May 052010

From an excerpt from Steve Lenius’s book Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness:

In the first part of the presentation, Bienvenu described SM practices of the nineteenth century and how SM practices changed in the early twentieth century. Nineteenth-century SM imagery was built around “soft,” essentially feminine materials such as silk, lace and fur. Participants in SM scenes either wore everyday clothes or were nude.

Nineteenth-century SM implements were simple, natural and uncomplicated—canes, switches, whips or birch rods. SM practices of the time were narrowly focused (on the buttocks, for example), ritualistic and predictable (starting with ritualistically exposing the buttocks), and endlessly repetitive (flagellating the buttocks, then flagellating them some more). Creativity and spontaneity were not the objects of nineteenth-century SM.

By the 1920s, SM had changed to a predominantly “hard,” masculine aesthetic. SM imagery of the time revolved around polished leather, latex and metals. When SM participants in the images shown by Bienvenu wore anything, it tended to be specialized fetish attire, following an aesthetic that came to be known as “bizarre.” Photographic backgrounds were urban and industrial. SM implements and situations showed a broadened focus and increasing creativity, ingenuity, spontaneity, complexity and unpredictability.

I can think of a few counter examples to Beinvenu’s classification: blood-letting seemed to have been a common practice in 19th century brothels, for instance. Still, I think there might be something to this; for example, is black leather as the default BDSM fashion choice something inherited from the post-war Leatherman culture, and not a feature of pre-WWII BDSM culture? I’m slowly working through the collection of John Willie’s Bizarre magazine, and there are plenty of mentions of rubber, but little of leather.

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