London completely changes at night; the setting of the sun seems to mark a period where all our personal inhibitions are lost. As London grows darker, the skirts get shorter and the people become louder and less introverted. Historically, the city at night has always been shrouded in mystery and met with caution; crime was rife and dark characters were thought to lurk in every alleyway. Sukhdev Sandhu states that, ‘the night was seen as lawless, foreign territory teeming with rogues and bandits who took advantage of what Shakespeare called its “vast, sin-concealing chaos” to revel in an orgy of depravity and pestilence’. Although London night-life has changed a great deal since Shakespearian times, there still lingers these themes of promiscuity, rebellion and intoxication. In modern times, the closest I have come to visualising what Shakespeare might have been talking about, is the subculture of sexual fetishism.
The Oxford Dictionary definition of fetish is: ‘a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body, etc’. A person’s sexual fetishes are often kept very private, so naturally, fetish events are also very exclusive and usually kept underground. However, this Halloween I worked at one of the biggest S&M events in London, Torture Garden, allowing me access through the darkest of doors in this hidden fetish garden of Eden.
Exploring the fantasy rooms:
I was extremely intrigued to know how an entire subculture’s sexual desires are made into a reality, so before the doors of the club opened, I took the opportunity to go exploring.
The Coronet is a very large venue; it can host up to 2600 guests, spanning across three floors. I began my personal tour on the first floor, which had been transformed into the ‘Voodoo ballroom stage’. The entire club was very dark, with only dim red lighting. The room was still being set up and therefore was very bare, but I began to think about the relevance of Voodoo, witchcraft and dark magic within sexual fetishism.
Whilst venturing up the stairs to the second floor, I was stopped mid-way by a staff member, who asked me if I was ‘with the funeral’. I replied that I was bar-staff and, with that, the gentleman swiftly continued on his journey, leaving me slightly confused and concerned. Before I had reached the top of the stairs, I saw a large coffin, that looked eerily realistic and not at all like a prop. Perhaps, if this particular staff member had not asked me if I was with the funeral, I might have assumed it was an expensive piece of décor; but he had, and I suddenly felt very uncomfortable. Thankfully, I passed a fellow member of bar staff, who explained that it was fake and that the theme for this floor was ‘it’s your funeral parlour’. I was glad that I would not be working on this floor and, for the first time, found myself quite anxious about meeting our guests for the night and seriously questioned how people could find this enjoyable, or even erotic.
I did not spend much time exploring the funeral parlour and quickly left through the door to the left of the stairs, which lead to the ‘horror cinema balcony’. The Coronet, built in 1872, was once a popular theatre, where a very young Charlie Chaplin once performed. Though The Coronet has since been renovated, a lot of it’s historic features still remain, including the seated balcony that overlooks the main stage (now the main dance-floor). For this event, a cinema screen was constructed and hung above the main stage, on which provocative and gruesome images were projected. This space, with it’s historic architecture, enabled me to really visualise the London underworld that Shakespeare described; I imagined exclusive after-parties, where the upper-classes would smoke opiates and throw massive orgy gatherings.
I then ventured back down to the ground floor, which was now the ‘haunted theatre stage’ where I would be working behind the main bar. After everything that I had witnessed on the other floors, the décor here seemed quite tame in comparison. There were plants surrounding the main stage and caged cells, which contained live, half-naked dancers – adding to the illusion of the ‘torture garden’.
However, I then noticed a sign in a discrete corner of the club, which read ‘couples rooms’. I did not inquire about what these rooms might be used for, but it did leave me wondering what people could possibly be doing that demanded privacy, especially considering the already explicate nature of the rest of the club.
Dressing for work at events like this is quite an interesting experience and is probably best described as undressing for work. Though dressing up for the event is optional (for staff), nobody enjoys being the only child at school to show up wearing their uniform on non-uniform day. Upon entering the staff room, you might mistakenly believe that you had just disturbed them whilst in the process of getting changed; the girls are all wearing a variety of decorative bras or corsets, along with PVC trousers or short skirts and fish-net tights. The boys are either wearing black mesh tops or nothing on their upper-body and tight trousers.
The process of undressing for work actually felt quite liberating and I began to question the idea of uniform. I remember being given career advice at sixth-form about what to wear during job interviews: a blouse or shirt, a long black pencil-skirt or trousers and low-heeled/smart shoes. The career adviser also suggested that women did not wear over-powering perfume or loud make-up. At that point, I doubt I ever expected that I might work whilst wearing little more than lingerie.
There are different uniforms for specific occasions, for example weddings, the gym or the everyday etc. and there are several variations that are commonly accepted within society. Georg Simmel states that, ‘the deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life’. Fetish dress-up clearly challenges the social norms surrounding ‘uniform’; perhaps the blatant disregard for this social discourse is an attempt to disrupt what is considered as ‘normality’ and perpetuate individuality.
My first customer:
As it turned 10pm, I waited for the club to begin to fill. I cannot remember quite what I was expecting, but I remember being shocked. I stood at the bar and watched my first customer approach; he was completely naked, aside from a mask and chains around is body. It was hard to guess his age due to his face being covered, but his very short silver hair and aged skin lead me to assume he was in his late fifties. I was definitely not expecting to see anyone above the age of thirty tonight, I suppose I had assumed people ‘grew out’ of these sexual fetishes. The juxtaposition of my ideas of what a man this age would be doing at the weekend, at this time of night and the image that was in front of me, stunned me. However, I tried so appear calm and composed as, though this was all very new to me, I did not want to seem nervous or intimidated as it might make the customers feel uncomfortable.
