April 19, 2005

Fashion Expert Talks On History of Fetish

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What is considered sexy? What is a fetish? No, this isn’t part of a Victoria’s Secret advertisement, these were some of the topics addressed at Valerie Steele’s lecture yesterday entitled “Fetish, Fashion, Sex and Power.” Sarah Thomas, Carl A. Kroch University Librarian, introduced Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who conducted some of her research at Cornell Library’s Human Sexuality Collection.

“The whole idea of fetishism has been studied from so many different angles,” Steele said, speaking to a packed Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall. For her research she examined psychoanalytic studies, pornography, fashion magazines and resources at the Kinsey Institute and Cornell’s Human Sexuality Collection. She began by defining fetishism as “lust directed towards items of women’s clothing or parts of women’s bodies, which was later expanded to men.”

There are degrees of fetishes, according to Steele. Using the example of high heeled shoes, she said that most people are level one or two, finding them appealing. Her example of level three was a French writer who followed women in Paris wearing high heeled shoes. She gave for an example of level four, Marla Maples’ ex-publicist, who was found guilty of stealing Maples’ shoes.

“He denied being a fetishist, but admitted that he had a sexual relationship with Marla’s shoes,” Steele said.

She quoted psychiatrist Robert Stoller, saying, “A fetish is a story masquerading as an object.” Steele retold an experience of slipping off old shoes at a shoe store and when she tried on a pair of high heels, a man lurking nearby said, “Now you’re sexy.”

She presented multiple slides including five and six inch tall high heels, women clad in leather boots and magazine advertisements. She explored the symbolism and fetishism of high heels.

“The heel is very dangerous, aggressive and fierce,” she said, describing one picture.

According to Steele, submission to the powerful “phallic woman” is a very popular fantasy. She described how women in high heels are seen as powerful Amazonian women, fierce, and armored when wearing a corset. In contrast, she said that men in high heels are hobbled, can barely walk around and that being in a corset is like being punished.

“The naked foot itself is not as erotically appealing, the shoe raises up the foot and gives it mystery and allure so it’s not just a piece of meat,” Steele said. According to Steele, since the 1880s, high heeled shoes have been almost entirely associated with femininity with the exception of cowboy boots.

“We try to humanize the foot; dress it up like a particular kind of person,” said Steele. She described shoes with just a strap in the back, colloquially known as “fuck me” shoes and those with the front cut out as showing “toe cleavage.”

Corsets were another fetishized item discussed at the lecture. She said that there are fantasies of being constrained and imprisoned in high heeled shoes and corsets.

“Why is this the case?” she asked, “Most of us tend to be raised in a puritanical society. If you’re being forced to do something it’s not your fault if you do it. The body itself is controlled which is reassuring.” She added that this is especially the case for those with a rubber fetish.

Steele explained that corsets were part of womens’ wardrobes in the 19th century the way high heeled shoes are now.

“The idea that only the upper-class wore corsets is false,” said Steele. She explained that while upper-class women could wear colorful satin corsets, respectable married women would only wear white corsets. According to Steele, there is a huge market for corsets now, including usage as a couture wedding dress and in dominatrix fantasies.

“Fetishism is at the absolute core of fashion,” said Steele. Explaining how fashion designers such as Gianni Versace and Jean-Paul Gaultier have brought fetishism and S&M imagery to haute couture, Steele showed a Versace advertisement from Versace’s 1992 “bondage” collection, with two women outfitted in in S&M style with black leather and boots. This collection was the focus of a New York Times article, “Chic or cruel?” debating whether the style exhibits misogynistic sexual fantasy or liberation.

Other examples in popular culture included Mrs. Peel, of the Avengers, whose leather outfit was made by a company shut down for making fetish wear. She said that fetishism entered into mainstream fashion, showing a 1972 Montgomery Ward advertisement of a woman wearing high-laced boots, black laced patent leather top.

“The rise of punk fashion in the 1970s and 80s took the clothes out of the closet and porn films as they were worn on the street by punk girls and boys,” Steele said.

The popularity of black and red can be linked to imagery and symbolism, according to Steele. Some examples she gave were those of black with sin, the devil, asceticism in terms of priests and nuns, and the contrast with light skin and red with passion, flames, vampires and blood.

She concluded by mentioning examples of other fetishes: roses, hair brushes, whips, uniforms, the handlebars of an Italian racing bike, and cockroaches as part of a squish fetish.

“There is a little bit of fetishist in everyone,” Steele said.

“I appreciated that she was able to talk about fetishism as an integral part of everyone’s sexuality without making moral judgements,” said Sonam Singh grad.

The lecture was sponsored by Cornell University Library. According to Brenda J. Marston, curator, human sexuality collection, rare and manuscript collections, some reasons why Steele was invited to speak were that “We met her when she came to do research here and some friends of the library heard her speak and asked if we would think of having her come speak.”

“I think it shows the breadth and depth of research that can be done,” said Thomas.

Juliana Eisner ’05, a textile and apparel major, enjoyed the lecture. “She made connections that people don’t generally make at all; you would never think that corsetted wedding dresses had fetishistic influences.” Eisner said.

“I wished that it had been broader in scope and covered lots of different fetishes, instead, I felt that there was a lot of attention paid to just shoes and corsets,” said Isabel Bazaldua ’06.

Steele said, “Students are at the age when sexuality is really central to their lives. It’s a real benefit having the Human Sexuality Collection here because it’s a source of information that’s non-judgmental and very inclusive.”

Jason van Staveren ’06 said, “I think that it’s very relevant and something that’s not often talked about, especially in an academic setting.”

Archived article by Vanessa Hoffman
Sun Staff Writer