Latex: A Cultural and Social History
Latex is a material found in hundreds of items we use every day. Tyres, medical equipment, balloons. Innocuous items that you may not give a second thought to. However, latex has a fascinating and contentious history, a history that, without, Westward Bound would simply not exist.
What is latex?
In its purest form, latex is a milky consistency found in over 20,000 plant species. Similarly to sap, latex hardens to form an elastic material. Its earthy beginnings mean natural rubber latex is a vegan and sustainable material. However, some people can be allergic to natural rubber latex.
When was latex first used?
Using natural rubber materials dates back to Mesoamerica, a historic region made up of what is now Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua and parts of central and southern Mexico. Olmec, Mayans and Aztec people once occupied Mesoamerica. The word “Olmec” is from the Aztec language and means “rubber people”.
Latex was first seen in clothing in the early 19th century, used primarily in protective clothing in the medical industry. Then in 1824 came the invention of the Mackintosh raincoat by Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh, and a community of keen rubber enthusiasts soon followed.
Early fetish communities
As the love of “macking” (fetish slang for wearing rubber) evolved, The Mackintosh Society was founded, one of the first modern fetish organisations in the world. Membership of the society quickly grew, and as such, the word spread of its members’ interests.
Perceived by many as “perverse”, it wasn’t long before rubber clothing and what it represented became a taboo topic. The case for latex lovers also wasn’t helped by a wave of social conservatism following the second world war, and the movement was forced underground.
The arrival of the late 1950s saw leather fetish fashion come out of hiding. Mostly thanks to the clothing-engineering skills of John Sutcliffe, whose clothing brand “AtomAge” set the path for others to follow. By 1967, Sutcliffe’s attention turned to including latex clothing construction in his repertoire. He would become a revered name within the leather and latex world.
Entering the mainstream
With the help of iconic British 60s television series “The Avengers”, AtomAge was blasted into the substream of the consciousness of a generation. The Avengers featured numerous stylish and assertive women assisting the revolving main characters of the series: Honor Blackman donned an AtomAge leather catsuit in the series to play Cathy Gale; whilst Diana Rigg played the part of leather-clad Emma Peel to domineering satisfaction, wit and charm.
Blackman and Riggs’ characters made the wearing of a figure-hugging leather catsuit look iconic. This garment began the shift from such clothing being seen as inappropriate and perverse to a symbol of empowerment. Taking advantage of this change of perception, John Sutcliffe launched AtomAge magazine in 1972.
A selection of AtomAge Magazines from the 1970s together with three photographs from the 1960s, that our founder Steve Beech, purchased from John Sutcliffe for the grand sum of £1 each, back in 1982. The center photo was used for one of our Der Putsch fetish party flyers, the following year.
With the expansion of the AtomAge clothing catalogue into a magazine format in the 1970s, Sutcliffe’s work inadvertently became a documentation of Britain’s fetish and S&M scene, focusing on leather, rubber and PVC. In 1981, AtomAge split into two separate publications; AtomAge Rubberist and AtomAge Bondage. Rubberist was similar to the original magazine, while Bondage featured more risque content, contentious to some original AtomAge readers. Both editions were published until 1985.
Happy meetings with creative minds
Steve Beech bumped into John Sutcliffe whilst wandering down Dryden Street, Covent Garden in 1981/82. The two started talking and the seeds of Westward Bound were sown.
AtomAge had equally caught the eye of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, eight years earlier, they were running a boutique at the time named “Let it Rock”, later renamed “SEX” in 1974. John Sutcliffe’s work was a baseline for the shop, which stocked latex aplenty. SEX appealed to fetishists and punks alike, and soon enough, rubber clothing moved on to became a common sight in the 80s nightlife scene.
The beginnings of Westward Bound
Within this underground nightlife scene, Westward Bound had its humble beginnings. We evolved from a combination of London’s punk scene and underground clubland movements, endearingly known as “the dark side of the New Romantics”.
With a wealth of partying experience and an unbridled creative spirit, we created Der Putsch in 1983. A London-based leather and latex fetish club. Secretive yet trail-blazing and a vital piece in the Westward Bound jigsaw. For a while, we ran a contemporaneous party night, in the same venue as the AtomAge private parties, at Jane’s Wine Bar in Northumberland Street; long since vanished. Used in the daytime by assumed government agents, based at Admiralty Arch, and by the fetish crowd twice a month on a Saturday. It was a perverse and quintessentially English arrangement.
Der Putsch Party flyers at Jane’s Wine Bar from 1984. Being a young art, music, and fashion crowd, in our early 20s, we varied design style for the fun of it. Formulaic interpretation and repetition being dull. The emphasis was on different friends designing a unique flyer for each event.
Left to right:
1. Martin Hugo Jackson (Alumnus, Chelsea College of Art). Back in the 1980s Martin was actively working within the London fetish scene as a photographer and graphic artist of note. As we post this blog in 2022, he is a busy man with Art Society Soho in London.
2. Mark Foreman (Alumnus, Royal College of Art). A reworked classic punk vibe, with a twist, was a neat retro-reflection by 1984. As we post this blog in 2022, Mark has recently left his position as lecturer on illustration at Falmouth University to concentrate on his work as an illustrative artist in St Ives, Cornwall.
3. Robert C’s wonderful treatment of Horst P. Horst’s iconic Mainbocher Corset photograph. It was adapted and delivered as an engineered homage to the legendary photographer and the shoot at Vogue studios, Paris in August 1939.
The ‘Beat Me , Bite Me’ references were taken directly from American punk band The Queers’ 1982 single ‘Love Me’. For us, everything has texture and layers, it is more than surface shine. The Provenance of Westward Bound.
Following this outward resurgence of latex and its newfound rebellious spirit, latex entered the mainstream. Now, it’s not uncommon to see latex gracing red carpets. However, latex’s heart and soul still lie in the underground fetish communities and subcultures.
As for Westward Bound, we continue to be a successful and trusted designer and supplier of luxury latex garments. We take pride in the clothing we produce. Aiming to create garments that are beautiful to look at while retaining the bohemian spirit that is so central to the history of latex clothing design.