Fashion is considered one of the finest forms of self-expression, a medium that lets you use clothing, accessories, makeup and other related vehicles to communicate a message you want to take to the world. So, what does it mean when we see leather harnesses, latex bodysuits, rubber boots, O-ring chokers, and autoerotic asphyxiation-inspired necklines take over runways and red carpets? Probably that a form of fashion formerly relegated to sex dungeons, underground parties and bedroom play is now marching right on to the streets.
Fetish fashion is defined as any kind of clothing or accessory designed to be extreme or provocative in a kinky way. Over the last year, we’ve seen celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Dua Lipa, Zoë Kravitz and Julia Fox embrace BDSM-inspired looks. In fact, forecasters at shopping search engine Lyst noted in March that “fetishcore” is fast emerging as a trend, with searches for “harness” on the platform increasing by 132 percent month-on-month, and queries for leather choker on the site also growing 100 percent since the start of 2022.
Fetishcore also isn’t a new trend. Experts trace its origins back to sexual liberation movements in the 1960s and 70s, where openly wearing provocative looks, especially at pride protests, became a way to openly express sexuality. Today, the movement has melded into the mainstream, with fetish fashion emerging as a trend that lets us embrace a more experimental look.
All these factors point to BDSM-adjacent styles gaining global acceptance. But in India, a country where it is still considered taboo to openly discuss your deepest, darkest kinks – or, heck, even sex for that matter – the rising trend of fetish fashion is subverting societal pressures and expectations, and fuelling mainstream conversations on a niche subculture for probably the first time ever.
“[Kink fashion] has always been there, but it was limited to underground spaces or confined to bedrooms,” Randhir Singh, the founder of India’s first homegrown fetish fashion label Subculture, told VICE. “Historically, we have always been a culturally open society, but that changed with colonisation. Now, we’re picking up those conversations and talking about sex more liberally, which is what has also led to the rise of fetish fashion in India.”
Singh is a fashion designer trained in the art of crafting leather. He launched Subculture in 2021 to raise awareness around kinks and normalise them.
“People think chokers and corsets are just fashion statements,” he said. “You can make it fashion, but it’s also a lifestyle for many. Now, even [mainstream] brands like H&M and Zara are producing harnesses and corsets because they’re trendy, but I want to use my brand as a platform to educate people about the backstory behind fetish fashion.”
Singh added that he has noticed a spike in interest after the lifting of lockdown restrictions, something he believes nudged people to embrace fetish fashion. In fact, fetish fashion has historically peaked during times of political upheaval, with experts attributing the desire to take back a sense of control as a massive factor that fuels its popularity.
“During the lockdown, people spent more time on the internet and got more into online shopping, which in turn led to more people experimenting with fetish fashion,” he said. “That’s when my sales were the highest.”
Subculture is currently the only homegrown brand offering harnesses, floggers, handcuffs and other bondage-inspired accessories made by rural leather artisans in the Indian state of Rajasthan. But even before brands were openly selling leather harnesses and latex corsets, members of the kink community found creative ways to overcome the lack of options.
“In the Indian space, there are various things that people have been using as part of their kinky experiences,” Aili Seghetti, an intimacy coach and dominatrix based in the Indian city of Mumbai, told VICE. “People use saree pallus (the loose end of a saree) to tie their partner up, or the metal parts of payals (anklets) or even traditional toe rings to scratch their partners.”
Seghetti’s introduction to fetish fashion was through sex parties she attended in London in the 90s, where it was an unspoken mandate for attendees to spend a minimum of 10,000 Indian rupees ($130) on kinky lingerie and accessories just to gain entry into these clubs.
“In India, our understanding of kink has come in from the West, which is why even its representation in fashion is more Western. For me, kink wear is latex, but the weather in India makes it difficult to wear such materials,” she said.
While India still has a long way to go in terms of localising fetishwear, she said that the current trend is an important stepping stone in opening up conversations around kink.
“If you are kinky, your [aim] is to have more people understand that it’s OK to be kinky,” she said. “So, if someone buys a collar and then finds out what the collar is used for, it automatically spreads awareness.”
She added that while many Indians discovered kink through the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, fashion is another way to bring the discourse into the mainstream.
“Kink fashion can take these conversations into the mainstream the same way athleisure has done for fitness,” she said. “It may be changing at a very slow pace, but for now, it is a good conversation starter.”
While India is still in the nascent stage of understanding fetish fashion in all its glory, kinky clothes remain an empowering and liberating medium for people to express themselves.
“I feel sexually confident, unapologetic and strong, and even get a sense of rage when I wear kink fashion,” Sanky Evrus, a celebrity hair stylist and nude model, told VICE. “It’s a very different high, almost like a power to take control of everything around me. Kink fashion is nothing short of liberation to me. To be able to celebrate something that is only meant to be behind closed doors is quite empowering.”
For some like Evrus, kink fashion is a way to amplify their sexual desires and attract other like-minded people in a subtle yet explicit fashion. For others, it is a way to appreciate aesthetics.
“For me, sex is as much about the aesthetic aspect, as it is about the physical aspect,” a Bengaluru-based lawyer, who requested anonymity over concerns of professional backlash, told VICE. “When my partner and I have sex, we experiment with different kinds of lighting or use mirrors, which change the way we see ourselves, and are as much of a turn-on as the physical act. That’s why kink fashion can be extremely empowering.”
This lawyer’s kinks include voyeurism and autoerotic asphyxiation, and fetish fashion has become a way to express his deepest, darkest desires.
“In a society such as ours, sex is something typically restricted to the bedroom, but it has underlying power implications,” he said. “[Kink fashion] brings the entire conversation pushed to the dogmas in our bedroom to the public sphere, and is a small step that marks this paradigm shift.”