smell of female
A User’s Guide to the Hellcats and She-Devils of Volume 4
Reading time 7 Minutes
If you’re reading this then you’ve already been exposed to the oddball universe of byNWR and, in your infinite wisdom, decided to stay. Which tells me a few things: you have discerning taste, you’re curious by nature and you like your entertainment on the crude side. Which, in turn, tells me that we’ll get along just fine and, more importantly, you’ll find a lot to relish in Volume 4: Smell of Female.
This volume revolves around three shining examples of 60s sexploitation sinema. First up: Chained Girls, a pseudo documentary on the illicit activities of that most exotic of nighttime creatures: the lesbian. Unmoored from hard facts or any fragments of truth, and propelled by a force-ten gale of paranoia around the perils of homosexuality, this rickety 1965 film sets sail in the name of science through the unchartered backstreets of New York, exploring the strange, ritualistic (and entirely made-up) world of dykes and femmes. Helmed by Joseph P. Mawra – a former TV gag writer who, in his spare time, also gave us infamous proto-roughies like White Slaves of Chinatown and Olga’s House of Shame – Chained Girls is a bizarre voyage of late-night discovery that eventually runs aground somewhere between hilariously clueless and downright offensive. But it’s more than just a tone-deaf relic dredged up from the depths; Chained Girls is a fascinating message-in-a-bottle, carried across a 50-year ocean to today’s shores, offering a skewed view into the fears, confusion and irrational McCarthy-proportioned panic surrounding the lesser-known lesbian of 60s America. We still have some way to go when it comes to gay rights but Chained Girls reminds us how far we’ve come.
Next on the triple-bill: 1962’s Satan in High Heels. With a developed narrative, fleshed-out characters and carefully composed shots, it’s technically and stylistically the most accomplished of the three – the cameraman, as I’m sure he reminded the crew every morning, previously worked on the Oscar-winning short Day of the Painter – and it’s certainly the highest profile (once heard, who can ever forget that title?) but, fear not, Satan in High Heels is far from respectable and more than holds-its-own in the sleaze stakes. It trails the shameless exploits of Stacey Kane, a carnival stripper who uses her feminine wiles to kick-start a new life as a high-class nightclub chanteuse, her path to the top littered with a junkie boyfriend, a tattered father-and-son love triangle, seething jealousies, naked ambition and one failed homicide. As a morality tale, it’s a confusing one. Is Stacey a victim? Is she a pioneer of by-any-means-necessary female empowerment? Or a manipulative, sophisticated vixen? It’s hard to know: to be honest, nobody comes out of this sorry tale well, with redeeming features few and far between. So, while you weigh the scales, just revel in the smoky, leather-clad spectacle and, if the mood takes you, sing along to Stacey’s Female of the Species number.
Closing the triptych, we have 1966’s Maidens of Fetish Street (between us: my personal favourite). Also known as The Girls of F Street, and set in a murky 1928 Los Angeles, this is a relentlessly sordid exercise in adult film noir. It opens on an establishing shot of a smouldering cigarette butt discarded, as a crestfallen narrator informs us, “on the concrete street of rejection and regression where loneliness and despair mock and ridicule each faltering step…” And so begins a spiralling odyssey into a netherworld of twisted sex, following hapless souls Nick and Joe on their horny, desperate quest for relief. The men of Maidens of Fetish Street are sweaty, pathetic slaves to their desires; sleep the only respite from their longing. The women? Cruel, unhinged, damaged Liliths. Cue a catalogue of tawdry stripteases, tormenting hookers, brothel brawls, enthusiastic whipping, half-hearted bondage and, in a standout moment, a molasses-and-ant torture recipe. Layered with a surreal soundscape of animalistic noises, like some intercepted broadcast from a long-lost civilisation, awkward lingering looks-to-camera and some erotic clay modelling (eat your heart out Ghost), the overall effect is disorientating. This is sexploitation, but not as we know it.
When it came to considering what content to curate around these cinematic curiosities, something pulled into sharp focus. As well as sharing lunch-money budgets and a point-and-shoot spirit, Chained Girls, Satan in High Heels and Maidens of Fetish Street all have something in common: they were made by men for men. It suddenly struck me that the last thing these films need is another male point of view. No, what they need is a female take. It was time to redress the dynamic and ask: what would women today make of these films? As editor-in-chief of the men’s style magazine Another Man, I work in the fashion industry, surrounded by singular, visionary women, which got me thinking further: what would women working in fashion make of these films? I really didn’t know, which intrigued me even more. Happily, the powers-that-be at byNWR felt the same way.
So, I began gathering an all-girl gang of writers, designers, photographers, artists, editors, musicians and thinkers from near and far, all working within the fashion realm, to each create a project in response to one of the films. Each a bespoke, honest reaction to the half-century-old charms of either Chained Girls, Satan in High Heels or Maidens of Fetish Street (FYI: I chose which title they were assigned). What follows are the spoils of their artistry, inventiveness and beyond-the-call-of-duty effort. I wish I could take credit for the wealth of material on offer here – photoshoots, outfits, videos, playlists, essays, artworks – but, in all decency, I can’t. Volume 4 belongs to the supergroup of women who made it happen. I just hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed watching it come together.
Oh, and that inspired title, Smell of Female, from The Cramps album? Yup, that wasn’t me either.
By day, Ben Cobb is the editor-in-chief of the men’s luxury style magazine Another Man. By night, he watches weird films. As a journalist he has interviewed a cacophony of icons including Tom Ford, David Beckham, Brian Eno, Dakota Johnson, John Galliano, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, David Lynch, Diane von Furstenberg, Alex Turner, John Waters, Burt Bacharach, Kenneth Anger, Steven Tyler and Dario Argento. He is also the author of Anarchy and Alchemy: The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky (Creation Books, 2007) and co-editor of Another Man: Men’s Style Stories (Rizzoli, 2014).