From a human body bag to a skin-tight maid's costume, latex outfits provide their wearers with an escape and a chance to shapeshift
The first time somebody zips you into a latex body bag, you get this feeling of intense relief. It’s so acute most people cry. Designed like a human-sized sock with arms, part of the emotion comes from the fact you can’t move in it at all: you’re no longer responsible for making a success of your life – you’re free – and whatever happens next is in the hands of the person doing the unzipping.
Then there’s the nature of the material itself: latex on your body is the closest you can get to putting on a second human skin. It’s so tight you have to apply lube to get it on. It bruises like flesh. It cools and heats with the body. It clings in such an intimate way, the sensation of being inside it is like being hugged. A rubber enthusiasts pamphlet from 1965 actually describes that soothing caress as a kind of rest-cure from political instability: “It feels nice, which is important to people living in an insecure world.” Latex allows its wearer to lose themselves in a peculiar way, and as someone who would quite like to escape – from my body, and inside my head – I find the thought of a latex body bag tempting. But even outside the world of hardcore BDSM, and inside the world of clothes, latex allows its wearer to lose themselves in a peculiar way.
Clothes have always had the power to do this. Dressing up – historically written off as something shallow women do – allows us to access different selves. An outfit can act as a membrane: picturing it in your head and then putting it on involves a strange process of re-creation. Virginia Woolf, who was obsessed with clothes, called this ‘frock consciousness’. What’s interesting is that frocks seem to have a heightened ability to transport their wearer into new states of consciousnesses when they’re made out of latex. Putting on a catsuit, or even a latex glove can help you become a different self, because it feels, viscerally, like squeezing into a new skin.
Couturier Atsuko Kudo, who has worked exclusively with latex since 2001, sees the material as an antidote to modern life in the sense that it demands that you be absolutely physically present in the moment. She explains the act of dressing in terms of spiritual submission: “Time must slow. Latex doesn’t slip on and off. It embraces the body with a breathless, suffocating beauty”. Kudo’s brand has moved latex out of the fetish world and into the mainstream in the sense that she dresses the Kardashians. But her approach to the fabric remains fetishistic in the sense that it’s passionate and absolutely purist. Speaking to me over the phone from her latex shop in Holloway, she describes her work as like that of a ‘plastic surgeon’: “You’re covering them with another piece of skin, and you’re cutting it with a scalpel. But it’s a skin you can shed when you want to. And a skin you can change the colour of, almost like a chameleon.”
Fitting into another skin requires acknowledging that the personality you present to the outside world day-to-day might not be the whole you. Monsieur Manu, a latex enthusiast I meet on Twitter, tells me that his catsuit allows him to access parts of himself – sexually and more cerebrally – that are normally very controlled. Once you’ve been honest about who you are and what you want it can make you sad to go back to the everyday. Manu tells me he sometimes sleeps in his catsuit to stay in persona. Taking it off is painful. “It’s a case of putting everything back in the box, literally. The physical things go back in the box. And then mentally, as well, that aspect is closed. It’s a reversion to normality.”
The latex wearing community have something to tell us about the nature of identity because they are liberatingly aware that who we are isn’t fixed. They know that by changing outfits, we can re-make our interior worlds. For some of the devotees I’ve spoken to, this gets more extreme: they live as more than one person because their different latex wardrobes constitute multiple identities. Sakura Strike, a dominatrix based in Central London, walks me around the extremely large, plush dungeon attached to her flat. When we go upstairs, we flick through her latex collection. She’s wearing a Harry Potter dressing gown, no make-up, and I’m here to watch her transform. “I’m always me,” she says, fingering a black latex basque, “I’ll just become different versions of me.”
Sakura tells me that before she started Mistressing three years ago, she was so depressed she was planning to kill herself. At the time, she was working as a photo editor at a make-up transformation studio. She’d spend nine to ten hours every day airbrushing other women’s faces: “Smoothing is actually just blurring the model’s entire identity. I’d always suffered from body dysmorphia, but airbrushing every day, it got to the stage that I couldn’t go out in public because I was paranoid that everyone was looking at me and thinking I was disgusting. I had a complete breakdown.” Becoming a dominatrix put her back in control of her own image. “Latex makes me so open and vulnerable. It shows the parts of my body I’m ashamed of, but it lets me own those vulnerabilities and turn them into an ornament.”
