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Date Posted: 19:24:58 05/09/16 Mon
The power of women in society has been increasing in recent years, and one of the byproducts of this trend has been the appropriation by fashion designers of sexual fetishes which can symbolize power: the black leather of the dominatrix, stiletto heels, underwear worn as outerwear. Now fashion historian Valerie Steele has given us a sophisticated look at this phenomenon in her book “Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power.”
Professor Steele’s analysis is not an impressionistic essay but a serious piece of scholarship, as is appropriate from someone who teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology and has a Ph.D from Yale. The book itself is published by the prestigious Oxford University Press.
Steele distinguishes various degrees of fetishism. In the highest level of fetishism, specific sexual stimuli, such as a female foot or long straight hair or a particular type of shoe, take the place of the sexual partner. At a more moderate level of fetishism, such stimuli are necessary for successful sexual performance with one’s sexual partner. Viewed this way, not very many people would be classed as fetishists.
Then there is low-level fetishism, in which a person has a strong preference for a particular sexual stimulus but is still able to perform sexually without it. At this level, most men would bee classified as fetishists, a fact which tends to undermine the usefulness of the word.
One way to keep the word “fetishist” as a label for a sexual minority would be to reclassify the low-level fetishists that make up the bulk of the male population as something else. On such new label could be “minifetishist.” In the words of psychiatrist Robert Stoller, there exists “a whole race of erotic minifetishists: most males of most cultures.”
An even better way to make the same distinction would be to distinguish between fetishism and “fetishizing.” To fetishize is to single out certain parts of the body or articles of clothing as extremely stimulating sexually. Most men in fact do this; to quote Dr. Stoller again, “fetishizing is the norm for males, not for females.” Women do take an interest in body parts and sexy clothes, but (as Professor Steele puts it) they don’t “lust” after them the way that men do.
Steele’s concern is with the appropriation of hard-core fetishes by fashion designers, but in the course of telling her story she ends up treating the fetishizing of the majority of males as well. In a way, this subordinate part of her analysis is even more useful to women, for it shows what makes most men tick and how they can be brought under female control.
Most men tend to fetishize because they are more visually oriented than women when it comes to sex. As is the case with many other differences between the sexes, this is due to our evolutionary heritage. Among the mammals, females generally invest more in their offspring than do males: it is the females that carry the fetus to term and then nurse the little bundle. As a result, female mammals are more selective than males when it comes to choosing mates. Females maximize their reproductive success by choosing healthy, successful (whatever that means for that particular species) males over unhealthy, unsuccessful ones. Male mammals, on the other hand, maximize their reproductive success by being the opposite of choosy: they try to mate with as many healthy females as possible.
The problem for the male mammal is to assess whether a particular female has good reproductive potential. The efficient way for him to do this is to pay attention to visual clues; that way, he can estimate her reproductive capacity in the shortest possible time. Thus our nonhuman male ancestors achieved their reproductive success by being visually oriented, while their contemporaries who were not so visually oriented were not so successful and left far fewer offspring.
The human male of our time is the descendant of his nonhuman male ancestors, and as a result his brain is hardwired to seek out and be aroused by visual sexual stimuli. Men fetishize because they are male and because they are the end product of an evolutionary development that goes back tens of millions of years.
Although it may be built into the structure of the male brain to be sensitive to visual stimuli, there is nothing innate determining which visual clues bring about male arousal. The human male acquires these preferences in the process of growing up; they are not instincts but social constructs. As Professor Steele puts it, “Many people assume that it is ‘natural’ for a man to be aroused by the sight of a woman’s naked breasts, and ‘unnatural’ to be excited by her feet or shoes. But human sexuality involves more than an instinctual response to a programmed stimulus; we do not go into ‘heat’ and mate like animals. Human sexuality is constructed.”
