Updated: Oct 12, 2019
Petecock first published The Aesthetics of Fetish on fetlife in 2011, and then updated the post in 2018. We think this post gets to the logic behind the dress code, so we have reproduced it here.
When we first began to promote PUSH, the one question that concerned many, and the one negative response we received both on fetlife and in person related to a short sentence on the promotional literature: “No admission in street or casual wear.” The remainder of the section on clothing stated that one could wear either fetish clothes or all black club wear.
As an academic who thinks extensively about the aesthetics of fetish and BDSM, I will provide a view as to what I consider the most important reasons for such a dress code. I also will provide some suggestions for practical solutions to those who do not believe that they have “fetish” clothing (for those only interested in this section, skip down to Practical Solutions).
I do not mean to convince people that they “should” dress according to code for such events. We have a wide variety of different ways of approaching our fetishes, and these differences should be encouraged. Some will find PUSH and similar parties that enforce a fetish dress code invigorating; others will find them stifling, and those who would have a negative experience at such an event should not attend. Still, one reason behind PUSH is to expand our sense of community, to provide a space in which alternative, fetish, and BDSM communities can come together, and to engage in creative and challenging expression.
The reasons most often given for the dress code involve making people in fetish wear more comfortable (particularly since they are often made to feel uncomfortable if they wear fetish clothing to non-fetish clubs and in their daily lives), keeping out gawkers who do not wish to participate in a fetish environment for any reason other than harassing others, and creating a particular kind of environment in which fetish dress is an important part of play. While I agree with all of these reasons, for me the primary goal of such a dress code is to promote a fetish aesthetic. In other words, it is about the “feel” of a fetish party that enforces the dress code.
In a set of fetlife rants that I had read some years ago, a friend who regularly participated in the New York scene argued that many fetish parties suffered because organizers no longer enforced a strict dress code. The parties suffered, in my friend’s view, because they did not feel as invigorating as they did in the past: visually they did not have the same appeal, which made this person less interested in watching or participating in the play. This did not mean that this person needed to have “eye candy.” Rather, it meant that they wanted a wide variety of fetish clothing to be a part of the scene. On the other hand, another friend of mine who responded to the rant said that, at a recent fetish party a group of people in latex had made her feel as if her very sexy fetish, but non-latex, clothing was insufficient for the event. She argued that she would rather see people engaging in fetish play without wearing fetish clothing than parading around in latex, but not playing. So, how does one rectify these disputes?
First, one needs to get at the core rationale for wearing fetish clothing: these clothes provide a particular kind of aesthetic that is both transgressive (in that the clothes transgress the standard things most people are required to wear in their daily activities) and sexual (in that the particular outfits are ones that many—even, if in the case of some less popular fetish clothing, a minority—within the fetish communities consider to be sexually alluring). As a community that promotes transgressive sexual activity, it would seem reasonable to encourage such an aesthetic. We should note that historically it appears that all communities have particular dress codes that are enforced most strictly when participating in ritualistic kinds of activities, and one may consider a party of fetish/BDSM play to be highly ritualistic. As ritual, one cannot separate performance from aesthetics: hence, while I agree with my second friend when she argues that seeing people engaging in fetish play is more interesting than watching them stand around in latex, the rituals of BDSM and fetish incorporate not just flogging and caning, but also particular kinds of dress and undress.
Second, our notion of fetish clothing should be inclusive, not exclusive. One person should never make another feel badly because the other person is wearing non-latex fetish clothing rather than latex to a fetish party that does not restrict dress to latex. But this discussion begs a key question: what is fetish clothing? Before each Push, several people write to me to ask about particular outfits. I have, sometimes too ungraciously, after consultation with other members of the PUSH family, rejected some of the outfits. One cannot come to our party in khaki pants and a polo shirt and say, “this is my fetish.” This does not mean that I and the other organizers of PUSH consider our own fetish clothing somehow superior. I have enjoyed watching a man in khaki pants and a polo shirt flogging another man who has his own khaki pants down by his knees. We simply ask these men to kick up their clothing a notch for the fetish party, so that they can creatively participate in the fetish aesthetic that we are promoting. Like any ritual activity, the sponsor of the event can determine the limits of the particular dress code, and in this case our limits are in some ways quite straightforward: your clothing should be something very edgy or even unacceptable in a non-fetish club, it should promote a fetish aesthetic, and it should be clothing that you cannot generally wear on a daily basis (unless you exist in a 24/7 fetish environment). In fact, when individuals come to the door in questionable clothing, the door people make their final determination based on whether the individual could “work” that outfit and convince them and the assembled audience that the outfit is fetishy (this does not mean that the people working the door do not make mistakes--they do, but they try their best to encourage the vision of a fetish aesthetic).
Still, many people have asked in good conscience where they can find appropriate fetish clothing. And others have asked, given their particular fetish or BDSM role, what clothes would be appropriate? There are many stores for those who wish to purchase latex, leather, rubber, kilts, corsets, etc. But what about those on a budget? I would like to make it clear that fetish attire does not require extravagant spending. And on that same note, some people envision a less conventional fetish look and don’t want to be lost in a corset wearing or latex crowd. We must remember that the key to developing a fetish aesthetic is creativity, not wealth, and that there exist a variety of clothes that one may develop for their role in the scene. I have seen people of all genders make fetish dresses, tops, and bottoms with duct tape; others have used gauze, medical tape, and creative makeup (red food coloring for blood, as an example) to create a medical fetish outfit; and many minimalists have worn pasties (home-made or store bought) and bikini bottoms. I have seen people in mesh tops with leggings and boots (a very sexy look that can be worn by both doms and subs); uniforms are great; and several people at the last event wore tuxedos (suits are also welcome). And of course many people at our events dress in extremely interesting drag. The most practical solution is to look around your house, think about what makes you feel sexy, and what will be aesthetically pleasing and/or provocative for yourself, a potential play partner, and others in a fetish environment. Keep it sexy, keep it kinky, and allow your fantasies and imagination to dictate your clothing choice.