At the beginning of June, President Biden took to Instagram to wish his followers a happy Pride Month. Although similar sentiments have become standard practice throughout social media, this post marked the first time in four years the @POTUS account acknowledged Pride. In his caption, President Biden recalls “the trials the LGBTQ+ community has endured and celebrate(s) the trailblazers who’ve bravely fought for equality”. Accompanied by an image of the White House emblazoned with “PRIDE '' spelled out in rainbow colors, it is clear that after a four year silence, Pride is inherently political. Once a year corporations fly the flag outside of brick and mortar stores, ecommerce site logos change overnight to a multicolored hue, and brands release merchandise filled with quippy slogans, rainbow designs, and proclamations that Love is Love. It’s in the midst of this commercialization, or even capitalization, of Pride that its roots get lost in a muddle of glitter, streamers, and plastic beads.
As President Biden stated, we must honor those who paved the way for our modern Pride celebrations: those whose individualism was constrained by stringent dress codes during the early days of the LGBTQ+ movement, who were arrested for dressing too provocatively, who fought to challenge the status quo through self expression. These early resisters were led by trans women, sex workers, and drag queens, amidst a growing faction of people looking for a community where they could fully feel and look like their truest selves.
Through the induction of subcultures and countercultures to the community, self expression often revealed itself in the clothes these individuals chose to wear. “Fetish fashion” is the term used to describe the intrinsic link between clothing and sexual fetishes, with materials like leather, lace, latex, and rubber holding particular prominence. Although the first accounts of fetish fashion were documented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fetish-wear became increasingly popular as BDSM emerged as a consent-focused way to experiment with kink and sexuality, highlighting this style’s rich history, societal and political implications even to this day. As kink and the LGBTQ+ community have emerged into a strong presence in today’s cultural norm, some feel that the continued focus on dressing in fetish-wear unnecessarily highlights sexual liberation during an event centered around self acceptance and love. Yet, without the violent history of Pride and stigmatization of fetish-wear, modern celebration would not look the same. These two histories are deeply rooted within societal rejection and heavily intertwined with one another. Without an appreciation and acceptance for the way members of the LGBTQ+ community have historically chosen to express themselves through appearance and clothing, we diminish how Pride began and what it continues to stand for today.
Before Pride as it is modernly, even before its inception, there was a group of queer people who called themselves the Mattachine Society. Beginning in 1950 in Los Angeles, this group would gather and take part in “The Annual Reminder,” an early protest that sought to inform and remind people that the LGBTQ+ community did not have basic civil rights protection. This event became a yearly vigil held in Philadelphia, however, these gatherings enforced strict dress code ordinances, stating that men must wear jackets and ties, while women could only attend in a dress. Activists and fellow event organizers enforced this dress code in an effort to avoid arrests and represent LGBTQ+ people as “presentable and employable” as they were still a far cry from the societal acceptance of today. This wasn’t the first time that those who sought to dress against the cultural norm were punished, labeled perverse, or made to be illegal. Cross dressing laws in the U.S date back to 1845 and in 1913, a judge noted that “no girl would dress in men’s clothing unless she is twisted in her moral viewpoint.” This set a precedent in the world of clothing and further enabled strict limitations to be placed on those who did not fit into society’s definition of appropriate dress.
Beginning in the U.S. in the 19th century, even dating back to 1845 in New York City, many courts were also upholding “Masquerade Laws” which punished gender variance and cross-dressing, and “Gay Laws,” which stated that gender innapropriateness [...] was increasingly considered a sickness and public offence.” This rigid system of gender supression continued throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s as it was considered a crime to dress in drag and women were expected to adhere to the “Three-Article Rule,” which stated that a woman had to wear three pieces of “female attire” to avoid being arrested for cross dressing. The stifling of identity through these codified dress codes forced people to ascribe to society's heteronormative standards and discouraged self-expression and otherness.This ongoing tension between sexual identity and mainstream acceptance is often discussed as “respectability politics,'' where people are expected to follow suit with a set norm at the political risk of not having their rights upheld. This political agenda set in motion a counterculture within queerness and sexual liberation as a rejection of respectability: Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism or BDSM.
