The Lure of Latex

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Rubba dub dub, three men in a tub - the old rhyme conjures up all sorts of images. So does the idea of rubber fetish. However, this is not really about rubber. In fact it has very little to do with rubber. The scene, the look and the wearing is all about latex and pvc.

One can't set any specific date when latex became a fetish fashion. Certainly a fetish style grew up around the leather-wearing underground culture of homosexual London in the years just after the Second World War (being gay was still illegal in those days).

Wearing leather in the 50s was rare, so to do so publicly was a statement and served to identify the wearers as being separated from the accepted 'norm'. Leather was not just being worn for functional reasons, but the styles were enjoyed in their own right.

In the 1960s, rock musicians exploited the crotch-hugging appeal of skin-tight leather trousers to crank up their sexual image - and Mrs Peel of The Avengers TV series blazed a trail in full-body leather catsuits, and long leather and latex gloves and high-heeled boots. Later, in the 70s, designers such as Vivienne Westwood took inspiration from BDSM culture with bondage trousers, where the wearer's legs were linked by straps.

So leather can generally be seen to be at the root of modern fetish clothing - but with the advent of latex - at considerably lower prices - a new age of fetish-wear was born.

Latex is something special in its own right, and with its clinging, multi-directional stretch and shine, it's become the foundation for a whole wardrobe of fetish, play- and street-fashion-wear.

Latex and similar materials are so much cheaper, more readily available, and offer much greater flexibility than leather, both in its design potential and ease of movement for the wearer.

Latex as we know it

Our latex fashions these days are made from what is effectively an entirely synthetic rubber, made from petroleum, coal, oil, natural gas or acetylene.

During the First World War, German scientists produced an entirely synthetic rubber - but it was much too expensive to warrant manufacture in peacetime. In their footsteps, the Americans came up with a prototype synthetic rubber in 1927 - and eventually, in 1931, US trailblazers DuPont first produced Neoprene. Just before the outbreak of the

Second World War, German science came up with 'Buna rubber', and obligingly shared the technology with the US before hostilities began. America used this as the prototype for large-scale production of synthetic rubber to support the war effort. These were the roots of our 'latex'.

An elastic breakthrough

During the post-war period and through the 1950s, scientists experimented with the DuPont discovery.

In the past, natural latex fibres had been produced and woven into wonderfully stretchy, elastic fabrics - but it was in 1959 that one of DuPont's own men, Joseph Shivers, came up with 'Spandex'. Originally 'Fiber K' it was renamed Spandex - an anagram of 'expands'.

Anyone with memories of the 1970s will remember the disco trend for shiny Spandex trousers (missing the 'leggings' label only by dint of being loose around the ankles and having a zip fastening. The rest was crotchsplittingly skin-tight!) Now Spandex is known as in the UK as Lycra, and as the generic 'elastane' world-wide.

With this breakthrough, skin-tight clothing, which would stretch and return to its original shape, was made possible. Spandex woven fabric was glossy, clingy, smooth, supple - contained no protein allergens which could produce adverse reactions - and was pretty sexy... by 70s standards.

Not Rubber

OK - we have to give a nod to the original rubber, tapped from rubber trees which originated in Brazil. The latex (where the name first appeared), was collected in cups, where it would coagulate into a lump. This is rubber proper. Something else, termed 'latex', could be made by the addition of a stabilising agent to the tapped substance to prevent it from coagulating. This type of latex (only about ten per cent of all natural rubber produced), is not treated with heat, like TSR (technically specified rubber), also known as sheet rubber. This 'latex' has some of its water content removed (but without heat treatment), and the final product contains roughly sixty per cent solid rubber and the rest is water and proteins. This latex concentrate was what was originally used for surgical gloves - and as such gave rise to the occupational hazard of latex allergy. But this isn't what we're talking about with modern latex... Latex as we mostly know it now is something quite different.

Fashion potential

Some pundits of latex fashion cite the kitting out of our modern-day Batman and the cast of Matrix Reloaded in latex as the spur to make it a fabric of fashion. But clothing - fetish-based and otherwise - has been manufactured in the UK since as early as 1979 - and possibly earlier (though we can't promise the same criteria of design and fit have always been in operation). Latex designs have rich potential for drama - top couture houses - Thierry Mugler and Vivienne Westwood, for instance - have dabbled in latex to create breathtaking evening gowns and intriguing dresses. Latex is both fetish and fashion - mind-game and modiste.

Latex... for everyone?

The old, natural latex, because of its protein content, tended to spark off allergies - and although entirely differently constituted, synthetic latex can also be the trigger for anaphylactic shock and lesser reactions. For most people, fortunately, this isn't an issue - instances are relatively rare. condoms and dental dams are commonly made of synthetic latex, with rarer ill effects.

