During a work trip to London earlier this year, I was waiting patiently for my hotel’s free but subpar latte, blearily scanning the English papers, when a Liz Truss fashion headline gave me the jolt that my coffee couldn’t. It claimed Ms. Truss was repeatedly wearing a BDSM chain necklace that signalled to others that the wearer was submissive. I assume Truss had inadvertently picked it up at a John Lewis department store, innocently thinking, “Oh! A statement necklace”, without knowing exactly what statement she was making. But who knows. Anyway, there was only one way to ensure that I never made a similar mistake.
I started googling BDSM accessories and the particular kinks they represent as soon as I got to the studio (you don’t want that browser search on your home computer). My goal was to ensure I never inadvertently bought earrings that signalled any talent or proclivity I may not have. I quickly went down an Internet hole introducing me to a whole new world of instant messaging: Kink clothes tucked into everyday life, blinking their messages at whoever is walking down the street. Here’s the thing about kink culture and fetish fashion: once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Once my fashion radar mind was tricked into all these clues, I saw them everywhere. The Camden markets were always packed to the brim with steamer punk and maximalist dressers. But now I could spot the difference between a dom and a sub, a foot enthusiast and a furry. A furry, if you weren’t sure, is a person enthusiastic about anthropomorphic animals (cute bunnies that look like babies). A foot fetish speaks for itself, but on the prim streets of Mayfair, I did a few double takes when I noticed the extreme vamp (the angle of the sole) of the shoe. I paid more attention to the profusion of toe cleavage and the fogged-up toe sweat on a see-through mule. These accessories weren’t from London’s varied sex shops or the suburban lingerie shop Ann Summers. They were branded luxury houses: expensive and explicit. Kink dressing and the secret language of sartorial signalling owes a lot to the homosexual community of yesteryear where, for example a handkerchief in the back pocket of the West Village, NYC, circa 1970, had its own code to communicate.
The colour of the bandanna or handkerchief indicated what sexual activity one was open to. The left or right pocket indicated the role in said activity one wished to perform. New York was not the only city where the gay back pocket signal system was applied. Like music, the fashion industry has always flirted with kink culture, from Malcolm McLaren’s bondage pants for Vivienne Westwood to Rick Owens’ fetish forward aesthetic. Recent references have been worn by singer Dua Lipa (at the Grammys in a dress from Versace’s famous Miss S&M collection), and former dominatrix Julia Fox (a dress featuring a hand placement at the neck).
Recently, Rihanna recently dropped a video modelling her Savage X Fenty Vol.4 lingerie, where the new mum was wearing a renaissance rose corset dress, where the back laces cheekily expose your rosy cheeks. Balenciaga’s recent holiday gift campaign included stuffed teddy bear bags dressed in bondage-like accessories. The creatives involved had children holding the bear bags, while a separate campaign featured some questionable props that the team’s must have assumed nobody would notice. Boy were they wrong. The ensuing outrage has led to Kim Kardashian finally wearing another brand, as well as a slew of TikTok posts where people burn their Balenciaga. (And, of course, a round of apologies and statements, and lawsuits where companies and individuals try to blame each other for the decisions made.) It makes sense to me that after years of watching our pop icons play with these taboos – Madonna’s Sex book (which just celebrated its 30th anniversary, and was reissued by Saint Laurent), Gaga’s entire aesthetic – people are more readily adapting kink culture and adding certain styles into their everyday life.
Young Londoners at members’ clubs in the West End and local pubs off Brick Lane, all co-opting various types of fetish as fashion for fun. I wonder if the same cavalier attitude will wash up on our shores soon. If so, I’m here for it, but I am going to stay away from chain necklaces for a while. Only because, obvs, I would be a Dom.