A very well-written and -researched essay whose clarity and wit is all the more remarkable for its breadth of subject matter (fetish and fashion, along with all the psychology, sociology, sexuality, feminism, etc. that they entail) and the high degree of subjectivity authors usually bring to that subject matter. Steele's writing is observant, engaging, stylish and piercingly critical--she gains much credibility in my mind by debunking the corset myth, for example. One flaw is that the wide implications of the subject matter often lead her off on tangents. It often takes her some time--in some cases, the entire book--to fully elucidate her points. You have to trust her to explain everything in the end--a trust which is largely well-placed.
Oddly, the largest overarching theory about the connection between obscure fetish gear and high fashion is left implicit in a "perhaps. . ." phrase at the end. That theory is that most behaviors and interests previously thought perverse are being accepted into the mainstream as our society becomes ever more leisure-oriented and pleasure-based. Also unresolved is why fetishism seems to be largely Western and modern--is this a function of social organization, the definition of "fetishism", new sex research, sexual liberation, mass-media communication, all of these? There's an interesting correlation here with the equally culture-specific and modern outbursts of schizophrenia and serial killing (killers who are of course sexually motivated, highly perverse and often fetishistic). This is a query of high social concern, and I'm now more convinced of the role of the mass media--fetishism requires visual stimulation, Steele says, and there's more of that in a wider variety of subject matter than ever before. Not to simply psychology, but it's an interesting factor.
The notion that males rather than females are prone to fetishism is almost borne out by this book itself, as though it took a woman to write sensibly and objectively about fetish/fantasy issues. Conversely, she trips up in fashion, her academic field, which she's too close to for that degree of objectivity. In dicussing whether fetish-inspired fashions empower or degrade women (a discussion wisely complicated with reader-response and intentionalist critiques), she doesn't realize the question she's begging: Why are fetish fashions almost exclusively produced for and worn by women? You could argue that fetishism is almost exclusively male activity projected onto female items. But many fetishists are just as satisfied wearing the fetish items themselves. And as Steele distinguishes, fashion is about "normal" fetishizing, not fetishism, and works by far looser rules. All she really says to this question is that men's fashions are "slower to develop" and suggests a psychoanalytic theory (interesting, though far from convincing) about why women like dressing up more than men do. I think the obvious answer she misses is that whether women feel empowered or degraded, the very reason they're allowed (or required) to dress up at all is because they have a subservient social position to men. When men are required to dress up, it's a relatively simple and standardized uniforming, whereas women are required to puff up a la a court jester or similar colorful figure of subservient/entertainment social standing. Whatever a women chooses to wear, there's no choice about dressing up, and that's where real power lies.
These lacunae aside, it's an honest, thoughtful and meaningful examination of the unspoken--and often misunderstood--meanings lurking within our clothes, and a timely, necessary study of what's going on in the 20th century sexual mind.
Also wanted to add that today's radical forms of bodybuilding should be considered as body modification in the corseting/tattooing/piercing vein. It's been a rapid movement from Schwarzenegger's Greco-Roman classical perfection to today's insanely bulging, wildly exaggerated look.--J.Ruch