published in ZOO Magazine No. 32, p. 58-59

A typology of polymer liquid in popular culture and contemporary fashion.

A sheet of semi-transparent beige latex. Partially covered with pale pink flocking. A wall installation by Keith Sonnier, the American minimalist artist. Entitled ‘Mustee’ and created in 1968, the artwork subtly evokes a virgin-like notion of latex as surface of sensual appeal. In Sonnier’s oeuvre, latex is introduced as an ambiguous material that unites both: the natural and the artificial.

Primarily an organic substance that is sourced as latex milk from hevea brasiliensis, the rubber tree, it is pressed, heated and vulcanized with sulphur until it transforms into a stable structure. The final product is commonly known as rubber and derives in thinner qualities as latex. While the sleek, jelly-like surface of latex draws visual reference to the fat sculptures of Joseph Beuys, Sonnier’s wall pieces elevate the uncomfortably flabby matter from motifs of disgust and human decadence. Instead, they promote a new beauty and catalyze thoughts on a material that is still oppressed by connotations of sexual fetish.

Undeniably, the manifestation of latex had its strongest impact in the BDSM scene. And one cannot deny the artistic genius of latex fanzines like Dressing For Pleasure or Vellum, portraying a phenomenon that struck 1960s pastel flowered bedrooms. A well-kept secret that subtly marked its spot in the fetish scene, side to side with the sexual projections inherent in wetlook, bondage or klismaphilia. The core reason why latex and other tight shiny fabrics may be fetishised lies within its second skin feel. People describe the touch of latex as comforting and stimulating. The thin, impervious material acts as a fetishistic surrogate for the wearer's own skin. Consequently, it evokes the illusion of nakedness, and at the same time, simulates a tightness that is related to sexual bondage. Thus, the latex experience might be summarized as ‘wet transparency’. It radically unveils the wearer’s anatomy and primary sexual characteristics, but also provokes the accumulation of sweat between skin and garment.

The fabric’s duality leads to an interesting technical specification that fundamentally defines the degree of wearability as well as its potential use in fashion: As latex is a natural product, it is easily being manipulated and affected by other substances such as oil and fat, temperature and light. Elasticity, shine and smoothness are in constant danger, especially once it is worn and exposed to human skin. Therefore, it requests explicit care and continuous conservation. Wearing latex becomes a science and ritual in itself. Putting on a respective garment demands the use of talc, lube or chlorine to reduce friction against the skin. Interestingly, chlorine bonds to the first few molecules on the surface of latex and transforms the isoprene into neoprene.

Body and material create a symbiosis, a bio-chemical act. An idea that seems to challenge and attract fashion designers who are continuously exploring the material. Since Thierry Mugler introduced fetish-inspired materials within the ‘Too Funky’ video era, female celebrities in popular culture have been embracing the ‘forbidden’ garment. Beyoncé Knowles is wearing a red latex dress in her music video for ‘Green Light’. Lady Gaga is wearing a white latex catsuit in her music video for ‘Bad Romance’. And Britney Spears is wearing a red catsuit in her music video for ‘Oops, I did it again’ – the bubble pop naivety of the 90s has turned latex into a harmless yet glamorous accessory. Dramatic statements that demand instant admiration from the viewer. Latex screams: ‘Look at me, I am fabulous!’

Besides this narcissistic, fun-oriented and irony-driven use in Pop, there are three contributors of contemporary fashion who have recently translated the artistic tradition of latex into fashion design: Raf Simons, Hussein Chalayan and Nicolas Ghesquière. Despite all difficulties and its naturally instable appeal, pastel pigmented latex occurs in 2011 as part of Raf Simons’ menswear collection. Loosely related to its clinical heritage, the material is used in wide, scrubs-like tops. Most remarkably, Simons reverses the tightness principle of latex and consequently negates its sexual connotation. This approach is perpetuated with his collection for Fall/Winter 2011 that features extremely loose fitted PVC trousers. A material that is made of polyvinyl chloride, a synthetic plastic closely related to latex. In contrary to its niche existence in the BDSM scene, Raf Simons’ garments are built to be radically anti-touch and anti-bondage. They appear distant, remotely wafting around the wearer’s body, and are therefore removed from any erotic context.

While Raf Simons’ pieces are revolting against a ‘dirty’ sub-cultural heritage, Hussein Chalayan uses bonded jersey with foam and rubber edging as a plastic 3D experiment. In some way, the dresses presented within his ‘Inertia’ collection for Spring/Summer 2009 imitate the movement of liquid latex and illustrate the complex moulding production process. Clothing itself becomes the monumentalisation of a fetishised material. Considering the natural restrictions to latex, incorporating the material in fashion demands highest artistry. It is the archetype material of luxury. It emblematizes rarity, delicacy and short-lived intensity. The absolute climax is reached by a series of pieces that perfectly illustrate the transformation of latex into luminous canvases: the hand painted latex coats and dresses by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2008. Stiff moulded latex jackets are decorated with filigree naturalistic drawings. It is a shockingly beautiful and rich presentation of a material that may be regarded as the developed, wearable version of Keith Sonnier’s ‘Mustee’. In the end, there is latex and there is latex.