Purists might offer John Sutcliffe as a master of designer bondage wear, but I’ll take mine with the sensual flourish that a liberal application of fashion can provide, courtesy of Rick Owens, Thierry Mugler or even Dior. I get my kicks where I can.
Hard-core fetish clothing is graceless, sweaty and unflattering and the accompanying imagery even more so. But when fashion leverages the trappings of sex play to re-frame the narrative around power, domination and submission...well then it’s more to my liking. Two pairs of vintage Westwood McLaren Seditionaries’ strides and a whole load of black leather in my wardrobe are testament to that.
But our industry’s default setting for showcasing design ideas on an angular teenage model makes for awkward viewing of any new fetish inspired trend. In tightly bound leather, corsetry and spike heels, the passivity and naivety of the girl within the clothes is amplified more than usual. Those familiar with my stance, will know this continuous broadcast of undeveloped femininity as a vehicle for all fashion promotion delivers short - not because I am against the intoxicating beauty of youth – but, put simply: I’d like some occasional diversity.
Marie Schuller’s film Visiting Hour channels a slow and flavoursome eroticism that comes much closer to the magic that fetish and fashion seeks to evoke. In casting a woman not a girl as the central figure, she adds much more bite.
We first see model Alex B at the end of a long dark corridor; her body and skin seasoned through age. And as she engages with the sensuality of her flesh enclosed in latex, revelling in her own metamorphosis, she is thoughtful, pre-occupied and awaiting a lover.
We are reminded that desire unlike lust, is a complex alchemy of thought and feeling, requiring a fuller and deeper connection with authenticity. Our wish to be spell-bound by the power of sex and transported from the everyday is strong. We can feel it as we watch. Good fetish-wear evokes the sexual sorceress in us all.
The film takes us quickly to an altered state where we can, if we are willing, leave everything behind, including repressive media constructions of femininity. These preconceptions are something many fashion activists are actively challenging by calling for a wider promotion of body and beauty ideals from within our own industry, but more about that later.
When the film leads us into a room of fragmented mirrors, each reflecting the long grey hair of a woman who is many things including sexually liberated now that she is older and released from the demands of child rearing, we are asked to open our minds to unknown possibilities. The music is shadowy, even sinister, telling us that the journey on any adventure into a deeper meaning is not often well lit. Questions emerge and answers elude us.
Why is adult female sexuality threatening? Why does the mind and spirit of a full-grown woman need restraining? Why does our media condemn women to appear as sexualised girls? And why - the one I ask most frequently - why does the fashion industry prioritise the infantilised form?
The answer perhaps lies in our collective perception of femininity informed by our past. What is it that older women can teach by being given a voice? A presence?
Christianity has struggled with the omnipotence of women for its entirety. Broadcasting through its own godly channels, a 2000-year programme of distrust and rejection. Female intellect and achievement could always be undermined, just as as it is today.
Why not read the story for yourself! Ecclesiastical reports on the holy war against women can be found everywhere documenting the battle of Father, Son and Holy Ghost as they wrestled power from the pre- Christian Divine Goddess. Scholarly texts recount how Christian pulpits allover Europe earnestly dispatched husbands to beat their wives ‘out of concern for her soul,’ before handing her over for torture and a roasting at the stake, if she would not submit to male rule.
Older women, by reason of intellectual development were more equipped to resist, and therefore especially vulnerable to condemnation. 500 years of female genocide sanctioned by holy men from the 1200’s onwards to quell the uprising, is well documented in fairy tales and feminist texts.
Witchcraft trials and the persecution of wise women was merely an attempt to annihilate woman-craft. If the voice of the older woman could be extinguished, leaving young women with no guidance on what it was and is to be female, then other agencies could profit.
Ancient woman must shrink herself to fit the mould of patriarchy to survive and in doing so ageing and experience became undesirable states. Contemporary women must tailor their bodies, appetites and aspirations to fit the modern ideal…in that there is very little difference.
Schuller rallies against the marginalisation of older women in sexual erotica by delivering beauty and later, a raw predatory sexuality, which because of its scarcity is confrontational not just for those who are challenged by female power but for the rest of us who think we are enlightened!
This natural climax in the hard-core fetish-wear I profess to dislike, is unsettling. But it takes place as a necessary reminder of the wholeness of femininity and the complexity of what we actually are. And this is the point.
More complexity, not less is needed in our media. Because more examples of individuality, and of the achievements, accomplishments and representations of women, would project a bigger, fuller, riper story, than the narrow view we currently have. This might also tackle epidemic insecurity levels around identity and body image for those who cannot fit the cultural straight-jacket determined by contemporary expectations for appearance and behaviour .
We experience complexity in Schuller’s film and we can believe that there is always more in store for us not less. Just as we are passive, we can be aggressive... Just as we are nurturing, we can be exploitative. Just as we are contained, we can be expansive. Just as we are small we can be big. Just as we are young we will be old... and so the list goes on.