The Oxford Dictionary offers two distinct definitions of the word fetish. The first is related to sex and desire — "a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body, etc." — while the second relates to the power of things — "an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit." Critical theorist Karl Marx was fascinated by the latter concept and wrote extensively about the notion of commodity fetishism. According to Marx, the word fetish refers to any object that people fixate on or are fascinated by and that keeps them from seeing the truth — or the actual production value of something. Fellow theorist Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, argues that fetishism is about objects coming to stand in for the activity of sex itself. Both of these arguments can be viewed today through the framework of fashion. Indeed, allusions to sexual fetish objects have been present in fashion since the '60s and, notably, the work of designer Vivienne Westwood and other provocative image-makers began. This manifestation of the fetish in fashion has fluctuated in its conspicuousness over time, but never really disappeared. On the Marx side of the coin, though, we have also witnessed the rise of certain It products over the years — objects with a cult-like following that have come to be desired mostly for the sake of desire itself. And in this way, these objects gain a value that is removed from their real production value — consider the discrepancies between the cost of producing an Hermès leather Birkin bag and the tens–of–thousands–of–dollars price tag ultimately tied to this product at point of sale. That is provided, of course, that you are willing to withstand the years-long waiting list required to get your hands on such a covetable item. So It products like the Birkin bag come to possess what Marx called an "intrinsic value" — a value that is less related to the production of the object, and more about notions of exclusivity and taste. In other words, it's the direct result of effective marketing.
Image: Kate Moss with a Birkin Bag
Valerie Steele is a pre-eminent fashion historian, whose work is largely concerned with the exploration of fashion through the lens of sexuality and eroticism. In her book Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power, for example, Steele argues that fashion trends both reflect common sexual fantasies and help to construct gender identities. She believes that, in this sense, clothing can function as an important marker of a culture's sexual politics. One of the key examples used here is the work of Vivienne Westwood, a clothing designer renowned for her punk creations and also for appropriating sexual fetish objects into popular fashion. During the '60s, Westwood released a series of ads in Vogue, which featured models in rubber outfits acting out bondage fantasies. In many ways, Westwood's designs mirrored the socio-political climate that she was influenced by, making it increasingly acceptable to bring clothing once tied to sexual purpose into the realm of everyday fashion. In her 1996 New York Times review of Steele's book, Sarah Boxer wrote that fashion designers have been borrowing from fetishists' closets for 30 years, but that, interestingly, "the appropriation has been so masterly that there are people running around in leather corsets who don't even know the fetishistic roots of their fashion. And there are fetishists running around fretting that their magical objects are losing their power."
Image: Naomi Campbell walking (and eventually tumbling) on the catwalk, in Vivienne Westwood's fetish heels, in 1993.
Certainly, the meaning of these objects has been shifting since the '60s, but their cult-like power is anything but lost. Take the high heel for example, an accessory so ineffective in improving one's ability to walk, yet so powerful in transforming the way a woman feels about herself. Acknowledging this very fact, Pulitzer Prize winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan told Vestoj – The Journal of Sartorial Matters: "I always feel more powerful when I'm wearing a pair of high heels because it allows me to have stature and see above the crowd."
Image: an image by Helmut Newton, fetishising high heels
Certainly the work of Helmut Newton has had much to do with the cult of the high heel too. A photographer whose work celebrated the beauty of the female form, his muses were often dressed in little else besides a pair of high heels. And one can't talk about the fetish of the high heel for long without talking about Christian Louboutin's cult-like red-soled stilettos. But the presence of fetishism via the feet is certainly not restricted to the work of Mr Newton or Mr Louboutin. In fact, Suzy Menkes went so far as to describe the spring summer 2015 season as "foot-fetish fashion week", given that eyes were immediately drawn to the shoes in many of the collections. "Either because of their beauty or because the models were balanced so precariously that the walk down the catwalk was an excruciating experience - even for the audience," she wrote for UK Vogue. According to Dr Prudence Black, a Gender and Cultural Studies Professor at The University of Sydney, this is representative of the high heel reaching its extreme. "At the moment I am quite interested in the sneaker in contrast to the high heel," explains Black, recounting a recent trip to Paris during which she taught a fashion course. Surprisingly, all that her students wanted to talk about during the course was the fact that Chanel was making sneakers. According to Dr Black, this is significant in the sense that sneakers have now become marketable as a fashion product to a group of people who would once have been deemed their exact non-market. And she puts this down to the heel having reached its extremes. "You will find with most of fashion that once it reaches an absolute extreme – and I think the height of the heel has – then it has to shift dramatically," explains Dr Black. "And the dramatic shift in this instance is that you go from the absolute impracticality of the high heel, to the absolute practicality of the sneaker and that these two things can now appear next to one another." The fashion industry has always been successful in transforming people's opinions of certain objects and giving them a new spin that people can buy into — Phoebe Philo's furkenstocks at Céline, anyone? In Another Magazine, Valerie Steele points out that "The psychiatrist Robert Stoller once said: 'a fetish is a story masquerading as an object.' So a high heel is sexy but sexy for different reasons, depending on the stories we tell ourselves." It is the same with the sneaker, then, which has suddenly been injected with a whole new story, magically transforming it from the banal realm of fitness into that of high fashion within a matter of seasons.