Most men seem to be attracted to women’s feet and shoes, but more often than not they are too ashamed to let on. Being attracted to women’s breasts is more socially acceptable, and so men will talk to each other about “boobs” and “hooters,” while keeping their feelings about feet to themselves.
Professor Steele write shat, on those occasions when she has given lectures on shoes, some of the women in her audience would become agitated and would ask, “What kind of shoes can I wear that won’t attract fetishists?” Steele observes that “almost every kind of shoe seems to have its enthusiasts, including ripped old sneakers. Nevertheless, certain styles attract most interest.”
Of most interest to the professor seem to be high boots, the kind that Paul Gebhart of the Kinsey Institute has called “the trademark of prostitutes specializing in sadomasochism.” Ann Magnuson, writing in Allure in September 1994, credited Marc Jacobs with designing “boots that would look smashing with a rubber mac and a horsewhip.” These patent leather boots with spike heels, she wrote, were “for the dominatrix in everyone.”
Of most interest to the largest number of men, however, seems to be the high-heeled shoe. Professor Steele observes that “certain garments (like high-heeled shoes, stockings, and garter belts) have particular characteristics that lend themselves to be fetishized….Many characteristics associated commonly with feminine sexual attractiveness are accentuated by high-heeled shoes, which affect the wearer’s gait and posture. By putting the lower part of the body in a state of tension, the movement of the hips and buttocks is emphasized and the back is arched, thrusting the bosom forward. High heels also change the apparent contour of the legs, increasing the curve of the calf and tilting the angle and foot forward, thus creating an alluringly long-legged look.”
This may (or may not) help to explain why so many women love shoes, but it does nothing to illuminate why most men fetishize the high heel by itself. Here Steele finds herself largely in agreement with Freud, who held that the high heel unconsciously evokes the penis and thereby assuages the male’s castration anxiety. According to Freud, the fact that women do not have penises makes men anxious, and clothing that symbolizes the penis relieves their unconscious fear that their own might be cut off.
Steele accepts Freud’s interpretation, but she also points out that fetishes are “overdetermined”—there is more than one reason for their appeal.
Many women have real difficulty comprehending why men can be so attracted to their feet and shoes. This is because women are not as visually oriented in their sexuality as men, so they tend not to share the male’s experience of fetishizing. Psychologist Glenn Wilson writes that women sometimes do mention articles of clothing in describing their sexual fantasies, but they do not do so with the same frequency as men, who report sexual fantasies involving clothing two and a half times as often as women.
Because men fetishize high-heeled shoes, women can use them to soften men up and get them to do what they want. “I don’t know who invented the high heel,” Marilyn Monroe is quoted as saying. “But all women owe him a lot.”
From high heels we can move up a bit to nylon stockings. Steele explains that “the legs are the pathway to the genitals. Stockings lead the viewer’s eyes up the legs, while garter belts frame the genitals. For many men, the effect is like arrows pointing to the promised land, an effect accentuated when the stockings have seams up the back….But the tops of stockings trace a line across the thighs, just as a gunslinger draws a line in the sand to indicate: Go no farther! Black stockings, in particular, graphically isolate part of the leg, and stop a few inches below the genitals.”
There are two elements involved here. First, gartered stockings say sex to men and get them aroused. But at the same time, the tops of the stockings symbolize a barrier and leave men frustrated. Garter belts and stockings tease men—and teasing men only to deny them sex makes them easier to control.
The black stocking maximizes the contrast with light-colored skin and emphasizes the barrier symbolized by the stocking tops. As far back as 1888, the magazine La Vie Parisienne alleged that men who are attracted to black underwear “need to see white skin emerging from a black sheath, because white skin in itself hardly arouses them any more.” This is exaggeration, but there is something special about the color black, as can be seen from all the lingerie magazines that have “black” as part of the title.
