How the harness rose from underground gay subculture to high fashion essential

Once a staple of the queer club scene, the harness has risen from the underground to become a bold fashion statement in today’s post-fetish scene. With a knowing wink to bondage and BDSM, the simple chest strap is now a top draw essential as gay-wear becomes everybody and everyday wear.

Harnesses worn by men have popped up on red carpets and catwalks alike in recent years. Structural chest straps remain a glimmering opportunity for gay men to strut their torsos but the emergence of the harness into the world of high fashion reflects a wider societal acceptance. It is a shift to say LGBT culture is no longer to be hidden. Yet the harness will always be an accessory of pride and dare we say kink.

You may ponder how the harness can be worn in any way other than as an undergarment. Perhaps still a ‘risky’ accessory, the chest harness underpins a multitude of looks depending on your ‘thing’ and of course any particular fetish that hints at bursting from beneath. After all, a harness is designed to look hot, to accentuate aesthetics with cleanly defined lines. So this inner should also be an outer - as you see fit. How did this come to be?

Pulling it tightly together from the start

The harness as an apparel accessory is part of a larger movement that pulled its threads from diverse cultures. Emerging into the gay leather scene that hit cities across America and Europe from the 1960s, by the 80s the harness had become a contrasting symbol of both masculinity and submission.

After World War II, many men had experienced an awakening to homosexuality during their military service. Such semi-conscious desires were still not to be openly uttered in the society of the time so they translated into underground cultures.

The hardcore ‘leatherman’ subculture was one of these. It had its routes in the testosterone-fuelled biker movements of dusty tracks and sweaty shacks of the USA and beyond. Safe space communities developed where kinks and sex could be outed. On the surface, they presented as biker and sports bars but below ground and beyond bolted doors a heady fusion of men simply appreciating men was in progress.

Plucked from these fringes, the harness began appearing in the nightclubs of San Francisco before translating into similarly-inspired scenes in cities such as Berlin, Amsterdam, and London. And so the harness became the only upper wear of note on sweaty thrusting dance floors as gay club culture celebrated its dang self.

The harness in modern fashion

As a fetish wear mainstay, the harness has always told of submission and control. Its position in BDSM is of one being led or restrained but the chest strap has inexplicably made its way to the mainstream while retaining its risque appeal.

Viviene Westwood brought the harness to a broader audience when collaborating with San Fran fetish store Mr. S. Leather. Meanwhile, as the 2000s rolled through its first two decades, at Off-White, Virgil Abloh placed the harness firmly into his catwalk collections before unapologetically launching it into menswear ranges in his new position as artistic director for Louis Vuitton.

Since then, we’ve seen the harness making an appearance on the red carpet at awards ceremonies. As if to give a fetish flourish to the standard tuxedo wear of the suited and booted, a harness has been added to the chest of Michael B Jordan, Timothy Chalamet, and the late Chadwick Boseman. But where next for the harness, and has something so deep in gay culture lost something on its way to A-list accessory?

How to wear a harness

It may be many-layered but as a gay underwear garment, the harness is a simple thing. In the bedroom or undressing department, combining a harness with a jock or solid pair of briefs is the look. It’s like leading the eye upwards from the supremely concealed package below to suggest there’s yet more up top. It works equally sublimely atop a plain white tee.

For many of us though, whether we work out or layabout, a harness is also just an accessory for added support and comfort. It’s like wearing a vest albeit a reduced one. It just gives you the snugness you get from decent undies but up across your chest where other sensitive parts sit otherwise bare without structure.

Has the harness lost its queerness in the pop world of bro-wear?

The fact that all men are now emboldened to wear a harness is a positive. Queer-inspired clothing should be applauded. After generations of a reluctance to wear anything ‘gay’, the abandonment of prescribed notions of masculinity is a stride into something not seen before.

And ultimately, while many gay men embrace their very masculinity, just as many exhibits their submissive or ‘cis’ side. In many ways, the harness emboldens all of us to show just who we are. It’s inclusive and it’s everyday wear. That’s not bad for a fashion accessory that may look on the surface like a bib or a sports bra, yet hints at the basement BDSM kinks that may lie beneath.

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