According to his producer Mike Wallington, John Samson took some pride in the fact his 1977 film Dressing for Pleasure was banned by London Weekend Television. A revealing portrait of a select number of fetish devotees unblinkingly filmed in their favourite leather gear, the documentary’s frank, full-frontal study of this generally taboo practice was always likely to worry jittery broadcasters. But the most striking thing about Samson’s documentary is its careful refusal to sensationalise its subject matter.
Talking separately to individual fetish enthusiasts, Samson’s interview technique is quietly probing, invitingly sensitive. His subjects tend to be ordinary, ‘respectable’ middle-class types, who describe their passions with unruffled candour, as if chatting about the details of their daily commute into work. Dressed in an all-black, figure-hugging leather bodysuit, a fifty-something man in a neat haircut and black-rimmed spectacles, for instance, talks about the erotic charge his outfit gives with the measured deliberation of the suburban civil servant he’d look like if he were in a suit. “One would be a prude to suggest if this wasn’t the normal expectation”, he says. Then there’s the president of the Rubber Mackintosh Society who discusses the surprisingly humdrum activities his organisation offers its large number of members (including – most amusingly – rambling).
Yes, there’s also a sequence of a very young Malcolm McLaren in Vivienne Westwood’s infamous Sex boutique, but the lasting impression of Samson’s film is not of aggressive provocation (of which punk was often accused by its mainstream detractors) but of an affectionate tribute to a characteristically English of strain bloody-minded eccentricity.
The film abounds with witty touches. One particularly absorbing sequence depicts a gimp in a black body-suit, complete with tight hood over his (her?) head, as an unattributed voice talks about further aspects of his love of leather. Does this voice belong to the man hidden in the suit? And without a clear view of his face what can we make of his attitude from his body movements? With resonant elegance Samson suggests the fluid interplay between identity, anonymity and role playing that festishism allows.
The sequence sums up Samson’s sensitive and astute approach. Over beautifully lit close-up shots of various fetishist items, an unnamed enthusiast compares the feel of leather clothing to a second skin, and you might say the film is a celebration of people who feel comfortable and liberated inside this second skin. Bracingly non-judgemental, Samson provides space for his fetishists talk about their passion on their own terms, going far beyond the negative stereotypes that presumably prompted LWT’s commissioning editors to have their fit of nerves. A typically playful running visual motif sees models in various items of fetish outfits walking to pose from a giant-sized hardback. Conclusion: you can’t judge these books by their (leather-bound) covers.
London-based film critic for The Big Issue and Sight & Sound
To read our interview with Mike Wallington, producer of Tattoo, Dressing For Pleasure, Britannia and Arrows, click here.
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