Fetishism in Fashion: Kink, Control, and Politics

There has been no shortage of leather trousers, lace-up tops, harnesses, and corsets on the runway in recent months. Prada recently sent bare-chested models down their Spring-summer runway donning corseted cardigans and black leather trenches, whilst stars like Kim Kardashian and Kim Petras’s signature looks as of late could be described as nothing less than full-on gimp. For a more subdued look, one might reach for an item with cut-outs, mesh, or pin-tops a la Ottolinger, Dion Lee, and other gen Z staples.

The subversive trend can be described as fetish fashion, and while the word fetish may initially evoke thoughts of bondage, eroticism, kink, and sex, the word has a historically deeper significance; one linked to worship and even religion.

Derived from French, a fetish is an item or object that has been attributed value and power. According to studies by historian William Peitz, the term was coined in the 18th century by the Portuguese in order to describe the objects used by Indigenous West Africans during religious ceremonies and celebrations.

Kim Petras 2021 VMA, Kim Kardashian 2021

The term fetish was first used in a sexual context by Alfred Binet in the late 19th century. The psychologist argued that an “emotionally rousing” experience with a fetish object during childhood could potentially cause vulnerable individuals to develop a fetish in adulthood. Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, held the controversial belief that sexual fetishism arose as a result of the unconscious sexual fear of castration in men. 

This notion of “fetish object” manifested itself in BDSM-wear, lingerie, and other intimate wear, making fashion a key player when analyzing the significance of fetishism.

Fetishization may have a complex psychological and cultural history but fetish fashion, on the other hand, does not have a specific origin. Fashion is and remains a cyclical process. Designers tend to be inspired by political unrest and upheaval, drawing inspiration from the past and looking for ways to rebel, make a statement, and go against the grain. 

So why this cultural moment for an eruption of fetish-wear on the runways and in the mainstream? A vulnerable population under the extreme duress of a climate crisis and a global pandemic could be a viable answer. Or yet, perhaps we are all just sexually frustrated after a sustained period of lacking the human touch. Looking to the sartorial expeditions of celebrities and designers, the common thread is skin-baring ensembles juxtaposed by bodily restraint.

Dion Lee FW21

Moreover, as fetish fashion has predominantly been most prevalent among the queer community, and is most notoriously worn in both the leather and punk subcultures it is also no surprise as queer culture becomes popular culture that the fetishization of every day becomes certain normality. 

These silhouettes and styles have become so prevalent in contemporary designs that many of us have become desensitized to the presence of these once “provocative” items. Designers like Vivienne Westwood, Junya Watanabe, and Jean-Paul Gaultier made a name for themselves with provocative erotic-inspired runway offerings now blend in with the mass of emerging designers and fast fashion carrying the same aesthetics.

In her book, Fetishism in Fashion, Lidewij Edelkoort explains how fetishism is oftentimes linked to a human need to connect and to bond with one another, perhaps explaining why the subversive trend has resurfaced at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Approaching two years of confinement is certainly leading to a need for contact, in addition to the motivation to change out of an oversized hoodie.

Ottolinger SS22′

But that’s only one of many explanations for the resurgence of fetish and BDSM-wear in fashion. At a time where pop culture and mainstream media aim to be more transparent around issues pertaining to gender and sexuality, using traditionally seductive clothing is a powerful tool to take control over, and desexualize, and/or destigmatize the body.

While the rise of fetish fashion in mainstream culture is leading to a more sex-positive attitude, it also raises some questions. What place does fetish hold for queer communities and subcultures? Does wearing these items casually reduce their value and allure in a sexual context?

It might be hard to pinpoint what exactly is the cause of this resurgence in our tumultuous contemporary moment, but one thing is certain; kink or not, fashion remains a powerful tool to make a political statement.


Lorenza is a freelance writer, copywriter, and content strategist studying Journalism and Human Environment at Concordia University.

Her interests include visual culture, subcultures, and sustainable fashion.