When Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman showed up to last summer’s ESPY Awards, he wore a harness. When male ingenue Timothée Chalamet arrived at the Golden Globes, he did the same. So did singer Kris Wu at Paris Fashion Week, as well as Boseman’s Black Panther co-star Michael B. Jordan at the SAG Awards.
It isn’t really all that surprising. Harnesses worn by men, while a longtime staple of the gay leather scene, have popped up not infrequently on red carpets within the past year, beginning around the time Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon wore a Moschino version to last year’s Oscars.
But the fact that they’re now widely being worn by openly straight men is what’s unique about this particular awards season, and it’s opened a conversation about whether queer fashion appropriation is simply a symptom of wider societal acceptance.
Where the current harness trend comes from
Many of these harnesses of the 1 percent can be traced back to a single designer: Virgil Abloh, the enigmatic man behind the world’s hottest fashion brand, Off-White, and now the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear.
Though Off-White was built on irony (e.g. a black dress with the words “Little Black Dress” on it, quotes included), Louis Vuitton is a storied fashion house more than 150 years old. Abloh’s first collection for the brand, however, which debuted last summer but only recently hit shelves, included various takes on harnesses, many of them asymmetrical or in neon and floral print.
Those harnesses, Abloh told Vogue, were the “keystone” of his vision for Louis Vuitton. “It was the actual very first thing I designed,” he said. “I wore it to the Met Gala ... It doesn’t have the comfort or the security of a jacket, but it’s somehow empowering.” Abloh, however, refers to his harnesses simply as “mid-layer garments,” which echoes Chalamet’s response to the media frenzy over his Golden Globes harness. During an appearance on Ellen, Chalamet defended his harness by claiming, “I thought it was a bib. They told me it was a bib!”
“I had a friend send me a thing that, like, sex-dungeon culture is a thing where you wear harnesses,” he continued. “I didn’t do it for that reason, but, uh.” That Chalamet was unaware of the harness’s BDSM origins, however, is indicative of the longtime mainstreamification of BDSM fashion.
Abloh certainly didn’t invent that, by the way. Despite the fact that menswear is, indeed, having a larger leather kink moment — as Out magazine notes, Raf Simons and Berluti recently created head-to-toe leather looks, Versace screen-printed T-shirts with bondage harnesses, Loewe sent assless chaps down the runway — high fashion has borrowed from BDSM for decades.
Back in 1992, Gianni Versace devoted a collection to S&M; there was Jean Paul Gaultier-designed bondage-inspired clothing for Grace Jones and Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour wardrobe throughout the ’90s. The punk scene in the ’70s, too, utilized leather and bondage elements in its DIY fashions, which were then incorporated by designers like Vivienne Westwood.
Yet until quite recently, many of pop culture’s most visible BDSM-inspired fashions appeared on female celebrities. Within the past few years, nearly every major female pop star has worn a harness onstage or otherwise in some capacity; New York–based independent designers like Zana Bayne and Bliss Lau have designed pieces for everyone from Beyoncé to Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, and Ciara. Even Taylor Swift wore a harness to a casual lunch way back in 2015.
Straight dudes wearing harnesses? That’s new.
The fact that harnesses are suddenly appearing on many more openly straight male celebrities, however, is what’s new. And it’s also what makes the trend more complicated.
While Timothée Chalamet and Michael B. Jordan’s harnesses received plenty of praise, particularly within the larger trend of men challenging red carpet gender norms, for those in the leather or BDSM scene, there’s a fine line between visibility and appropriation.
On one hand, argues Guy Lodge in the Guardian, the mainstreaming of items like harnesses can be seen as evidence that LGBT sexuality is no longer so marginalized. But on the other, in order for fashion to be truly mainstream, it also must sanitize its origins. “It’s hard not to see it as one more item of queer culture being appropriated and neutralized by the pop machine,” Lodge writes.
Harnesses’ popularity also happens to be occurring during a time when the leather scene is dying out. In the New York Times, nightlife writer Michael Musto argues that the decline of leather bars and clothing stores in New York City coincides with the acceptance of gay culture.
“Many factors, like gentrification and the fight for marriage equality, have contributed to the rise in homonormality,” city chronicler Jeremiah Moss told Musto. “This is a very American melting pot phenomenon: If you assimilate, if you give up what makes you different, you can have rights.”
“Being into kinky stuff doesn’t mean you have to wear certain clothing to let the world know,” added David Lauterstein, the co-owner of Nasty Pig, formerly a leather- and BDSM-focused clothing store that now sells common items like flannels and hoodies.
It seems as though now, when to kink-shame is to reveal oneself as laughably prudish, a leather harness on a straight male celebrity is both the signifier of a more open and accepting society but also one that’s become increasingly homogenous. And the faster the fashion system gobbles up subcultural style, the more so it will be.