Nice playful gimmick
A few years ago I designed an exhibition for the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do for the opening, so I went to a costume hire company and decided to rent a captain’s uniform. As I put it on, I felt it immediately: it looked good! Even though at first it didn’t seem so special when you put it on, because really it’s just a pair of dress trousers and a dress shirt, you are genuinely transformed into a different person when you put on the jacket, with its gold buttons and gold or silver braiding. A sabre and a cap complete the look.
All a nice playful gimmick for me, and for sure also for Gerrit Jan Vos. He came from the fashion industry, where an obsession with appearance is par for the course. He was always very fascinated by uniforms. And he wasn’t – and isn’t – the only one. That was the case in the past with sailors, but also with captains whose ‘combination of an air of masculinity, muscles and a body that was sensually clothed in a ‘close-fitting’ uniform, exerted an erotic attraction’.1
This is one of the first examples of archetypes which that became popular within the gay scene. Other obvious examples are cowboys and builders. The same also applies for soldiers, with the erotic aspect of uniform being readily found in the leather and fetish scene, which draws on military uniform and the clothing worn in motorbike clubs. Almost all these costumes are based on militaristic uniforms, and especially those from Nazi Germany.
I do find this a somewhat troubling aspect, especially bearing in mind that there is a firm just outside Berlin where you can have ‘Nazi costumes’ made, with the exact cut and line of the originals, though admittedly without the symbols.
It does depend on the context in which the costume us worn, though; a leather uniform won’t raise any eyebrows at a fetish party, but is likely to cause some frowns at the supermarket if worn to do the shopping. Just as depictions of saints on T-shirts – something that was popular for a while – would not ruffle too many feathers on the streets, but could cause something of a commotion if worn whilst walking around the Vatican.
In addition to the actual uniform itself, there are a number of elements attached to it which heighten its sexual appeal even further. Many of these attributes no longer serve the function for which they were originally created. Breeches are an example; the rear flaps of the tunic jackets, split in the middle, were folded double to make the coloured lining visible; the breeches had an extra thick seat panel, often made from leather, to withstand the wear and tear from horse riding. This ‘double leather’ seat enabled the rider to sit more firmly on the horse. But no one in the leather scene has a horse, so it is above all about the sexy image.
Another example is the codpiece, or braguette2: a cap, pouch or purse which covered the genital area of men in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was worn between the loose trouser legs, to which it was attached with buttons. As its dimensions increased steadily, it also became a symbol of virility in the 16th century. In a podcast about the history of fashion, in which each episode looks at historical clothing items with the help of someone dressed in them, the codpiece was placed over the genitals of a young man. The effect was to show the outside world how large the wearer’s genitals are. This still happens today in the leather scene, with men wearing leather briefs containing a codpiece. It gives shape to the genitals and there is also a system for pushing the genitals forwards using a cock ring.
As someone from the fashion world, the attraction for Gerrit Jan, the attraction lay in the fact that he knew precisely how a costume or uniform was put together. He also knew how it could be used to perfect a slightly puny body in order to create an imposing impression. This was particularly important in the army as a means of intimidating the enemy.
Els de Baan3 has written that uniformity and functionality at various levels (including dressing to impress) are standard elements in military uniforms; but how do you make a male body, with all its varied forms, uniform?
If you want to make a narrow-shouldered young man appear broad, you can use big shoulder pads, adding extra stripes or epaulettes or tassels if they are higher in rank. Preferably in gold, because it is a royal material. And, because it gleams, it can also be seen from a distance. Then comes a belt to create a slim waistline. You have then also created your first triangle.
The length of the jacket is also important; it should be long enough to just barely cover the genital area. The piping running down the trouser seams creates the illusion of longer legs. Just as with the popular Adidas pants, this lends a sexy element to the body. And of course there is also the head covering. We see lots of large cap peaks, which in the first instance protect the eyes against the sun, but for men in the leather scene those leather caps also have a different function.
I sometimes wonder whether they can still see anything. The genital area, of course, but what if you want to look at someone?
It’s not about that, of course, though; it’s about creating distance, a way of making the other person feel uncertain. Like the saying attributed to Oscar Wilde that everything in life is about sex, apart from sex, which is about power, so the same applies here. And to achieve that effect it doesn’t matter whether the wearer has on a genuine military uniform or one they have purchased from Mister B.
You can find plenty of erotic elements in these pictures. The two buttons on both chest pockets are right where your nipples are. The vertical row of knots will go towards your crotch. When you look at the photo your eye is drawn to the top part and your gaze drops down
Men wearing breeches
There is one aspect that is essential for a more detailed exploration of this topic: masculinity. But that raises its own questions: what makes someone masculine? And who decides that? We see the power narrative once again here. If we pursue this to an exploration of the relationship between masculinity and homosexuality, and what place homosexuality occupies in society, we discover that sexuality is a difficult topic of conversation in our culture.
That also influences the way in which people present themselves to the outside world. A few years ago, I delivered a talk during a gathering to mark the departure of Jack van der Wel, the former head of collections at IHLIA. My talk was about the development of the ‘leather man’ style of dress through the years, in which I noted to my surprise that the clothing style adopted by many way gay men is often akin to that of the ‘aggressor’.