Not long after the man in chains (we shall call him Mr. Chains) arrived at the bar, his pet shortly followed; the man was slightly younger than Mr. Chains and was only wearing very short PVC shorts, a collar and lead, and a red ball, which was strapped to his mouth. This made me recall an image of a slaughtered pig at a royal banquet with a red apple stuffed in it’s mouth; this illustrates a quote by Ben Highmore, ‘in its negotiation of difference and commonality it might, potentially, find new commonalities and breath new life into old differences’. Here, Highmore speaks about discovering new uses and meanings that can be found in relation to commonplace objects. For example, the ball that was used to gag Mr. Chains’ human pet also looked similar to a cricket ball. Cricket, as a sport, is often associated with upper-class culture and partnered with virginal white uniforms, so to view it in this context was quite the contrast.
There were hundreds of interesting and creative costumes on show at Torture Garden, where I also witnessed gas masks being incorporated within the fetish theme of dress, along with whips, wigs and a wide range of nipple tassels. Though the costumes were imaginative, to say the very least, as the night went on the outfits began to lose their shock value. This demonstrates Georg Simmel’s ‘blasé attitude’. In the Metropolis and Mental Life, Simmel argues that the ‘metropolitan man’ becomes almost immune to everyday pleasures, as high-intensity stimulus has become commonplace in modern society. This might also explain the growing popularity and want for all things ‘weird and wonderful’, as the very things that once thoroughly entertained us quickly become mundane and out-dated. I think about my own experience with ‘blaséness’, in the form of computer games and consoles; I always want the newest and highest-quality entertainment. However, surely this is too simplistic to apply to sexual fetishism; are all fetish-enthusiasts simply bored with their normal sex lives and looking to ‘spice things up’?
Something else that I found quite surprising was that I did not see any of the party-goers taking photographs, despite there being plenty of fetish-themed ‘Kodak moments’ to capture. On student nights, I am often asked to take many photos on smart phones and digital cameras, but tonight there were no ‘group pics’, which would later be uploaded to their social media sites. Sharing photographs has become an everyday social norm, with ‘civilised’ life being self-regulated through social media sites; for example, what we eat, our hobbies and even our thoughts can be uploaded, so that our daily lives can be dissected and scrutinised by a global audience. The room themes of the event might further highlight the idea that fetish enthusiasts are viewed as the ‘freaks’ of society; for example, voodoo, tarot cards and other forms of dark magic were strong themes throughout the club. These themes are also closely associated with circus performers, with circuses historically being used as platforms, in which to display the wonderfully weird in human freak shows.
The club closes at 6am and by the time I left work, the sun had already risen. It was quite a contrast, coming from a windowless venue, which was lit only by dim red lights, to be exposed to a clear sunrise.
I take the tube home from Charing Cross station; as I stepped on the escalators, I was met by a slight breeze carrying the scent of sanitiser, as opposed to the usual metallic smell. The practically deserted station actually smelled fresh and pleasant, a stark contrast to the busy, musky and stale conditions that I had been working in. The juxtaposing atmosphere of the underground station and ‘underground culture’ lead me to think about other comparing and opposing factors, and what they might signify; both the station and the club were seemingly removed and hidden from the gaze of the general public and were left to fester below the surface of British culture.
When I first imagined living in London, I was so excited at the prospect of taking the tube. However, in reality, it is cramped and loud and I was left disappointed and feeling a sense of nostalgia, longing for a scenic moment and theme-song to accompany the journey of my independence – just like something you might see in a movie. The experience of Torture garden was quite similar for me, with the mystery that surrounds underground culture being a lot more romantic than its reality.
As I boarded the train, an older man sat opposite me. He was dressed smarty and probably on route to begin his 9 to 5. My mind instantaneously recalled an image of my first customer; was this Mr. Chains unmasked? The night had completely altered my view on society; I had previously believed that these nights were for small subcultural groups and that they would all look as though they were freshly plucked from the streets of Camden. However, now I found myself questioning if everyone carried these thoughts of dark fantasies, and whether ‘normality’ was just an illusion that people projected, in order to remain hidden from the scrutiny of society. I looked down at my crossed legs, where the stretched material at the knee had made my leggings partially transparent and revealed the pattern of my fish-net tights, which were safely concealed beneath them. This was my attempt at hiding any physical aspect that might give-away my own experience of ‘underground culture’.
Despite the fact that the underground is in no way a particularly glamorous environment, I felt the style of dress that I had adopted for Torture Garden was inappropriate in this setting. The underground is generally accepted and understood by the majority of society, it is ordered and civilised and there are rules; Joe Moran states that, ‘the London underground is a rule-driven and standardised environment’. Although there is no written rule or law, which prevents one from travelling in a fish-net tights or a bodice, I felt as though a more conservative style of dress was just as imperative as it is to stand on the right-hand side of the escalators.
For whatever the reason, some people feel they must repress their sexual desires; whether that be due to the fear of scrutiny or judgement from the rest of society or that it goes against their own ideals of morality. Regardless, I am sure it will be quite some time before I am able to watch cricket again, without suspecting that the players secretly want to catch the balls with their teeth.
- Frisby D and Feathersone M (1997). Simmel on Culture. SAGE.
- Highmore B (2002). The Everyday Life Reader. Routledge.
- Moran J (2005). Reading the Everyday. Routledge.
- Sandhu S (2006). Night Haunts: Whatever Happened to the London Night? Artangel. http://nighthaunts.org.uk/html4bfa.html?page=introduction&title=Whatever%20happened%20to%20the%20London%20night?