leather-catsuit image comes from, though. A little googling suggests that John Sutcliffe is the popularizer of that particular meme, but he can't have happened in a vacuum — there must already have been straight male leather fetishists if he was designing clothes for that community, right? (Or maybe there was just a preexisting bunch of dudes who were into fem-dom imagery more generally, and then he started making leather catsuits and they were like "YES! THIS! WHY DIDN'T WE THINK OF THIS?!" I don't know.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:08 PM on September 25, 2012 [19 favorites]

I suspect part of it is durability. And that part of it is (dis)comfort. And those materials are far more restrictive than, say, silk. Plus there's a "tough" "weird" "scary" or "alternative" image with many of those materials.

Also, leather is just... sexy. (And black leather's been a highly sexualized material for a long time. It's also been a somewhat "tough" or "rebellious" material for a long time).

Also, those materials mimic skin.
posted by windykites at 3:19 PM on September 25, 2012

Leather doesn't rip like a fabric and that is helpful if you are into bondage....you can rip lace, satin, silk or velvet quite easily.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:34 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thinking about it a bit more, I think platypus has a good point about leather affording all sorts of ritualistic hands-on care.

But the idea of using leather care as a locus of discipline basically comes from the military, no? The whole "your boots aren't shined right and now you're gonna get punished" bit was a psychological dominance trick from Basic Training before it was a stock BDSM scene, right? (It can't have been borrowed in the other direction, can it? That would be hard to believe....)

A lot of the other stuff about its affordances as a material (the smell, the texture, the durability) sound like post-hoc associations. I mean, yes, I love the smell of leather and saddle soap as much as the next perv. But then I'm also pretty fond of the smell and feel of hemp rope, or the ozone-y smell of a violet wand in action, and those aren't universal kink symbols the way leather is — say "hemp" to a non-pervert and they think "potheads" rather than "bondage nuts," right? You could imagine an alternate universe where hemp rope was The Universal Fetish Item instead of a sort of niche thing that some people eroticize and most vanilla folks are totally unaware of. But we're not living in that universe.

Hell, I feel like if for some bizarre reason I'd grown up in a world where, I dunno, wool flannel was the universally agreed upon fetish gear (maybe instead of gay biker clubs there was a bunch of queer loggers, or a renegade Boy Scout troup, or something?) I'd have cheerfully eroticized the hell out of that, and I'd be in here waxing poetic about the smell of wet wool and how sexy it is when it itches just right.

So I think a lot of that stuff is probably learned, and what happened was that we learned it from a bunch of dudes who (learned it from dudes who learned it from dudes who...) went into Basic Training with some inclination towards DS or SM, and came out having eroticized the heck out of the whole experience with a full-on uniforms-and-bootblacking fetish, and then joined bike clubs so they could spend more time with other men away from the mainstream world, and there you have it. And that just happened to be the cultural moment that got picked up and popularized in the 60s and 70s, and maybe if the sexual revolution had come a few decades earlier or later it would have been a totally different material that they picked up on.

Now I want someone to write alternate universe sci fi porn about a world where we ended up with a "flannel scene" instead of a "leather scene."
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:41 PM on September 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

The Nazis!
posted by KokuRyu at 3:43 PM on September 25, 2012

Cf. Sontag, Susan. "Fascinating Fascism" (second part, on the book Nazi Regalia).
posted by Beardman at 3:45 PM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Those are "hard" materials (shiny, stiff, etc) that, broadly speaking, we associate with dominance. Mostly as costuming for the dominant, but also as constraining wear for the sub. The soft materials you name are things you might make your sub wear, but aren't reminiscent of Elsa of the SS or the afore-mentioned Tom of Finland.

I suspect that more is made of the contrasts between soft and hard than your question suggests -- think of fur-lined handcuffs, say.
posted by Forktine at 4:35 PM on September 25, 2012

This post on the history of leather scents in perfume suggests that leather fetishism was indeed a thing pre-war. So there's a historical precedent for it that stretches back as far as, well, when western Europeans started writing about paraphilias, at least. Maybe even earlier.
posted by clavicle at 4:50 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

While doing a search for a book yesterday, I found out about the [NSFW] Leather Archives & Museum. They accept reference requests via phone & email.
posted by mlis at 5:05 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

There're as many reasons for this as there are kinky people, probably.

I do take issue with the whole post-WWII gay biker subculture being responsible for people associating leather with kink, no matter what Wikipedia says, because kink, like homosexuality, is practically as old as time. Leather was kinky long before motorcycles were even invented.

One (somewhat) verifiable and historically accurate answer why leather is favorited in the kink community is that leather has been around, and readily available to all, for a very long time; Homer mentions tanning leather (with animal fats rubbed in to make it more pliable and less stiff) in the Iliad, which is dated around the 7th century B.C.

Obviously, spandex and vinyl have not been around as long as leather. But they, like leather, are inexpensive and durable, whereas velvet and silk are costly materials. In the past, velvet was primarily the provenance of royalty, but even a blacksmith could easily get his hands on some leather. Silk, too, is a very fine material that is costly to produce.

I imagine that's why we don't traditionally associate cashmere with kink, either.

nebulawindphone: "Now I want someone to write alternate universe sci fi porn about a world where we ended up with a "flannel scene" instead of a "leather scene.""