I watch Sakura get ready, and we drink an expensive bottle of wine one of her submissives has given her as a present. The whole process takes about three hours, and at the end, she stands in front of the mirror in a shiny red latex mini-dress and takes selfies. Latex constricts movement, and her body and the way she holds herself has been changed. She shows me how to cross your legs and rest your fingers on your hip without actually touching it to get the right angle. It looks painstaking, but it’s strangely freeing. As women, we inherit an expectation of passivity; we don’t look, we’re looked at. But Sakura – aware that self-representation is an illusion and that there can be no one ‘true’ you – has, at least, become the author of that illusion.
Mistress Eva, a Hong Kong-based dominatrix Sakura puts me in touch with, talks about transforming herself into a living art piece. “You learn to become a canvas, which we’re told not to want to be anymore. But it’s an artistic expression, isn’t it? Becoming that piece of art is your decision and your investment: you have ownership over it.” Eva has over 11,000 followers on Twitter, and her feed is full of tactile images of her in latex catsuits and thigh-high spiked boots. Over the phone she’s very warm, and thoughtful about mental barriers she has to overcome in order to take on that hyper-femme, sexualised image: “Latex screams your outline, and we’re taught not to acknowledge desire for that outline anymore.”
”Why be one person when you can be two? I can be three. I can do it, easy! And I love it.“
Latex, for Eva, involves a kind of mindful reclamation of the feminine aesthetic. She’s just bought a translucent purple outfit: a dress, with matching gloves, stockings and lingerie. Wearing it, she experiences her body as something new, and strange: “With translucent latex, it’s like looking through perspex. Whether it’s a glove and you can see the shape of the lines in your hand, or whether it’s a stocking and can just see the curve of your calf muscle.” Eva offers clients the chance to embody that aesthetic with her. At its purest, the client gets to become her doppelgänger: ”I am the fantasy and the latex allows them to become the thing that they desire“.
With a recent client in Singapore, she even brought a wig that matched her own hair for him to wear: ”I wore latex to pick him up downstairs. Then I stripped down to matching lingerie and told him to put on my dress. He had seen me in it, he knew that my body had been within it. He could almost feel me there.“ Sometimes she will go out with her client and they’ll spend the day together, dressed in matching outfits. Dressing and undressing each other in latex involves a swapping and merging of identity.
One of the last people I go to interview is Alessandro*. I first met him in the smoking area of a fetish party in Lewisham, where he had come dressed as a character, Maid Suzi. He was wearing a black dress with white frilly cap sleeves and a white apron, all intricately fashioned out of latex. On his head was a hood — a fitting black mask with eye and mouth holes and a white Victorian maid’s cap built in. A dog collar around his neck spelt out the words ‘Maid Suzi’, in diamantés. The next week we have a drink in a pub in Camden together. He arrives wearing a nondescript hoodie and jeans. He’s Italian, I hadn’t noticed his accent before, in his mid-fifties. When I ask him how long he’d been developing the character of Maid Suzi in his head, he laughs. “About 20 years?” The fetish party was one of the first times he’d fully embodied her, and he tells me the experience was overwhelming: “I had to go to the toilet to cry because I was getting too emotional. It was beautiful, it was crazy.”
Alessandro describes himself as a ‘player’: “Why be one person when you can be two? I can be three. I can do it, easy! And I love it.” In his day-to-day life he works in construction, and he says Maid Suzi allows him to express something about himself he can’t otherwise. “I’m a very shy person. I don’t ask for things. I always take what others give to me. Maid Suzi gave me the power to ask for things. She’s fun, small. One of the girls. Full of happiness and life.” He makes a lot of his own latex clothes, he shows me pictures of his creations on his phone: there are collars and cuffs and stockings and hoods. Alessandro likes the hoods especially because they are very thin, only 20 millimetres, and so they mould to the face: “My face isn’t as feminine as it should be. So I cover it up.” His home is his workshop, and he’s working on other characters now but he’s concerned there won’t be enough space for them: Suzi has so many clothes she’s taking over the wardrobe. Couldn’t he get a new wardrobe? He laughs again. “I’m actually thinking about getting a new flat.”
The latex community has embraced something most of us find terrifying. That the person you appear to be day-to-day might be an illusion. That your ‘self’ has no distinct form – your identity contains multitudes – and is vulnerable to something as apparently frivolous as a change of outfit. I tell Alessandro it’s freeing to realise that maintaining some invulnerable, singular sense of who you are might be impossible. Maybe we’re meant to be living in more than one skin. “A lot of people would like to get dressed up as a new person and play that for a night. Be a girl. Be a man,” he says. “They just keep it to themselves. They don’t let it out.” He smiles at me. “You still could, though! It took me three decades.”