Sunday night, Olympic bronze medalist, and openly gay figure skater, Adam Rippon donned a suit and harness combo at the 2018 Oscars, lighting debates both within and outside of kink communities. Some on my social media feeds claimed that Rippon’s “15 minutes of fame” were up, and that he was trying too hard. Some praised his “edginess” and unabashed pride in what he was wearing. Others simply said that his outfit was aesthetically appealing or unappealing, a matter of taste like any red carpet look.
As I sat in the EagleBOLTBar in Minneapolis with friends, I considered my own response. For a long time, fashion designers have used fetish elements in their designs with varying degrees of success. For example, Alan Selby, founder of Mr. S. Leather, a San Francisco-based fetish store, recounts creating leather products for Vivienne Westwood’s mid-1970’s punk show in his autobiography. There was Versace’s 1992 Miss S show. More recently Zana Bayne’s fetish inspired designs have achieved popularity, especially among female pop stars. And then there is the leather and latex Autumn 2018 Menswear Moschino collection, from which Rippon’s look came from.
As of late, some fashion design houses that have jumped onto the leather trend have worked to strip their fetish-inspired work of their sexual connotations so that they fit more easily into mainstream, heteronormative fashion standards. Zana Bayne is the main proponent of such acquiescence, terming their work “post-fetish,” overwriting the history of fetish designs, the meanings and importance of those designs to the people that wore them, and the work of fetish designers that inspired their work.
This complete commodification of a BDSM heritage object like the harness is something the Moschino harness that Rippon wore avoided for the most part. The harness mostly maintained a traditional harness design, at least in its “X” formation. It also appears sturdy enough to maintain the utility of a harness in facilitating BDSM-oriented activities (tugging, hoisting, etc.) which many fashion designers often forget when they invoke “fetish.” In retaining functionality, the Moschino harness and Rippon alike were calling forth a sexual freedom that kink culture is founded upon. To reference such radical sexuality in a space like Academy Awards, for me, is emblematic of being a sexual outlaw and being proud of it.
As I checked the coverage of the outfit by LGBTQ news outlets, I was astounded by the sex negativity from the LGBTQ people who claimed that such overt displays of sexuality need not be put on display and should be kept within the privacy of one’s bedroom. I was also shocked by the comments from my own network of kinky friends that shamed and dismissed Rippon based on his actual or perceived femininity as a way to undermine any valid contribution Rippon might have to the traditionally hypermasculine subculture of leather.
To be frank, very few of us in this lifetime will have the opportunity to have sex with Adam Rippon. What we know of his sexual proclivities is beyond us, and thus our policing of what he is and is not able to wear is also beyond us. Secondly, the vitriolic comments on Rippon’s look made clear that LGBTQ people and straight people alike still see public kinky identities and feminized kinkiness as threatening.
Kevin Henderson, Political Theory Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, sees this importance and his own experience with leather sex reflected in Rippon’s representation, “a leather harness also symbolized in a larger cultural context: death, disease, AIDS, dirty sex, bad sex, self-destruction.”
“So Rippon, who has become such an emblem of joy and of life and of resistance, by putting on a harness, is resignifying the meaning of the harness and instilling it with a profusion of meanings outside economies of death and of self-hatred.”
Noah Barth is a queer, kinky public historian, archivist, and heritage studies scholar at the University of Minnesota.