I had a friend that used to joke about argyle socks being decidedly unkinky, and it's occurred to me how interesting it would be if preferences within the kink culture were reflected in the patterns of our socks (rather than, for example, bandanas).
posted by misha at 5:27 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Now I want someone to write alternate universe sci fi porn about a world where we ended up with a "flannel scene" instead of a "leather scene."

A world called ... "Silverlake"
posted by roger ackroyd at 5:50 PM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

I suspect it may have something to do with cleaning as well.

I can assure you that practicality is not a major influence on the design of fetishwear.

The leather aspect definitely comes from the emergence of kink as an offshoot of the biker subculture. As for vinyl and latex, they have the same shine and smoothness of leather, but are easier to be made skin-tight.

I had a friend that used to joke about argyle socks being decidedly unkinky

Dude, schoolgirls.
posted by dephlogisticated at 5:51 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thinking about this more, I'm reminded of all the S&M erotica that is full of "soft" materials. You know, schoolgirls at Madam's reform school shivering in their nightgowns, or Anais Nin's characters having totally kinky sex while wearing silk. O being told to lift her designer dress and sit directly on the car seat -- that kind of smut is all about the sensations and the fabrics that are nice to touch. The poster of the movie Secretary emphasizes the fabrics of her skirt and nylons.

That's really different than the Robert Mapplethorpe version of kink, all leather and spikes and testosterone (photo mostly SFW). I don't think it's as simple as some simple male/female split (though my examples sure make it sound that way), just that there are all kinds of complex traditions in play. The Mapplethorpe photo is instantly identifiable as "kink," but would be a photo like this (SFW, though who knows what else is on that website) of a woman's torso in a corset with jeans below, or a photo of the above-mentioned schoolgirl argyle socks.
posted by Forktine at 6:21 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

The poster of the movie Secretary emphasizes the fabrics of her skirt and nylons.

oh, dude, yeah! I totally forgot that, for example, nylons/pantyhose/stockings is a total kink/fet thing for some people. also gloves, like long evening gloves. And eye coverings.
posted by windykites at 7:50 PM on September 25, 2012

Before the late 19th century, quality leather garments and footwear, especially boots, were very expensive - it required an animal hide of not inconsiderable size, and skilled labor to tan and dye it and more skilled labor to fashion it into a garment. It was a very useful material, as it was incredibly durable compared to cloth.

Military officers, being well-off enough to purchase their commission, and in need of incredibly durable items like boots and gloves and belts and bandoliers, wore leather. Foot soldiers generally couldn't afford more than a belt and a pair of shoes (remember, your uniform comes out of your pay), so tall and shiny boots generally meant someone in charge.

A military officer was someone who was associated with discipline and power... which is kind of what you want in a dominant.

There's also an element of gender bending - thigh-high boots and high heels began as male fashions, associated with wealthy cavalrymen.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:08 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wonder how much visual media influenced this, too. I know there have been paintings and drawings and such forever, but roughly ww2 era is when magazines and tv came into easy accessible prominence. Black shiny stuff if a pretty easy visual shortcut for 'woah, kinky'.

Another thought is, what were the early gay protesters wearing? A butch biker leather bear seems infinitely more likely to take to the streets than Fork's trembling velvet schoolgirl.
posted by Jacen at 8:28 AM on September 26, 2012

Jacen, in the pre-Stonewall gay picketing photos I've seen, the protesters are dressed as conventionally as possible, to give the message, "We're just like you."
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:35 PM on September 26, 2012

velvet, silk, organza, lace, muslin are (to my kinky mind) evocative of a particular kind of social roleplay, Victorian bodice-ripping and the like. "Marian the Librarian" finally letting her hair down as she gets felt up for the first time and discovers likes it. They represent a very stuffy, socially regulated milieu, which once the floodgates are opened goes wild.

Thing is, that's sort of a specific kink, and a minority one in my BDSM experience.

Leathers are animal skin. It's smooth like our own. It smells a certain way when it gets sweaty. It feeds into a somewhat animalistic sensation and orientation, as opposed to the manufactured lace which signals something my more refined. Sex us usually skin on naked skin. With leather, there's suddenly a second layer of "skin", it's sweatier...

Rubber and latex, while not my thing at all, are hot, sweaty, and don't breathe (in a synthetic, man-made kind of way), and some people are kinky for that.

Also, leather is a bit transgressive. Show up in leather pants and biker jacket & you make a statement. Same with rubber.

One can show up to work in velvet and lace. But unless you work at Mr. S or Stompers, all-leather signals "Not vanilla" a whole lot louder.

But in the end, I just think more people are kinky for leather than are into organza & muslin.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:29 AM on September 27, 2012

Response by poster: where the hell do you work that showing up in velvet is acceptable? (because I'm so applying for a job there.)
posted by divabat at 11:31 AM on September 27, 2012

I work concerts & festivals where the uniform slot on the call-sheet reads "All black". Velvet & lace wouldnt raise an eyebrow. When doing catered parties in "Formal Black", a velvet vest would go over where a leather one would not.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 2:29 PM on September 27, 2012

« Older Reconfiguring Prefs After OS Reinstall (MAC 10.6.8...   |   How to protest closing of a park? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.