- In Bizarre Fashion: The Double-Voiced Discourse of John Willie’s Fetish Fantasia
BIZARRE is, as its name implies—bizarre!
It has no particular sense, rhyme, nor reason, but typifies that freedom for which we fought . . . the freedom to say what we like, wear what we like, and to amuse ourselves as we like in our own sweet way.—John Willie, Bizarre1
In her book examining the relationship between fashion and fetishism entitled Fetish: Fashion, Sex, and Power, American fashion theorist Valerie Steele writes that “fetishism, like pornography, has a history.”2 Unfortunately, neither fetishism nor pornography has been well documented in contemporary scholarship, and fetish pornography and many of the other visual and textual materials increasingly described under the popular umbrella term “kink culture,” have been even less well studied. Addressing this dearth, the subject of this article is Bizarre, a “fetish” erotica magazine produced in Canada and the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, and its editor, the English artist John Coutts, also known as John Willie. In particular, an examination of this little-known magazine reveals the ways in which Coutts mobilized existing popular press formats in order to circumnavigate vice laws and censorship authorities using coded language, double entendre, and a complex semiotics that amounts to what Mikhail Bakhtin called the double-voiced discourse, that [End Page 1] is, an often ironic or parodic form of communication that says one thing and means another, thereby addressing two audiences simultaneously.3
Mid-twentieth-century American fetish erotica was molded by very specific historical, juridical, and social forces. Accordingly, it is important to consider the cultural context that gave birth to Bizarre and to map the work of John Coutts as he encountered the early twentieth-century European and Australian fetish underworld and its material culture and became a vehicle for transporting it to and disseminating it in the Americas. This trajectory is significant, as Bizarre was a seminal publication in the United States, being the first magazine that catered to America’s nascent fetish community. It launched a genre that unified and codified that subculture and influenced sexual styles and practices as well as the look and content of both “alternative” and popular culture and fashions to this day.
Coutts’s use of language and image in Bizarre, in his role as artist, photographer, and editor, is also highly significant. In order to avoid the censorship authorities, Coutts positioned Bizarre as a fanzine (fans’ magazine) of “extreme fashions,” or what he described as a fashion fantasia, a guise intended to give the journal an innocent gloss while addressing his target readership, who would be apprised of the kink subtext. In other words, the magazine offered a very specific reading to those who were versed in the argot and coded language of the fetish subculture, while for those who were not, Bizarre presented itself as merely a slightly saucy girly magazine dedicated to women’s fashions, fancy dress, lingerie, and hairstyles. To this end, Coutts’s remarkable skill and ingenuity in implementing the double-voiced discourse are considered, as they helped to create a safe virtual space in which those with “alternative” sexual tastes and a preference for unconventional gender performance could meet and commune.
A Bizarre Publication
Bizarre was a small-format magazine that catered to an international community of people with nonnormative sexual preferences and desires for self-display, including an interest in some or all of what are referred to today as body modification and BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism). This community also includes transvestic fetishists (those who cross-dress for erotic stimulation), transvestites and/or cross-dressers (those who wear clothing coded as that of the opposite sex), and those with sexual preferences for certain materials, objects, or garments themselves (more specifically, foot, shoe, and corset fetishists and those who enjoy piercing and tattooing, leather, rubber, bondage, and light forms of erotic torture). While some of these practices have now been absorbed into [End Page 2] quotidian culture, in today’s terms it was largely a demographic of “modern primitives,” those who would be considered “kinky” or “into S&M” or a loosely...