The Leather Archives and Museum did an interview with Chuck Renslow who was a major organizer of the gay male Leather Scene going back to 60s.
Cole, Shaun. ‘Don We Now Our Gay Apparel’: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century. Berg, 2000 Amazon
If there’s a predominant theme in Cole’s book on the history of gay fashion in the twentieth century, it’s that gay fashion is always imperfectly mimetic, a tangled mix of “passing, minstrelization and capitulation”, to quote sociologist Martin P. Levine (pg. 3)
Over the course of this research, I’ve looked at BDSM in prose, poetry, painting, dance, illustration, music, fashion, sculpture, film, comics, television, live drama and video games. Is there an art form I have overlooked? Yes, the most ephemeral of arts, that of scent.
The Perfume Shrine talks about the frequent references to scent in the proto-fetishists, like Emile Zola and JK Huysmans, and the first synthesis of the leather scent chemicals.
The leather note, of course, is one such artificial scent, a hybrid of “flower and flesh” created by industry. It is strangely redolent of the human skin which leather approaches, both by its texture and by its proximity to the body of the wearer whose shape it retains…
Can it possibly be a coincidence, then, that leather scents and leather fetishism are strictly contemporary, born in the same decade of the late 19th century?
Check the dates: quinolines, which lend their characteristic smoky-tarry notes to most leather perfumes, were synthesized around 1880. The first recorded Cuir de Russie was composed by Aimé Guerlain in 1875; Eugène Rimmel launched his the following year.
Now, it was precisely in 1876 that French psychiatrist Alfred Binet coined the term “fetishism”; the leather fetish itself is studied in Austrian sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886).
While the fetish is often considered primarily a visual phenomenon, we may be neglecting one of the most powerful and evocative senses, smell.
…Messieurs Guerlain and Rimmel sold their Cuir de Russie. The name may have referred to the Cossacks who rubbed their boots with birch, and certainly bore a virile, military or equestrian connation. But the scents themselves alluded to more private passions.
So we have an engineered scent with associations of virility, the military or the equestrian, which aligns with fetish fashion’s visual gestures towards the soldier and the equestrian.
The blog has more information on the use of leather in scent products, including Orientalized leathers, quirky leathers, butch leather, and more. Just like the material of leather, the scent of leather has changing meaning many times, sometimes worn by men, sometimes by women, and sometimes both. Just like visual fashion, scent fashion is part of the process of how we present ourselves.
It’s hard to kill a myth. In meme theory, myths are often analogous to parasites: hard to get rid of, but not too harmful. Or rather, they mask their harmful effects.
In the BDSM world, there are a lot of pernicious myths that many people want to believe. (Are kinky people more prone to this kind of fantasy?) The most enduring is the myth of the Old Guard.
TLC: Year with a Leather Club (1996) is a documentary film just released totally for free under a Creative Commons license.
The documentary, produced in 1993-96, looks at the Tarheel Leather Club, a Greensboro, North Carolina based leather/sm organization involved in community education, fundraising, political awareness and mutual spport among LGBT fetishists. The documentary was mastered for DVD from an original Hi-8 master of the work and runs approximately 80 minutes. It is unrated, but recommended for mature audiences.
You can view more supplementary materials, interviews and information about the documentary at http://www.coolcatdaddy.com/. This documentary and dvd image are copyright (c) 1996-2009 by Randy A. Riddle and the Tarheel Leather Club.
Lenius, Steve. Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness Nelson Borhek Press, 2010 Google books
Lenius’ book is a collection of columns published in Lavender magazine since 1995. It covers a considerable swath of recent history, including the rise of the Internet as a mass medium and some of the most politically and sexually tumultuous events.
His 1999 visit to Erotica ’99 trade show, right next to the Gay & Lesbian Business Expo, in NYC: “Erotica was kinky but very hetero, while the Gay & Lesbian Business Expo was very gay but not terribly kinky. I found myself wishing for a combination of the two.” Having attended several Taboo trade shows in Vancouver, I can attest that sex trade shows tend to be very un-queer.
In his column on people who build fucking machines, he observes that the people who build these devices are all men and apparently heterosexual. One could argue that women (whether by nature or nurture) are less inclined to find technological solutions to problems, while heterosexual men tend to think of sexual performance with women as a duty to be fulfilled and a problem to solve.
