The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is one of the most celebrated American artists of the 20th century not only because of his technical prowess but because of his fearless exploration of themes essential to the inner lives of human beings — among them sex and desire, beauty and mortality. As Patti Smith wrote of him in her memoir Just Kids, Mapplethorpe pursued his fixations tenaciously, prolific in his drive to capture the refined form he saw in that which appeared shapeless and vulgar.
In 1978, during a period that would produce his lurid, incendiary X Portfolio series, he shot a stunning tableau entitled Joe/Rubberman. In the photograph, a man lies supine on a bench, clad from tip to toe in glossy, skin-tight suit made of latex. A scene of sexual subversion presented with the consideration for composition one usually associates with Renaissance painting, it is emblematic of Mapplethorpe’s style. It also captures the alluring tension inherent in latex garments — they are intimidating but fragile, surreal in appearance but, in fact, natural in origin. It is perhaps these contrasting elements that keep us drawn to the fabric, which is becoming ever more popular as style icon celebs like Lady Gaga and the Kardashians repeatedly turn to the fabric for high-profile public appearances.
A type of rubber known for thinness and pliability giving it a “second skin” feel, latex clothing is traditionally associated with niche subcultures and fetish communities who associate the fabric with sexual fulfillment. It has been worn widely by club kids for decades, and began to bleed into the mainstream through representations of these scenes in popular music and film. Madonna’s 1994 video for “Human Nature,” directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, was redolent with sexually-charged imagery and featured latex outfits prominently. The costumes of 1999’s The Matrix drew heavily on the aesthetics of underground goth communities and naturally featured a number of latex get-ups, and the fabric surged again towards mainstream visibility with the release of the video for Lady Gaga’s 2008 monster hit “Pokerface,” which opened with her emerging from a pool in an asymmetrical latex bodysuit.
The use of latex for mainstream costuming and artistic purposes is nothing new, but what has changed over the past decade is its place in the personal wardrobes of some of fashion and music’s biggest stars. In 2009, Gaga met the Queen wearing a siren red latex gown. In 2014, Kim Kardashian was photographed on multiple occasions in a soft pink latex dress by Atsuko Kudo. At last year’s Met Gala, Beyoncé walked the red carpet in a latex dress by the same designer, this one a collaboration with former Givenchy creative director Ricardo Tisci.
According to fashion and cultural historian Fenella Hitchcock, who lectures at the London College of Fashion, latex’s growing popularity is a natural function of fashion’s need to provoke and to refresh itself. “As far as the allure of latex to celebrities and stylists, I’m of the opinion that this is partially to do with fashion being drawn to the transgressive,” Hitchcock tells Billboard. “It’s also important to remember that it’s an industry driven in part by novelty.”
This, Hitchcock notes, points towards an important differentiating factor in the significance of a Kardashian wearing latex versus a performer like Gaga. While Gaga’s fondness for latex might spring from her earnest, long-term engagement with club culture, the Kardashians are known primarily as fashion plates. For them, sartorial newness is an essential part of their professional lives, so the addition of latex to their collective repertoire is an aesthetic play first and foremost. It also carries greater potential impact. Says Hitchcock: “I think that [Kim] Kardashian’s wearing of latex has a greater potential for influence given her position within the taxonomy of celebrity and the power wielded by other members of the Kardashian/Jenner clan on desirable aesthetics today.”
While latex garments may be more visible in popular culture, they are hardly pedestrian. “The subversive connotations of a material like latex may not be as potent now as in the 1960’s or ’70s’, but just because it’s being worn outside of nightclubs or people’s homes doesn’t mean it’s completely mainstream,” says Hitchcock. Although latex may now signal an aesthetic pose as much as a sexual proclivity, it is still a loud fashion statement, and comes with a host of practical limitations. “Latex is a very particular material and wearing it is a very unique sensory experience,” Hitchcock continues. “It’s also prone to damage and getting in and out of the garment can take effort and is often quite ritualistic. There are also additional steps that you need to take to perfect the look of your garment, such as lubricating and polishing it to achieve a desired shine.”
There is also the fact that latex garments fit and look best when they are custom-made — no matter how popular the aesthetic becomes, a major breakthrough in production techniques would have to be made for one to be able to add a proper latex piece to their basket on a trip to H&M. It is precisely this scarce particularity that has helped latex has retained its cachet. “While it’s true,” says Hitchcock, “that any material can be the object of an individual’s fetish, the fact that latex hasn’t ever been fully incorporated into our day-to-day clothing in a significant way helps it retain greater connections with kink and fetish communities, as opposed to other textiles commonly associated with fetishwear like PVC and leather which we also see in wardrobe staples such as outerwear, shoes, and accessories.” As long as the material realities of the fabric persist, latex will continue to occupy its unique place in the fashion world — the symbolically-charged province of the professionally stylish and dedicated enthusiasts.