Leather Fetish: Taming The Taboo 

What happens when the trend cycle embraces taboo? India’s first homegrown fetish gear brand is thriving, you can buy a harness at your nearest fast fashion store and the shock value has definitely waned

It was Friday night at one of Mumbai’s most popular ‘scene’ spots. 1000 rupees and a quick stamp on my wrist later, I entered the space filled with the usual suspects: young men and women in oversized Peggy Gou merch tees, eyelids covered in glitter, a few who proclaimed their non-binary status with They/Them messaging on their clothing and jewellery. Then I spotted the outliers: a man in his 30s at the bar who paired his Adidas tee with a spiked leather collar, harnesses worn by women who otherwise would have fit into the ‘yuppie’ aesthetic – think perfectly blown out hair, a French manicure, diamond studs and a shoulder bag with a loud logo announcing its non-Indian origin. 


Does she know that this accessory was probably made in a factory in Kanpur’s Khapra Mohal, by a leather worker whose monthly earning may not exceed the retail value of this piece? I wondered. 

India’s leather corridor has long been the source of fetish gear for decades now. Many years ago, I had visited the grimy hub, chasing a story about how Indian workers were crafting leather goods for the BDSM fantasies of the West. The factories made hogties, harnesses, leather sex toys, swings and more to be exported to the US, UK, Australia, Germany, Canada, West Asia and Southeast Asia. But thanks to a recent crackdown, the owners of these small leather making units refused to speak to me. How quickly and why did the taboo dissolve? 

The march of this subversive aesthetic, which for decades signalled that the wearer is a member of a (often underground) community, which explores alternative sexual expression, into the mainstream offers a very interesting opportunity to study how taboos lose their illicit status. 

In a study, shopping search engine Lyst noted the rise of ‘fetishcore’, with searches for ‘harness’ on the platform increasing by 132 per cent month-on-month, and queries for leather chokers on the site also growing 100 per cent. The report lists the pop culture moments which beamed accessories like the gimp mask (used to conceal a submissive sexual partner’s face thus completing their transformation into a sexual object to be used for the pleasure of the dominant partner) into mainstream media: Kim Kardashian’s much-memed Balenciaga ensemble, Sam Smith creating a BDSM dungeon for the video of his Grammy winning single, Unholy. 

Closer home, fashion’s favourite agent provocateur Uorfi Javed regularly borrows BDSM staples to create outfits which are then viewed by millions on her Instagram page. But how many of those who consume this media, know about the history of these striking accessories which were once relegated to underground sex dungeons and queer parties. 


Randhir Singh, founder of India’s first homegrown fetish fashion label Subculture, says not many. “Only a handful of the clientele is aware of the origins and the history of these items, those who have participated in the underground events that do happen in Delhi, Mumbai and a few other cities. To the majority it is just a trendy fashion accessory, that they have seen on their favourite musician or on the Kardashians.” Despite the consumer subtracting the subversive from these objects, Randhir’s label fully embraces the taboo. On the website, latex corsets and collars are worn by men who do not wear much else, and the photographs create colourful scenes of homoerotica. 

“I am a queer person and I am my brand. These accessories may have become popular in the mainstream, but that does not mean that the communities which originated them have now gained wide acceptance. I studied leather at NIFT and while they went deep into the history of the material, its role in the kink community only got a very brief mention,” says Randhir. If it remains taboo in what is considered one of India’s most progressive campuses, the gear clearly has not lost the touch of taboo. 

While H&M and Zara are now selling harnesses, Q, a hairstylist based in Delhi, says that the queer community faced a lot of the pejorative stereotypes associated with these accessories. 

“It is easier for a straight person to wear a choker at a club and not receive any negative attention than I, who is a very queer-presenting gay man. The community helped form this aesthetic and it is still used as a mark to identify and target us,” said the hairstylist. 

The mainstreaming of this aesthetic is not as recent. A lineage of Bowery’s gimp mask legacy can be seen in the alien dominatrix glamour of Thierry Mugler, the hounds toothed sex dolls-who-lunch of Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1991 French Can Can collection, the dark-sided sculptural drama of Gareth Pugh in his spring/summer 2007 collection (and again in spring/summer 2019), and most recently, the chintzy kitsch-cum-kink designs of Richard Quinn. 

Anurag Dubey, a Gen-Z multi-hyphenate (he is a stylist, writer, actor) who often models for Subculture offers an interesting take on the mainstreaming of this aesthetic which was once a symbol of the unacceptable ‘other’: the not-straight, not-straight-laced other. 

“Fetish gear is a lot more expansive, there are entire subcultures in Japan and Korea where bondage gear is not leather. Instead, printed silk and metal is the material of choice. We have reached a saturation point with this very Western idea of what fetish gear looks like,” says Anurag, who described himself as a ‘culture practitioner’. 

So, will mainstream normalisation become the death of this aesthetic and will the fringe practitioners drop it? French philosopher Michel Focault studied the phenomenon of ‘normalisation’ and in ‘Security, Territory, Population’, a lecture given at the Collège de France in 1978, defined it thus: “Normalisation consists in trying to get people, movements, and actions to conform to a model, the normal being precisely that which can conform to this norm, and the abnormal that which is incapable of conforming to the norm. In other words, it is not the normal and the abnormal that is fundamental and primary in normalisation, it is the norm. That is, there is an originally prescriptive character of the norm and the determination and the identification of the normal and the abnormal becomes possible in relation to this posited norm.” 

As the abnormal becomes the normal, and where the normal is boring and not worthy of a reaction, we may have just killed a thrilling aesthetic, steeped in sex and mystery and turned it into another trend. So, who all will wear a gimp suit to the funeral? 

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