My particular interest was in the historical sections. Lenius views WWII as a turning point for gay identity. “… the rough-and-tumble, almost-hypermasculine comradeship of their military days held a romantic and even a sexual attraction.” (Pg.55) There was a strong blue-collar theme to this culture. You didn’t “play with” someone, you “worked on” or “got worked on by” someone. Implements were “tools,” not “toys.” The recognition phrase was “Are you a working man?” This ties into the view of the working-class as a source of masculine authenticity, much like the military. This was an exclusively male culture, no lesbians or straights allowed. In the 1980s, leatherwomen formed a similar culture, and AIDS brought leather men and women together. Leatherwomen started taking care of ailing men and raising money for research.
Heterosexuals don’t enter Lenius’ narrative until the early 90s, after leathermen have become visible to the mainstream. Then they start coming out of the closet and talking with leathermen, creating the possibility of a pansexual leather community. That was published in 2001, and I’m not sure that has really come to pass. This account also glosses over the organized hetero kink community that goes back to the early 1970s.
Lenius also talks about Robert Bienvenu’s work on BDSM history, comparing the “soft” images of 19th century kink (silk, lace, fur, etc.) with the “hard” images of 20th century kink (leather, latex and metal, etc.) Beivenu’s American fetish style began in the 1930s as an offshoot from the European fetish style, while Gay Leather developed in isolation from either style in the 1950s.
Other columns document the “cleaning up” of New York and San Francisco in post-2000 years; the decline of leather magazines like Drummer, surpassed by the Internet; brief histories of the Leather Archive and Museum; issues of race and age among leathermen; the hankie code (said to have started in the Gold Rush of 1849, creating a nearly all-male society in which men who would lead during dancing would wear bandanas in the left pocket, while the “girls” wore them in the right pocket); the controversy over leather dress codes (again returning to the theme of military/working class masculinity by barring polo shorts and loafers); and how the AIDS crisis transformed pageant winners from pretty title-holders to ambassadors and fund-raisers.
There’s also some particular insights into the differences and similarities between gay, lesbian and straight BDSM culture. Scene names, for example, are rarities in gay male and lesbian circles, while straights who use their real names in the Scene are the minority. I suspect that this has something to do with Internet culture’s influence on the straight BDSM culture, in which handles were commonplace, both for anonymity and for a heightened sense of initiation. Another aspect is the greater acceptance of alcohol and other substances in gay BDSM play, likely due to the centrality of bars in leather culture. “The unspoken but implicit message often seems to be that drinking and drugs are integral parts of the scene, necessary elements of machismo; if you don’t partake, maybe you’re not a real leatherman or leatherwoman.” (Pg.226)
Thankfully, since Lenius wrote that in 1997, there are many more non-bar social events for leatherfolk, and pansexual events tend to be dry.
Lenius writes mainly from the gay leatherman perspective. He’s particularly engaging when he writes about his personal experiences: coming out twice, living with his family, his life in leather bar culture, his experiences as a leather pageant judge. He’s also aimed at a gay but not necessarily kinky readership via the magazine, so some of it is more written as outreach for the curious vanilla gay man and woman. This is a bit frustrating, as I get the impression that Lenius could go much deeper into various topics, but his regular column format and his vanilla readership forces him to stay on the surface. His column predates blogging as a mainstream medium, which might have better served him to explore ideas in more depth.
Commenter Citizen Kinkster tipped me off about avant garde film director Kenneth Anger and his abortive attempt at making a film of The Story of O. From an interview in the Quietus:
I got permission from the publisher of an erotic book called Histoire d’O [The Story of O], which was later made into a rotten commercial film, which I never saw because it would spoil my vision. But even with the help of some literary people I couldn’t find the money to do it so I just move on and make another short film if the longer ones don’t work out.
Of the many longer projects you have conceived of that haven’t been realised, which of them do you most regret not happening?
Well, The Story of O, would have been beautiful because I was doing it in the style of Robert Bresson, like Les dames du Bois de Boulogne which is very understated. The subject is kinky eroticism but in my concept, I never showed anything. There are things implied but it’s a bit of a tease.
Which you have said is more powerful.
Yes, suggestion. Which is why I’m quite opposed to . . . I’m not advocating censorship, but to me, porno is a very problematic area because they defeat what they’re doing by having too much and too long and you get very bored with it, it’s like watching a sewing machine or something.
From what I’ve found so far, it’s unclear how much, if any, of this film was actually shot, or whether it was one of those things that never got out of development hell.