However, some people do suffer from anaphylactic shock with standard latex condoms, and latex-free varieties are available.While they are less sensual and more limited in design, they do guarantee against allergic reactions.

Another consideration on the health front - this goes for comfort as well - is that some people can be susceptible to overheating when so tightly wrapped up. Having said that, most people can wear latex - but should they? You can sport your fetish latex wear in a club and feel at home, and others respect your predilections - but one only has to take a quick look at Little Britain's Dafydd to understand why he's the only gay in the village. In fact, I've been to Llandewi Brefi, and he's one of many gays in the village - but his sartorial elegance rather lets him down. So the answer, if we are talking close-fitting garments, is NO, absolutely not - but if we are considering more flatteringly tailored, looser-fitting ensembles, often utilising more pvc-type material, then the answer is 'yes'.

As a 'fabric' it can be tailored, swathed and draped, and can give the silky latex feel, along with a really flattering look. Latex is stretchy - it expands and smooths, and strangely, if well cut, can be quite forgiving...

The true allure

On a superficial level - perhaps just the fact of wearing something which so defines and controls the body - latex is a second skin - hence 'Skin Two Rubber Ball' as an event title. Latex can offer a second skin, maybe more to your fancy than your own - and for the wearer and the observer alike, it has an extraordinary fascination.

Because of its mouldability - the potential to make seamless bodysheathing 'capsules' - latex has become the most widely worn fetish material.

It stretches, it defines, it conceals - and it can give that intriguing, tantalising element of anonymity in fetish encounters.

The Pros and Cons

On the plus side:
- The sleek, shiny look is unique
- It's inexpensive as a material
- The style can be sassy - or chic
- You can cover a multitude of evils - especially with a mask
- It's an integral aspect of the BDSM scene
- Easy to clean - doesn't need ironing!
- It's splosh and water-sport friendly

- You need to choose styles carefully if your figure's on the full side
- Some people don't like the feel of it
- Can be difficult to put on - you need a 'dressing aid' - French chalk or similar generic lubricant
- Ironically, doesn't always work for splosh fans, as everything just slides off
- It doesn't 'breathe', so can become very sweaty inside - not to everyone's taste

Not surprisingly, the smell of latex is a double-edged sword.While some people can't tolerate it, others find it a real turn-on. After all, smell is our strongest, most evocative and longest-lasting sense, and we are more attuned to olfactory input than any other. Although it doesn't work with everyone, it can conjure up immediately memories of events, circumstances and desires, many of them great. An ex-girfriend's perfume, our favourite dish, or a holiday when jasmine and sea-breezes filled the air.

So, the pros and cons in summary: it really is an image garb. The look can be sensational, but sometimes the practicalities can be a pain... not just in the arse.

Where to wear

Time was when heads turned when extravagantly Mohicaned and safety-pinned punks walked the streets - but now there are scarcely any eyebrows raised at people making a fashion statement in latex streetwear. It's not all straps, masks and exposure - there are designers at work creating extraordinary fashion for every day.

So, the answer is, you can wear latex almost anywhere, although its main province is undoubtedly within the scope of sexual fetish. It's unlikely that many barristers would wear latex, pvc or similar in court - unless as underwear... Not many accountants, either - so it's not really work clothing unless you're a diver or a dolphintrainer.
But it is becoming increasingly part of everyday fashion.

Breathless Designs

At the age of 20, Spanish designer Dolenta Debarna was working with Katharine Hamnett - then she discovered the London fetish scene and began making outfits for herself, while still working for high-street labels. In 1998 she launched her own company, Breathless, with her own line of latexwear.

All garments had a strongly tailored feel, great fit and fine detailing, and were made in her London studio to the most exacting specifications. After two years as General Manager for TG Clothing, Dolenta opted to concentrate on her own brand. She now has a combined shop and manufacturing base in London's Kings Cross Road, offering a bespoke service as well as their own lines, made to measure. Take a look at

New Latex Couture

Not all latex clothing is overtly fetishinspired. Heather Meikle, a graduate of the London College of Fashion, has created a new line of latex couture - Overt Clothing - which features glamorous, sophisticated designs in bright colours, with prints, appliques and rhinestone detailing. The look is understatedly sexy - modern but with influences from bygone eras. At first glance, these dresses (Meikle hopes to extend to men's fashion in the future) look good - many in an exaggerated 50s style, lower necklines, more cinched-in waists - and only on a double-take is it apparent that they are made of latex.

These innovative designs, while remaining within the alternative scene, give a whole new slant to latex fashion - and Heather Meikle will be launching her off-the-peg range at the Xpo at the Barbican this October. Check her website for more information: