Arousal à la mode


March 29, 1996

Valerie Steele has written a very sensible book on what tends to be a very silly subject. In an area where feminists, gay activists, pseudo-intellectuals and outrageous egos strut and pout, she proves a stern mistress.

Her no-nonsense approach to fetishism is stiffened by a full-frontal definition that slaps down feminist claims that women can be fetishists too. Overwhelmingly, fetishists are men. While there are all sorts of "preferences" that can trigger arousal, there is at least a marked difference of degree between enjoying high heels and humping them to the exclusion of the body they encase. One man's fashion can slide into another's fetish.

Having defined her territory, Steele backs away from simplistic universal interpretations. A tight-laced corset can be both armour and straitjacket. A woman in leather can be both a sex object and a manifestation of female power. A man who dresses up in maid's uniform before a dominatrix may indeed seek humiliation but perhaps it is the whipping out of his credit card at the end that shows who is truly in control and frames the session. There really is nowt as queer as folk.

In all this, Steele clearly feels the need for some sort of universal bedrock. So, while Freud has his wrists slapped for all his absurdities, Steele cannot quite bring herself to subdue the Phallic Woman who stalks the pages of the book. The fetish, then, is a substitute phallus, but that is not all it is.

Steele takes us on a determined trudge through the least obscure objects of desire - shoes, corsets, rubberwear and leatherwear, underwear, fur, uniforms - examining their history and development, the sources of their attraction and their involvement with modern fashion. Sometimes we get into muddy waters. Why are brassieres not as popular among fetishists as underpants? Why is black the sexiest colour? It has to be said that cross-cultural comparisons made at such points are extremely doubtful. "According to anthropologists black and red are rare in being natural symbols." Nothing could be further from the truth.

A key phrase is Robert Stoller's "a fetish is a story masquerading as an object". Learning from Margaret Mead and unlike other researchers, Steele knows the difference between biography and sex fantasy and suggests that our evidence for Victorian "repression" is about as accurate a sociological picture as that to be derived from lavatory walls. Indeed narrative fantasy is a neglected element in the interpretation of the fetish with its costumes, stereotyped dramatis personae and tired plots that nonetheless demand to be acted out.

The final section gathers up the threads neatly into a discussion of why today's fashion draws so heavily on the vocabulary of fetishism. Unsurprisingly, it is all about power and the politicisation of gender with all the activists talking and not listening - cross-speaking in fact - affirming and deconstructing gender roles, creating new sexualities while repressing the politically incorrect. The "pervert" has become the creative individual and, in the age of Aids, at least the all-over latex suit is hygienic. A less cheery view might be that fashion is inherently trivial and will turn anywhere to make a buck. Levi-Strauss fancied he saw the world in the look in a cat's eye. To see it in cat-woman's breast harness may not be quite the same thing.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper, Museum of Mankind.

Fetish: Fashion, Sex, Power

Author - Valerie Steele
ISBN - 0 19 509044 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 243

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