Another article on Anger says footage was shot, and then the story got even weirder:
He recounted his failed attempt to direct a feature-length film version of Pauline Reage’s mythic S&M novel The Story of O in Paris (“Don’t try it at home”). Describing the story as “a wanking fantasy, if you know what that means” he claimed that the production was bankrolled by money acquired by the young star’s boyfriend–ransom money from the kidnapping of the nephew of the Citroen car company’s owner. That this starlet was the daughter of the French minister of finance–and required to wear a chain attached “inside her little down there” for the shoot–ignited such a scandal that “M. Ange” was threatened with expulsion by some “magnificently cool guys” from the French government. Apparently the twenty minutes of footage that was successfully shot is lying somewhere in the archives of the Cinematheque Francaise…
Yet another interview:
When I was living in France,my publisher was Jean-Jacques Pauvert.
He brought out the original edition of Hollywood Babylon, which I
wrote in French, before it came out in English. At that time Jean-Jacques
was the publisher of a rather notorious novel, Histoire d’O, by Pauline Reage.
It was an erotic novel; I guess you could call it a sadomasochistic fairytale
because it’s absolutely a fantasy, nothing that could actually happen in real
life. I met the author, whose real name is Dominique Aury, and she gave me
permission to film the book, and I began work on a black-and-white, silent
film. My model for the project was Bresson. I shot about twenty minutes,
and then the production came to a halt: it turned out that the father of the
young lady who was playing the lead was the French minister of finance.
The girl was in her late teens, old enough to make up her own mind about what she wanted to do, but at any rate, the filming had to stop when it became
known that she was playing a part in an erotic film. It wasn’t pornographic,
but did involve some nudity and some simulated S&M; most everything
takes place of camera. The film was basically an exercise in style. I
had a work print of what I had shot, which I left at the Cinémathèque
Française. Another unfinished project.
The story concerns a woman, Helene, who is spurned by her lover Jean. To get revenge, Helene hires a dancer and prostitute, Agnes, and passes her off as a bourgeois woman to trick Jean into marrying her.
The lesbian subtext of this scene could give a hint of what Anger’s low-key version of The Story of O would have been like.
Anger’s Scorpio Rising was definitely a contributor to the leatherman style, as you can see below:
Ah, what could have been. I suspect that coyness is not something that would have worked with the source material. What’s distinctive about The Story of O is its lack of gentility or discretion, its directness and bluntness. I think, if it had been completed, most would have criticize it as a poor adaptation, perhaps even more so than the Just Jaeckin version.
PS: Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon alleges that Rudolph Valentino liked to get beaten by dominant women.
From the UK Guardian:
Back in the mid-60s New York had just one leather bar, and it was inconspicuous and customers would wear their normal clothes and carry a change of costume in a bag, then switch to their chaps and black leather vest in the taxi. They were terrified a friend, even a gay friend, might see them going out in this freaky rig. Sadomasochism still sounded perverted and ever so slightly tacky – sort of New Jersey. And elderly. As if working-class, old gay men who couldn’t compete in the real bars could look appealing in leather, or at least threatening.
In 1975 a hardcore S&M monthly magazine, Drummer, started publishing. It had fairly technical information about how to torture and submit to it – we read it with avidity. The whole look and smell of gay New York culture was changing toward beefier bodies, beards, and the odour of brew, harness, sweat, and Crisco. A boyfriend of mine said that New Yorkers were so pale and unhealthy looking that black leather was the only look that suited them.
The leather bars kept pushing farther and farther uptown until they reached 21st Street and 11th Avenue with the Eagle’s Nest. There all the men seemed older and bearded and muscular and over six feet tall. At 5ft 10in I’d never felt short before except in Amsterdam. Now I was a shorty in my own city. To get from the West Village up to the Eagle, gay men had to go past three blocks of projects on Ninth Avenue starting at 16th Street. Gangs who lived in the projects would attack single gay men. We started wearing whistles around our necks to summon other gay men to our defence – a fairly effective system. I thought back to the 50s when everyone was a sissy boy with straightened hair, cologne, and a baby-blue cashmere sweater and penny loafers. Back then we would have been terrified of gangs. Not any more. Now many of us were taking judo classes.
And now the dress code was strict. The Eagle would allow “No hat other than leather cycle caps, western hats, construction hats or uniform hats. No jackets or coats other than leather or western style”.