Take two fashion pictures. In one photograph, a long-haired model, running across airport tarmac, wears a fitted plastic jacket and thigh-high boots. Her accessories? Black patent gauntlets, false eyelashes and an aggressive pout. In another, a blonde girl, moulded by a white and black zebra print rubber bustier dress, stands on a concrete bridge.
The first outfit costs £1,405, and is featured in the August issue of Vogue. The second costs £80 and is featured in Skin Two, the magazine that offers a mail-order service to those that can’t make it to London for their ‘rubber, wetlook and leather’.
Followers of Vogue probably wouldn’t ever consider buying from Skin Two. Subscribers to Skin Two (15,000 across the country) wouldn’t think of looking to the glossy magazine to fill their wardrobes, but fetish has become fashion and introduced each group to the other.
How has this come about? An early 1990s fashion dictate declared the Nineties to be a new age of relaxed, comfortable, easy-style designer track-suits, luxurious anoraks and well-heeled trainers. The day of the power-dresser has gone, the fashion world shouted.
But, before you had time to say ‘relax’ and slip into something baggy and unisex, the aggressive-dresser arose, like a phoenix from a pile of shoulder-pad ashes. What all those designers who tried to steer the populace away from short skirts, nippy little jackets and fabulous high heels forgot to take into consideration was the independence of some women.
It took almost all the Eighties for this group to gain the confidence to squeeze into a hip-hugging skirt, to turn the hem up half-inch by half-inch, and finally to realise that any other hose apart from black did not look quite right.
Once it was accepted that fitted clothes that follow the (slim) body contour look more flattering, and sexier than a Laura Ashley floral smock, designers asked enthusiasts of the look to give it all up. Never, was the reply.
Enter the streamlined catsuit and short skirts with thigh-high boots, futuristic style. At their most undiluted (see Skin Two), these designs are the stuff that sadomasochists are made for.
At their most widely advertised, they are the Jean Paul Gaultier lace-up corset dresses strutted in by Madonna. At street level, as they enter the mainstream and the office, they are the clothes featured on this page.
Different designers and fashion magazines give the look different labels: ‘Barbarella’, ‘catwoman’, ‘Grace Jones’, ‘Bondage’, ‘Emma Peel’. Call it what you will, it is not, as appears at first glance, clothing for hedonists to wear in nightclubs. Rather, it’s the Nineties version of power-dressing.
What these clothes have going for them, apart from sex, is movement. The catsuit, the tight Lycra leggings, the big boots are less restrictive than the power-dresser’s suit.
What was once the male fantasy of the submissive female in black shiny ensemble and spiked heels is now de rigueur for the more adventurous active, working woman. This time round, they are enjoying our own bodies; the message is ‘look but don’t touch’.
The style has been given a boost by a re-run of the television series The Avengers, in which the female stars were as tough as the men – but more beautiful. Then they drove Lotus Elans, now such women hit the fast lane in Mazda MX-5s. This season, the clothes of the series have been given designer status — from Thierry Mugler’s PVC all-in-ones to Katharine Hamnett’s stretch satin zippered catsuits and dresses.
French fashion magazines —in France they call the style ‘chapeau melon et bottes de cuir’ (bowler hat and leather boots) — are crossing the Channel to foray for future editorials. Emma Peel today is any model who is curvy, tough-looking and can look good in a traditional British telephone box (apparently, the French find this a striking pose).
One of the Avengers Annuals of the mid-Sixties described Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), as ‘the fearless, emancipated jet-age girl of tomorrow’. It may have been a naive opening gambit then, but that description now fits one version of the Nineties Superwoman as perfectly as her black leather glove.
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