Once shocking and fetishistic, rubberwear has since been embraced by fashion on catwalks and the red carpet. It’s been an eventful journey, writes Cassidy George.
For more than 50 years, fetishistic themes and iconography have been increasingly integrated into the changing face of fashion. But while high heels, corsets and leather have become par for the course, rubberwear retains its ability to turn heads and raise eyebrows. After migrating from battle trenches to fetish clubs, latex clothing now makes the most impact on catwalks and red carpets.
Earlier this year, models in rubberwear squeaked down the autumn/winter catwalks of Gucci, Vivienne Westwood, Balmain, Thierry Mugler and Raf Simons, and the latex looks donned by Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala and Rachel Weisz at the Oscars remain some of the most talked-about ensembles of 2019. The Hadid and Jenner wardrobe staple is also beloved by musicians like Cardi B, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj. Latex fashion has played a starring role in some of the most pivotal pop-culture moments of the decade, sported by Rihanna in her notorious S&M music video, by Miley Cyrus at her controversial 2013 VMA performance, and Lady Gaga, when she met the Queen. Countless headlines prove that the combination of latex and celebrity is still deemed newsworthy.
Latex, long seen as something that necessitated secrecy or censorship, is now celebrated with hypervisibility. Although rubberwear is in the middle of a media renaissance, its journey from Brazilian rainforests to secretive dungeons and now centre stage has been 200 years in the making.
Though natural rubber latex has come to be associated with futurism and technology, its origins are ancient and organic. Latex is a milky fluid that oozes from over 20,000 plant species after tissue injury. The sap-like substance, which coagulates and hardens to form an elastic and waterproof mass, is tapped by making careful incisions with small blades. The New York-based latex designer known as The Baroness tells BBC Designed: “People often mistake latex for PVC, and think of it as shiny, tight, sexy and cheap. But natural rubber latex is completely vegan, sustainable, fragile and difficult to work with”.
Use of natural rubber dates back to Mesoamerica in 1600 BC, in the Maya, Aztec and Olmec cultures (Olmec is an Aztec word, meaning “rubber people”). South America remained the main source of latex until 1876, when Henry Wickham, in an act of botanical piracy, smuggled 70,000 Amazonian rubber tree seeds out of Brazil and into England. These seedlings eventually made their way to more compatible climates in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia, countries that today rank among the largest producers of natural rubber. During the industrial revolution, latex became a hugely valuable colonial resource. To tap these vast reserves, horrifically violent techniques were imposed on forced labourers in the Brazilian Amazon and King Leopold’s Congo, where failure to meet impossible quotas was punished with mutilation and sometimes death.
Sex and power
Rubber’s unique qualities made it ideal for use as protective clothing, particularly in medicine and warfare. Dress historian Fiona Jardine, from the Glasgow School of Art, explains its 19th-Century uses: “When it was bonded to pre-existent fabrics, rubber improved the functionality of overcoats, caps, gaiters and dress protectors, when travel, public congregation and urban life became more prevalent in the west”. As rubber clothing increased in popularity, some wearers came to discover it was both pragmatic and sexually pleasurable. “It’s the most sensual fabric there is”, says The Baroness, “because it has a unique look, smell, taste, sound, and feel.”
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