In other words, someone wishing to live as a ‘normal’ gay man can use ‘masculine’ clothing elements precisely to avoid standing out. Suddenly, all young men start wearing beards, just like men from Arabic countries; but the latter are fiercely anti-gay, so walking round those countries with your pink hair and T-shirt with a unicorn on it makes you a perfect victim. Today, dating sites contain lots of pictures of (semi-naked) gay men in gyms, because they have become a ‘neutral’, safe environment in which you can work undisturbed on improving your body.
A uniform is thus a kind of camouflage to ensure that the wearer doesn’t stand out. At the same time, uniform is eroticised, partly through the influence of the archetypes mentioned earlier. Think of Marlon Brando or James Dean, looking really good in a white T-shirt and jeans. That was the look to copy. It is also a very successful commercial tool, as in the case of the ‘Marlborough man’, who determined who you were by your choice of cigarettes. Younger men didn’t smoke Belindas, a Dutch brand of ladies’ cigarettes with a picture of a blonde on the pack.
Creating a tough, masculine image was also popular among celebrities such as George Michael, who in the second half of the 1980s transformed his image from a clean-cut freshman look to a more masculine image by wearing Levi’s and a leather jacket. When he began wearing a crucifix hearing, half the Netherlands followed suit. In the same way that many men stopped shaving when George Michael began sporting a three-day stubble. Everyone sensed that he was a bit gay, but it felt better than the overly flamboyant and obvious ‘glitter’ of Elton John or Freddie Mercury.
There is strong interest within the gay scene in archetypes, then, led by artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Rex and Tom of Finland. Whether it is intended as a means of blending in or of creating a (gay) ideal of the perfect man as handsome, tough and muscular, can we say that this is the completes picture of masculinity?
There are after all other examples which undermine this image; think of the glam rock era in the 1970s, or of a handsome young man like Harry Styles who wears heels that are slightly too high or ‘forgets’ to put on a shirt under his blazer. This has helped attract a large group of fans, not just among boys, but also and especially among girls, none of whom care whether or not Harry is gay. There are also increasing numbers of gender-fluid men, and it is gratifying to see that a growing number of them are people of colour. What is seen as ‘tough’ or ‘masculine’ is different for every generation.
Meanwhile, many fashion designers have already merged their male and female shows. In my view, the only reaction that will ensue from this will be super-masculine or super-feminine fashion. If the skirts are short they will become longer again, and if they are long they will become short. Fashion always runs ahead of society, and that also has an influence on the leather and fetish scene
When a market becomes saturated, the scene moves on to a different colour or style. What I notice is that the soldier has disappeared; Mister B no longer sells military trousers. The reason is the current war in Ukraine: when actual fighting is going on, people prefer not to wear military uniforms.
At the same time, there is a growing demand for fantasy fashion, partly under the influence of games and fantasy figures in films and TV series. They do still sell lots of gym shorts; they are more for the ‘beginners’, because having a leather suit made is expensive – a good demonstration that economic factors also have an influence on fashion
It’s all an illusion
Going back to the narrative of impressing and being impressed, we see this in the leather and fetish scene in the dominance and submissiveness that appears to run through the whole scene. Artists such as Mapplethorpe also played with rank and status in their work, pillars which have always underpinned our culture.4 The private soldier and the general; the naval rating and the captain: ‘high’ and ‘low’ are always found together.
I know the leather and fetish world very well, and what has struck me in all those years is that – greatly simplified, it has to be said – almost everyone who is submissive works in a profession such as an ambassador or bank manager: a ‘high’ role in society and a ‘low’ role in their sexual lives. Similarly, those who are dominant and strut around dressed in leather and a cap often live more subordinate lives in everyday society
This swapping of roles is a key element which runs through everything; for example, if you go to a leather event you are automatically nervous when everyone comes in. But what are the conversations about? About the Royal family, about the latest porcelain angel figures and about ‘girl, your pants are really tight’. They are complete contrasts.
That’s also what is nice about the gay world; when everyone is ‘dressed up‘, and especially in the leather and fetish scene, you can no longer see where someone comes from. In this fantasy world, people can escape the stamp that society constantly puts on them in the real world.
Although he occasionally wore camouflage trousers, Gerrit Jan didn’t wear high black boots, and also didn’t move in the leather fetish scene. He also did not show his photo collection of young boys and men in uniforms to the outside world. In fact, it was all done a bit secretly. Gerrit Jan was a very gentle-natured, modest and slightly shy person in whom this fascination came as a surprise. He kept his enjoyment of it to himself, just as people did in the past with porno magazines and today on their phone. Where others threw themselves enthusiastically into a fantasy world in the scene, Gerrit Jan was able to create his own illusions with his collection of real soldiers.
- Gardiner, James A Class Apart: The Private Pictures of Montague Glover. London: Serpent’s Tail (1992: 60).
- Lemma Wikipedia ‘Braquette’. Accessed on 5 August 2022 at https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braguette.
- See also the article elsewhere in this collection Military uniform and fashion by Els de Baan (2022).
- See the article elsewhere in this collection The army as a refuge for gay men (first half of the 20th century) and (hidden) homosexual codes.