Image: Celine Furkenstocks
What is it about particular fashion objects, though, that inspires this must-have feeling? The magical process discussed in Oxford's second definition of fetish is one perhaps most powerful and certainly most mysterious within the field of fashion. Only here do so many of the objects desired carry so little, if any, real utility value. Sure, an iPhone can justify its desirability with respect to its function, but the same cannot be said of a high-heeled shoe — despite the fact that the price tag may equal or exceed that of the highly coveted latest Apple product. A high-heeled shoe will not help you to walk more effectively, but in many cases, this in no way diminishes its desirability. The meaning behind a product then is one that we create. "I guess I don't believe that the meaning of any item of clothing lies within the clothing itself," Steele told The Huffington Post. "I think that meaning is something that we construct and that we constantly reconstruct." It is a tool, then, not just for communication, but for power.
Image: Apple iPhone 6 and 6+
Cathy Horyn believes that fashion fetishism is driven by a desire to convey taste as a form of social power. "We are certainly drawn to beautiful objects – a chair, a sleek new cell phone – that required someone to exert his or her taste," she said in her speech for the 6th annual Citi Women & Co. event in 2009. She points to the late '90s and early 2000s as a significant moment which "saw fashion's ivory tower crumble a little more as designers became ardent marketers—selling the image rather than, in some cases, the clothes." Similarly, Steele has spoken of the work of Jean Paul Gaultier and the way in which he introduced a sort of anti-elegance into fashion. In other words, he changed the story. And, of course, a major factor is the exclusivity of a product. The desire to own one of Chanel's chic Boy Bags, for example, is inspired less by the originality of the product than by what it has come to stand for. Expensive, limited and intrinsically linked to the entire grandeur of the Chanel lineage, it is unequivocally a marker of good taste.
Image: Chanel muse and model Alice Dellal wearing a Chanel Boy Bag
Given that fashion is so fundamentally linked to notions of fantasy, too, one could argue that fetishism is in fact imperative to its success as an industry. As Dr. Prudence Black explains, "the thing with the fetishisation of a product is that it takes on more value than it actually has. It takes on a desire and exclusivity that somehow makes you feel special. This is an important aspect of the fashion industry, because not everyone in the world can have an Hermès bag." According to Dr Black, this process is integral to the function of the luxury industry. "We may have delusions about what a product is, but at the end of the day, fashion does create effects and possessing certain things can give us a power that we can't achieve through other means. The feeling is very real, no matter how delusional it may be." Interestingly, many of the major designers are also recognising this and turning their lens back on the industry itself. Marc Jacobs' fall 2011 collection for Louis Vuitton, for example, was a self-reflexive view on fetishism. There were French maids — a trope also seen in Prada's pre-fall 2013 campaign with Amanda Murphy — fetishistic boots and even handcuffs. "'Fetish' was the subject for the designer Marc Jacobs," Suzy Menkes wrote in her New York Times review. "An inspiration that he said backstage came from thinking about the 'irrational desire' for Vuitton accessories." The designer later elaborated, telling The Guardian: "At Vuitton, it always starts with the bags. I kept thinking about this inexplicable passion and obsession women have for bags, and how the bag becomes a fetishised object. I wanted to celebrate the love and desire that is part of that fetish," Jacobs said. And then, who could forget the brilliance of Karl Lagerfeld, with his tongue-in-cheek pearl chokers at Chanel, or his creation of an entire Chanel supermarket — a nod to commodity fetishism if ever we've seen one. So with all eyes turned toward fetishism then, the only thing left to consider is: to what will we give our hearts next?
Published on 18th February, 2015 by Catalogue staff
Follow Rosie on Twitter @rosiedalton
Liked this? Read these other features about fashion:
Subscribe to our e-newsletter for news you want, fashion you like and opinions to share.