BDSM rose in the decade following the Stonewall Riots, the period of chaos which ensued after the violent raiding of the Stonewall Inn, a fixture in the New York City gay bar scene, in 1969, now known as the event that sparked the first Pride March on June 28, 1970.
Today, garments traditionally worn during BDSM play, or fetish-wear as it’s commonly known, can be found on the runway from designers like Francois Guillot, Helmut Lang, Alexander McQueen, and Vivienne Westwood, to fast fashion retailers, to the Instagrams of influencers and celebrities, and even to online shops like Etsy. Similarly to other subcultures like Punk and Goth, BDSM rose underground via a rejection of society and, as BDSM educator, Andrea Zanin, described, “pushing the boundaries of sexuality and exploration of kink within style.” Through the use of kink specific materials like leather, latex, and rubber, members of the LGBTQ+ community began to adopt fetish-wear as an outward display rooted in making political and social statements regarding their identity and acceptance into society. By wearing the clothes that they did in reaction against the norm, they simultaneously increased its acceptance into the norm, as their strike against society became acceptable in society itself.
At a similar moment, artists were using the fetish-wear styles of New York City gay and BDSM clubs as inspiration, calling attention to bondage, dom-sub culture, and the emphasis on consent that went into this sexual exploration. For example, in the 1970s, artist Robert Mapplethorpe began his exploration of BDSM through black and white photography until his battle with AIDS took his life in 1989. Still, his work would continue to inspire and challenge people, as an exhibition of Mapplethorpes was posthumously brought into question by a group challenging the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, calling the art obscene. The Arts Center won the case, setting a precedent for what can be legally deemed obscene. Mapplethorpe’s art, much like BDSM itself, seeks to blur the line between kink and art, from something non-traditional to something publicly displayed. The courage and sacrifice of these individuals gave rise to the legalization of dressing in drag, the beginnings of the removal of controversy from other subcultures, and even to Jean Paul Gaultier dressing Madonna in fetish-wear throughout the 1980s and 90s.
In this way, the members of the LGBTQ+ community strive to do the same through the continued tradition of fetish-wear, especially during Pride Marches and celebrations. Though some may find this polarizing and uncomfortable, that is the antithesis of kink. Kink exists to be inclusive and non judgemental, to emphasize consent and allow complete freedom to be yourself. The emphasis on a moral viewpoint within fashion no longer carries the same weight it once did, as the taboo around genderless clothing is disappearing and LGBTQ+ designers are recognized in mainstream media, increasing the normalcy of styles like fetish-wear and bolder fashion choices through the drive for subversion of the mainstream. The digital media world makes it increasingly harder to ignore the non-mainstream, giving way to a rise in subculture and therefore, subculture fashion. As the central tones of Pride are joy, acceptance, and honesty, the use of fetish-wear as fashion perpetuates that same message and further brings the underrepresented into the mainstream. Through inclusion and acceptance for the history behind Pride and the way that people within the LGBTQ+ community choose to show remembrance and celebration this month (and always), fashion can continue to be used as a driving agent of change and a tool through which self expression is at its most honest. Words by Blythe Tokar
Photos credits in order of appearance:
- Cover photo: Photographed by Matthew Tammaro
- Photo 1: @POTUS Instagram Feed (June 1, 2021)
- Photo 2: DC Pride Parade June 2021, Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
- Photo 3: Marsha P. Johnson at the Second Christopher Street Liberation Day March, 1972 Leonard Fink 1971-06-25
- Photo 4: A Tom of Finland illustration Photograph: Tom of Finland Foundation
- Photo 5: Harry Hay organized the first “cell” of the nascent gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, in Los Angeles in 1950. (Image Credit: Imginn)
- Photo 6: Many men dressed as women were locked up on charges of masquerading and indecent exposure at the National Variety Artists' Exotic Carnival and Ball held at the Manhattan Center in 1962. Police and detectives herded the costumed guests into police wagons in front of the ball. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
- Photo 7: A group of men dressed in leather fetish clothing ride in a truck at the intersection of 32nd Street and Fifth Avenue during the annual Gay Pride parade in New York City, c. 1980. Leo Vals/Hulton Archive via Getty Images
- Photo 8: Alexander McQueen Autumn/Winter 2011
- Photo 9: Joe Rubberman by Robert Mapplethorpe (1978), Mapplethorpe + Munch at Munch Museum, Oslo