Fashion and fetish have long gone hand in hand. While womenswear has perhaps provided the most memorable examples of sex-inspired garments over the years – from Christian Dior and Roger Vivier’s popularization of tight lacing and stilettos in the 1950s through Gianni Versace’s radical Miss S&M collection in 1992 and beyond – menswear has its own history of borrowing from kink culture. And we’re not just talking Tom of Finland-inspired leather jackets. Most recently, and somewhat surprisingly, fetish has penetrated the world of streetwear, resulting in a burgeoning trend for harnesses.
Thanks to designers such as Virgil Abloh, Matthew Williams and Shayne Oliver, and proponents including Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and Timothée Chalamet (albeit accidentally, he purports), structural chest straps have made their way from the runway to the red carpet and beyond. But how did this garment synonymous with BDSM play find its way into men’s luxury fashion, and why?
The harness can be traced back to the the gay leather scene that took hold in various European and American cities, like Berlin, Amsterdam and San Francisco, in the 1960s, inspired by post-World War II biker culture. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the harness became a fetishwear mainstay. “If you look back at images of contestants for [the annual leatherman contest] Mr. International Leather, harnesses only crop up en masse in 1983,” says Noah Barth, a historian and former assistant archivist at the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. “Their function in a bondage context includes suspension, restraint and being able to pull on someone or lead them,” they explain.
Here, it’s important to hone in on the other key characteristic of the harness, aside from its BDSM function: the fact that it’s designed to look hot. “Harnesses are all about aesthetics,” Andrea Zanin, a BDSM scholar and writer, tells HYPEBEAST. “Unlike most leather gear, they don’t keep you warm or protect your body. Some are designed for bondage, but mostly they’re worn to frame and showcase the body, whether over bare skin or over clothing. As such they’re quite shameless and provocative.”
Both the risqué connotations of the harness and its shape-enhancing form are undeniably at the center of its broader sartorial appeal. Vivienne Westwood was one of the first designers to bring the harness and other bondagewear to a broader audience when she collaborated with San Francisco-based fetish store, Mr. S. Leather, for the punky BDSM-inspired garments she stocked in her Kings Road Sex boutique in the mid-70s. “Soon the look was adopted by punks, steampunks and goths alike,” notes Dr. Frenchy Lunning, author of Subcultural Fashion: Fetish Style (2013). “It began in the realm of the submissive in BDSM culture and became an aesthetic in and of itself.”
“It began in the realm of the submissive in BDSM culture and became an aesthetic in and of itself.”
Versace, Thierry Mugler, Dolce & Gabbana and others gave a kinky twist to women’s fashion in the 1990s, introducing an abundance of leather, PVC and binding into the equation to empowering effect. The same decade, Madonna rocked Jean Paul Gaultier’s strap-adorned fetishwear during her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour, while Michael Jackson performed at the 1993 Super Bowl in a gold, military style harness, sealing the item’s place in pop history.
It wasn’t until the ‘00s, however, that the harness hit the menswear runway: Helmut Lang notably teamed sharply tailored suit trousers with white harnesses across bare chests for Spring 2002 and incorporated black strapping between shirts and suit jackets for Fall 2003.
And this past decade has only seen the men’s fashion harness gain traction. Spring 2015 saw both Rick Owens and Hood By Air tap into the look, with Owens placing architectural strapping over long T-shirts and Shayne Oliver showcasing white bibs over bear chests à la Lang. Meanwhile, Matthew Williams incorporated leather harnesses into his inaugural men’s collection for ALYX for Fall 2017 – echoing the punk/BDSM aesthetic of his womenswear offerings – and has continued to champion the accessory ever since.
Virgil Abloh cited Lang as a major inspiration for his first men’s collection for Louis Vuitton for Spring 2019, which included bags with across-the-chest holstering as well as over-the-shirt strapping and harness-like bibs. Abloh terms these designs “mid-layer garments” and described them as a “keystone” of his collection.
“Harnesses have come into mainstream fashion alongside a growing culture of sexual discourse and alternative relationship structures.”
Influential superstars like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Lil Uzi Vert have also jumped on the harness trend in recent years, sporting the bold yet sensual designs of “post-fetishwear” brand Zana Bayne during their live shows. But it’s the translation of harnesses into an everyday streetwear context by the likes of Alboh and Williams that is a particularly interesting symbol of our times. In their latest iteration, as writer Rachel Zilberg says in Mint magazine, “harnesses have come into mainstream fashion alongside a growing culture of sexual discourse and alternative relationship structures.”
“I’m not at all surprised that harnesses have become more popular for both men and women outside the Leather and BDSM communities in recent years,” Zanin concurs. “A harness is a very easy and portable way to add a kinky edge to an otherwise mundane outfit. They’re a low-risk way to flirt with a leather look. The reference point for harnesses is unquestionably kinky and gay, so if a man chooses to wear one, he needs to be comfortable knowing that this aesthetic comes from somewhere and means something.”
So what does it mean when harnesses (or harness-inspired items, like the ALYX and Prada harness bags) are embraced by straight menswear designers and sported by straight male celebrities? When gay figure skater Adam Rippon sported a Moschino harness by Jeremy Scott at the 2018 Academy Awards, it felt like a bold, and rightfully proud proclamation of sexual preference, so to see Chalamet, Jordan, et. al adopt the look could be interpreted as thoughtless commodification.
“A harness is a very easy and portable way to add a kinky edge to an otherwise mundane outfit. They’re a low-risk way to flirt with a leather look.”
But it could also be viewed in another light. As Esquire writer Murray Clark says, “The fact that men are trying new, queer-inspired clothing – to applause, too – in such a space is welcome. It suggests that we’re no longer susceptible to the reductive avoidance of anything considered ‘gay.’ We’re even wearing it.”
Assuming that the current exponents of the men’s fashion harness are taking its history into account, the trend speaks volumes of “just how fluid, experimental and open-minded men are becoming when it comes to our clothes,” to quote Clark again. Will the accessory stick? That remains to be seen, but for now it feels like hopeful sign that a scene that hasn’t always been known for its forward-thinking approach to sex and gender is now putting its best chest forwards.