After the Big Three of fetishization—high heels, nylon stockings and garter belts—men seem to be attracted to women’s panties. Men fetishize panties for much the same reasons that they fetishize gartered stockings. On the one hand, pretty nylon panties are about as feminine a garment as one can find. And on the other, women’s panties, because they cover the genitals, represent a barrier to the male. But while stocking tops merely symbolize a barrier, panties are a barrier.
Nakedness symbolizes powerlessness and passivity, but clothing—even minimum clothing like panties—can symbolize power. Dr. Stoller writes that one professional dominatrix wears three pairs of underwear. When she removes the opaque top garment, her client would become excited, but then he would realize that her genitals were still concealed from his view. This has the effect of reinforcing in his mind that the woman is in the position of control.
According to another such professional, Madame Sadi, the dominatrix must “never bare her breasts and always wear elegant clothing (hight heels, preferably boots, and gloves).” To be exposed is to appear vulnerable.
This brings us back to shoes. “Since exposure implies accessibility,” writes Professor Steele, “‘naked’ shoes are also regarded as sexy. Slingback’s are popularly known as’ f—- me shoes’ because they present a naked rear view of the foot.” The women’s shoe industry refers to the crack between the toes as “cleavage”; it has the psychological effect of reminding men of cleavage between the breasts or, according to Steele, “perhaps other ‘slits’ in the female body.”
The foot can reflect other parts of the body as well as the breasts. “The great shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo,” continues Steele, “once designed a satin shoe with the vamp ‘cut away to show the instep in precisely the same fashion as Dior’s neckline.’ He also designed a shoe with a clear ‘crystal’ oval inserted into the sole. When the wearer held her foot at a certain angle, other people could see the bottom of her foot.”
Exposing the foot can suggest accessibility and therefore female passivity, but this can cut bot ways. Just as the gartered stocking can suggest both an invitation and a barrier, so also the cutaway shoe can both tease the man and frustrate him. It depends more on what it is worn with and the social context.
The fashion designers’ appropriation of fetishes also extends to fetish materials. This means preeminently leather, but we should not forget to mention rubber as well. “To put it bluntly,” Candice Bushnell wrote in theSeptember 1994 Vogue, “rubber is power and sex.”
Professor Steele notes that there has been a shift in the fetish materials themselves over the past hundred years, a shift from soft materials to hard ones. The nineteenth-century writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch represents the older preference for soft materials with his well known novel Venus in Furs. Today, however, fur and satin fetishism have become overshadowed by a fetishism of leather and rubber.
This change in the preferred materials of dedicated fetishists reflects the ongoing change in the status of women in our time. The older fetish materials were soft because women were viewed as passive, but today women are acknowledged as more assertive, and fetish materials are correspondingly tougher and less yielding.
Fashion designers have picked up on these hard materials for the same reason. Leather is “tough,” and that is what made it fashionable. Yves Saint Laurent started the trend back in the 1960—in the same time period that Betty Friedan was launching the National Organization for Women—and by the 1980s leather had become universal. The rise of leather paralleled the rise of a new self-assertive consciousness among women. “To the extent that fetish fashion is popular with women,” writes Professor Steele, “in large part this is because it adds the idea of power to femininity….What Vogue calls the ‘strong and sexy’ look has become the paradigm of contemporary fashion. This is a direct result of women’s liberation.”
Steele denies that fashion—even skyscraper heels, gartered hose, or clingy rubber dresses—indicates that men are oppressing women, as has been argued by some feminist writers. “In the past,” she writes, “(and today in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran), socially conservative males have made a point of controlling and concealing women’s bodies. As women became more independent, they adopted both men’s clothes and body-revealing clothes.”
When men are in total control of a society, they try to prevent women from expressing themselves through their clothes. Men are sensitive to the way that women dress because they are visually oriented, and they know that it makes them vulnerable.
The strong and sexy look is a form of self-assertion for women. It teases men and plays with their vulnerability. The appropriation of sexual fetishes by fashion designers is a reflection of the age we are in, an age in which women are surely and inexorably gaining power over men.
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