Rachel Zilberg ’18 is an underground fashion enthusiast inspired by unconventional communities. In the following opinion piece, Rachel outlines the harness in fashion today alongside the trend’s current and historical implications surrounding the BDSM subculture.
“A harness is essentially a combination of belt-like shapes meant to hug and highlight the body”
The words “leather harness” might bring to mind a fetish club from a recent Black Mirror episode, or perhaps something you strap onto your dog. Yet harnesses, like lingerie-as-fashion and the recent slip dress craze, are another instance of a taboo morphing into a trend with their use by fashion designers. This past summer and fall, leather harnesses could be spotted in department stores, boutiques, at music festivals, on the runway, and even on Taylor Swift. Vogue published an article in June about how to wear a harness without looking like a fashion victim. Despite its recent runway status, the history and significance of the harness lie in its decades-long BDSM sub-cultural roots.
A harness is essentially a combination of belt-like shapes meant to hug and highlight the body, usually the shoulders or chest. Harnesses can be intricate and fetish-inspired, as seen in the designs of Zana Bayne and Yeha Leung, or minimal and understated, as seen in BCBG’s simple body-framing lines. Harnesses don’t have to be leather: the Swedish indie designer Pink Milk Sweden works primarily in vegan leather, and the Australian model-designer Teale Coco produces intricate waterproof pieces in stretch satin, making for colorful blood-red bathtub photosets on her website.
Harnesses are as flexible as your favorite bag. You can put them over a simple tight-fitting top, over an elegant dress for a gothic edge, or over your sweater in the winter for eye-catching silhouettes. Harnesses are particularly helpful as an accessory with baggy pieces that would otherwise hide your figure. Stick a harness on top of your t-shirt dress, and suddenly you have a trendy, accentuating piece. These risky statements may seem new, but according to W magazine’s interview with Zana Bayne, a prominent designer with clients from Debbie Harry to Beyoncé, fashion harnesses have been on the runway since the 1980’s.
This begs the question: why have harnesses resurfaced now? Aesthetically, harnesses work well with recent minimalist trends. They grant geometric structure without overwhelming a look. They appeal to fashion as a venue for visual avant-garde, as well. But this time, harnesses have come into mainstream fashion alongside a growing culture of sexual discourse and alternative relationship structures.
Before appearing on Louis Vuitton models, leather harnesses were worn by men in the gay leather scene of the 1970’s in big cities like Berlin and San Francisco. Leather returned in E.L. James’ erotic book Fifty Shades of Gray which, while problematic in terms of its lack of healthy consent practices, encouraged people to explore and discuss their identities without being publicly ostracized. When sun-kissed college kids were donning harnesses over crop tops at the musical festival Outside Lands last summer, the Huffington Post published an article titled “Trying To Understand Consent? Ask The LGBTQ and Kink Communities.” Given that interest in BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) was officially listed as a diagnosable pathology in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 2013, the existence of such an article in a widely read publication is revolutionary
Fashion at its best interacts with cultural change. Our notions of respectability and acceptability in our personal lives are shifting. Society is steadily realizing that certain relationships aren’t any less valid or healthy simply because they may not look exactly like other people’s relationships.
BDSM in the bedroom and its influence in fashion through the use of harnesses as accessories aren’t the only way mainstream understanding of sexuality has broadened. The traditional monogamous relationship structure itself is no longer an expectation. You’ve likely met people in your social circles at Stanford and beyond who identify as polyamorous, meaning that they have multiple committed romantic relationships. Polyamory, too, has surfaced online and in fashion publications.
For some, wearing a harness can be entrenched in identity–in wanting to silently come out as kinky or queer, a la hanky code (wearing colored hankies to communicate your queer or kinky identity to those in the know while avoiding social prejudice). What was once an underground garment can now be found in everyday places, quietly implying that personal sexual exploration might now begin to exist acceptably under the public eye.
For many people wearing this trend, harnesses have nothing to do with kink at all. The harness is adaptable to personal expression. Teale Coco appropriately describes her harnesses as “genderless.” The harness can be chastely powerful, as if worn by fantasy royalty. The harness can be about identity politics or pure aesthetic. The harness can be grungy, romantic, heavy, or delicate, while never quite being practical. The harness is timeless and bold, both stating its history and shrouded in implication.
Today, most still see harnesses as out of place among lace dresses and fur coats in places like Intermix, Urban Outfitters, or the odd boutique on a street corner. But: try one on over your button-down or tank top, admire the way it accentuates your figure, and think about the cultural background and implications of where those inspiring shapes came from. Just as your new harness can blend with a chiffon blouse or pleated skirt, the people who carved the harnesses’ heritage blend into our abundance of human experience.