THE DEVIL WEARS LEATHER
From the front row, a blow-by-blow commentary on the real star of the show: the kinky couture.
By Susanne Madsen
Reading time 10 Minutes
When your name is Stacey Kane
When your name is Stacey Kane and you’re a wicked, wicked woman who can belt out a tune and work a burlesque move, it was only going to be a matter of time before someone with a posh risqué nightclub put you in a dominatrix get-up, brandishing a riding crop to slam into audience tables while looking down on them from your dangerously high riding boots. The devil may wear Prada, but Satan prefers bespoke leather pieces and five-inch fetish heels.
It’s a far couture-clad cry from Ms Kane’s humble beginnings when we first meet her in a bosom-spilling basque at a low-rent carnival, running out on her drug-riddled husband to make it big in New York, wearing that most trope-y of stripper tropes: a trench coat over her lingerie and stockings. (Hooray for the good old days of not having to remove one’s outerwear as you go through security.)
And from there kicks off a sordid tale about an ambitious woman who tries to play men at their own exploitative game and assert herself in a job that overwhelmingly sees her as an object. Beginning with the opening scene, director Jerald Intrator quite literally places her above men. She stands tall over them on a podium, and up until the very last fateful scene where the power dynamic changes, they sit before her or even kneel.
She’s also repeatedly shown in front of a mirror, getting dressed and undressed with a knowing gaze that tells us she’s completely aware of being looked at, or framed by tulle knickers and stockings on a washing line. Great care is taken to make sure there’s no doubt what theme we’re dealing with here, and it’s all very amusing and a bit on the nose. The nuns we see sitting behind her on the plane to New York, the cut to the cascading waterfall as Stacey gets into bed with her boss/sugar daddy’s son Laurence, the way her leather-gloved fist firmly grabs hold of her husband’s flaccid, trembling hand and places a knife in it.
But for all its cheesy moments and sexploitation antics, the costumes are the real deal. Stacey, portrayed by Meg Myles, wears pieces by the late Samuel Robert, whose name might not be on mainstream fashion lips but at the time was the go-to man for high-end leather pieces, dressing the likes of Joan Crawford and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Aside from his own label, he also designed for André Courréges in the early 60s, translating the French designer’s space vocabulary into the softest of skins, from skinny ultrasuede to kidskin pieces and goatskin walking suits.
Here, Robert perfectly balances fashion and perversion with Joan Holloway-esque belted leather frocks and trenchcoat dresses that stretch and squeak their way through the plot like an extra character. There’s a whiff of Fendi’s AW18 double leather extravaganza, the empowered kink that’s pulsating through fashion right now, the current love of all things seedy and a bit ‘wrong’. Stacey and her fellow club performers also become almost live versions of John Willie’s commanding pin-ups from the pages of his unimpeachable midcentury Bizarre magazine, all hobble skirts, tiny girdled waists and navicular bones pushed forward to the max in patent mules for all those foot fetish viewers out there.
Roberts manages to create something that goes beyond cheap thrills with his costumes, in the way the many lingerie scenes call to mind Agent Provocateur’s knack for balancing vulgarity and expensive taste with just a dash of irony. And lots of female power. The film’s gender battle constantly comes back to that age-old paradoxical question of who’s in control: the men ogling Stacey or Stacey herself, who fully owns her sexuality and takes advantage of the drooling messes around her.
All of this power play of course translates neatly into the film’s S&M theme, with Stacey as the buxom dominatrix and the powerful businessman and club owner Arnold Kenyon as her willing slave. It is Arnold who orchestrates her leather makeover, quickly decoding what she’s about whilst also living out his own fantasy. He’s so under her spell he accepts she’s having an affair with his son, while an icy Stacey tells him: “Give me a while Arnold. To think how I want it.” Et voila, we get the impression a sub-dom relationship has been born. A “new understanding”, Arnold calls it. But sadly, Arnold reflects: “My son is not as open-minded as I am.”
So where does a 1962 film like Satan in High Heels sit?
So where does a 1962 film like Satan in High Heels sit in an era of feminist discourse and #MeToo? You can easily see it as a piece of misogyny (women aren’t just bad, they’re Satan himself and they’re only after your money) dressed up in frilly knickers and a bit of ooh-ah fun, or equally as a piece of misandry (men are sexist users, they’ll pay you off and throw you out when you’re past your prime like Arnold’s former mistress Felice, and they’ll only allow you to get so far). But really, everyone comes across pretty bad in this, so perhaps it’s just a homage to glittering misanthropy.
Even Pepe, the gay club manager portrayed with steely grandeur by Grayson Hall who pops up in this feature like a thoroughbred at a gypsy horse fair, is in many ways as exploitative as the men, only in a detached and astute way. “Your price tag’s showing,” an acerbic Pepe tells Stacey at her audition, reaching for a pair of scissors. She dresses a bit like if Coco Chanel ran a burlesque club. Or a 1950s lesbian riding instructor: rail thin in her tweeds, crisp men’s shirts and pocket watch, phallic cigarette holder in hand at all times. She tries to mentor Stacey but it’s also more than implied that they end up in bed together. She doesn’t ogle though, but rather observes, highlighted in the way she’s constantly placed silently in the background.
When British platinum blonde pin-up Sabrina enters stage left, more or less playing herself, she’s immediately set up as Stacey’s opposite. An established ‘star’ of the show, she’s all baby voiced white sparkly sequins and torpedo bra coyness, white Afghan hound in tow. She’s anything but innocent, though, as innuendoes fly about Sabrina sleeping her way around the Riviera, and she works this duality into her club act, singing doe-eyed about “I would if I could but I can’t” before adding at the very end: “I can’t be good.”
Naughty hi-jinx, commanding getups and slightly unclear feminist/anti-feminist angle aside, it’s the close-ups of the audience that are the true scene-stealers of the film. They offer fascinating glimpses into the human gaze that add something more than cult, campy fun and fetish kicks. From the carnival punters to the bourgeois champagne-drinking crowd at Pepe’s, we see the full scale of emotions: wide schoolboy eyes, dirty desire, women enthralled, women less than impressed. There’s ennui, amusement, excitement, lust, fun, even a few who seem to find the whole thing quite silly. A shot of a disillusioned Felice downing a martini as Stacey sings: “The female of the species is more deadly than the male” is particularly spectacular, not least because Stacey is about to get a rude awakening.
This is where it gets interesting: we become voyeurs of the voyeurs, catching them off guard when everyone else is looking at the female form centre stage. We get so many titillating shots of Stacey in her lingerie, but it’s weirdly the audience shots that feel the most naked, like something we’re not supposed to be looking at. We’re observing them during a strange public moment of intimacy where their crowd anonymity is gone. Seen through a 2019 lens where nothing shocks us anymore, it’s this part that adds another unexpected layer to the gender discourse, and what makes Satan in High Heels this peculiar hybrid of clever commentary and sexploitation.
Susanne Madsen is Writer-at-Large at Dazed and is the Editor-in-Chief of the biannual equestrian/fashion crossover title The Horse Rider’s Journal. Based in Surrey – near her beloved Westphalian dressage horse Dax – she writes for a number of international titles, among them Another Man, GQ Style and Port.