A BRIEF HISTORY OF LEATHER
A whistle-stop tour through the fast times of fashion’s ultimate fetish fabric.
BY Laura McLaws Helms
Reading time 6 Minutes
Appearing first as a burlesque performer at a low-rent carnival, Stacey Kane uses her feminine wiles and desirability to escape to New York and a life as an elegant nightclub singer in Satan in High Heels. Her rise in status is most clearly exhibited through her clothes. Fishnets and a corset of cheap black lace make up her uniform for her tawdry carnival dancing, topped only with a simple trench coat and a small neckerchief when she steals her junkie husband’s money and heads for the airport. Captivating her airplane seatmate, he sets her up with a hotel, a nightclub audition and a floral cocktail dress to wear for it. At this point her garments become a striking symbol of her sexual powers – the nightclub’s manager has a selection of leather outfits made for her, for both on and off-stage life. Running the gamut from leather shirtdresses to jodhpurs and whip, Stacey’s new attire mark her out as one to be noticed, one to be desired.
Sexologists divide fetish garments into ‘hard’ (often tight and constricting garments or shoes made of leather or rubber) and ‘soft’ (lingerie and fur). Starting the film in a soft fetish (black lace), Stacey’s evilness (the ‘Satan’ of the title) is illustrated by the hardening of her clothes. Unlike ‘soft’ fetishes, which have commonly been bought from fashion stores and are part of the traditional fashion industry, ‘hard’ fetishes were usually sold through specialist catalogues and stores. Stacey’s leather fashions were made for the film not by a fetish designer, but by manufacturer Samuel Robert. Founded by Samuel Kniznick (who later changed his surname to Robert) and his father-in-law Robert Nathan in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1946 (their first mention in Women’s Wear Daily occurred in 1949) Samuel Robert was a clothing manufacturer who specialised first in suede and leather ready-to-wear garments. They were known for producing sportswear, coats and suits. Styles suitable for country wear prevailed until around 1960 when Samuel Robert began reproducing leather designs by French couturiers like Christian Dior to Madame Grès. Now titled a “couturier of leather”, Robert’s aesthetic aligned with the beat-influenced looks taking hold in fashion in the early 1960s: black patent cropped jackets paired with black leather trousers, sleek kidskin dresses and matching soft leather cardigans. Appearing on the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, these styles are elegant and a far-reach from fetish fashion in everything other than material. It’s little wonder that Pepe took Stacey Kane to Samuel Robert’s salon to be kitted out in an all-leather wardrobe for her all new life in Satan in High Heels. Unsurprisingly there was no mention of Robert’s foray into costuming in the fashion press, though Stacey’s ensembles could have walked straight out of a 1962 editorial: a skintight black leather sheath dress, an elegant black leather dress with flared skirt and sleeves.
Those who study the history of leather as a fetish material discuss its uses by the Gestapo and the SS, motorcycle gangs, sadomasochists, as well as the gay ‘leatherman’ subculture. While worn for its durability and protectiveness (useful for piloting fighter jets or riding motorbikes), it is the mystique of these groups that has added symbolic layers to wearing leather. Equally erotic are its feel (from hard to sensuously soft), its distinctive smell, and creaking sound. Having built his life around an almost fetishistic love of the material, Robert told WWD in 1961: “Leather is a romantic fabric… like a precious jewel, it is genuine.” Other designers have had similar relationships with such skins. Yves Saint Laurent brought leather on to the runway in his beatnik collection for Dior in 1960, followed by a group of designers who made their start in Paris in the 1970s – Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Azzedine Alaïa – who used leather to recreate their vision of strong, sexually rapacious women. Comparable to one shown in Satan in High Hells, Montana designed leather versions of the infamous ‘dirty old man’s trench coat’ while all three produced many variations of the sexy, little leather dress (which went mass-market in the US with Michael Hoban’s North Beach Leather brand). Other designers have used butter-soft leather to tap into some of the animalistic symbolism of the skin, while evading the associations that hard, shiny leather has with radical sexuality; Donna Karan said in 1981, “Nothing else feels like leather next to your skin. It’s the ultimate sensuality!”
Fashion historian Valerie Steele writes that, “the attraction that many women have to fashion – and fetish fashion, in particular – may be related to their desire to assert themselves as independent sexual beings.” Though these leather ensembles are purchased for Stacey, she becomes even more of an independent sexual being through the wearing of them. Unwilling to submit to the demands of either of her lovers – both the nightclub owner and his son viewed her leather-clad form as their own personal fetish object – she endangers her new found status and finds herself alone at the end of the movie, without her couture leather garments and back to her simple trench coat.
Laura McLaws Helms is a fashion/cultural historian, design consultant and writer based in New York. She curated the exhibition Thea Porter: 70s Bohemian Chic at the Fashion & Textile Museum in London, and wrote an accompanying monograph, Thea Porter: Bohemian Chic (V&A Publications). Laura is the co-founder of Lady, an arts and fashion publication and website (ladyworld.tv), for whom she hosts the Lady's After Hours podcast.