There’s now a whole generation of kinksters and fetish fashion fans that has little or no inkling of who John Sutcliffe was.
Which is a shame, because his London-based company AtomAge, which began producing leather and rubber clothing in the late 1950s and expanded into fetish magazine publishing in the 1970s, was the immediate precursor of — and an important influence on — our modern fetish fashion scene.
But now, thanks to author Jonny Trunk and publishers Fuel Design, those who were only dimly aware of Sutcliffe’s contribution to the fetish demi-monde may learn about it from Trunk’s book Dressing For Pleasure: The Best of AtomAge, published by Fuel on September 20.
This 208-page A5 hardback offers a selection of typical imagery from all 32 issues of the original AtomAge published between 1972 and 1980.
Interspersed with the 200 or so images (24 of which are shown in our gallery) are a history of the man and his brand, a short article by Sutcliffe himself, and a selection of readers’ letters published in the magazines.
Trunk’s history of Sutcliffe blends some of the familiar biographical material from the AtomAge Appreciation website with interesting new detail in areas such as John’s involvement with projects by the artist Allen Jones.
At the length of a modest magazine article, it’s hardly an exhaustive biography, but it’s a useful and easily digestible primer for anyone encountering the world of John Sutcliffe here for the first time.
And without Trunk’s enthusiasm for his admittedly recent discovery of the AtomAge subculture, who knows how much longer we would have had to wait for a book of any kind on London’s great pioneering perv?
As Trunk’s piece The Rubber Man explains, motorcycle enthusiast Sutcliffe — whose obsession with leather had already cost him his marriage and driven him to seek psychiatric help to “cure” his “addiction” — launched AtomAge in 1957 as a manufacturer of “weatherproofs for lady pillion passengers”.
The venture was so successful that his renown soon spread beyond his original customer base in the motorcycling and rally-driving worlds, and he started getting commissions for stage, TV and cinema productions.
John is often wrongly credited with designing Emma Peel’s outfits for the mid-’60s TV series The Avengers — frequently quoted by pervs as stimulating the beginnings of their own fetish interests. But he did make the costumes for the later stage version starring Kate O’Mara, as seen in the second image in our gallery.
His biggest break was probably being commissioned in 1967 by a car-care company called Granville Chemicals to dress a model in a full-coverage leather catsuit as a publicity stunt for that year’s London Motor Show.
The model wore the suit in Trafalgar Square and Carnaby Street, where she was photographed by the Daily Mail, generating great publicity both for Granville and AtomAge.
Seeing one of the famous photographs of this skintight lace-up suit heading our gallery will probably ring bells for a lot of today’s kinksters, as these pictures have been a recurring part of the iconography of “vintage” fetish for 40 years now.
Not surprisingly, given the overt kinkiness of the outfit, the Granville suit generated a lot of rather more esoteric business for AtomAge
Not surprisingly, given the overt kinkiness of the outfit, the suit generated a lot of rather more “esoteric” business for AtomAge. As Trunk notes, Sutcliffe ended up making more than 20 variations on the pattern, most of which were never seen in public.
The business had grown so much that larger premises were needed, and in 1967, the year of the Granville suit, AtomAge relocated to Dryden Street, off Drury Lane, above legendary theatrical boot and shoemakers Anello & Davide — who, incidentally, made the boots for Sutcliffe’s designs.
Although Sutcliffe’s highest-profile work was in leather, he had also experimented with rubber and PVC from early on, developing his own rubber adhesive and bonding techniques.
And as another Fetishistas article in our Kink Culture series reveals, in the early 1960s Britain’s famous rubber clothing company Sealwear started making up in latex what John had already created in leather.
By the time AtomAge magazine was launched In 1972 — after a customer persuaded John that a magazine could both broaden the public acceptance of his work and act as a catalogue for his designs — rubber was as legitimate an editorial topic as leather.
The A5 pocket-format magazine quickly became a coveted item among the kinky cognoscenti, not only showcasing Sutcliffe’s own work but also including readers’ letters and pictures under the heading Dressing for Pleasure.
In 1977 that heading inspired the title of a documentary about the fetish underground by John Samson and Mike Wallington. Made at the height of Punk, it featured Sutcliffe and his fetish friends, as well as Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westward and various denizens of their King’s Road shop Sex. it was recently released on DVD for the first time.
The same title was later borrowed for a series of annual fetish balls in New York, and subsequently given a new lease of life in magazines by G&M Fashions, publishers of Shiny and other fetish titles, who now own the rights to the original AtomAge material.
In 1980 John Sutcliffe revamped AtomAge as the larger A4-size AtomAge International and added two new supplementary titles, AtomAge Bondage and AtomAge Rubberist, which helped expose the brand to a wider market.
Two years later, he was prosecuted for publishing the fictional bondage memoir Story of Gerda, had all his stock and printing plates destroyed, and was forced to start his business again virtually from scratch in a new location.
Fortunately for the future of fetishism, however, at the same time as this venerated scene figure was under establishment attack, London was witnessing the birth of a new movement that would take kink in a new direction.
Though beyond the scope of Jonny Trunk’s book, the influence that Sutcliffe’s work had on the people involved in the launch of the original Skin Two club in January 1983 was very real. I know because I was one of them.
But successful development of this new scene involved ditching some of the values that had kept fetishism in the shadows for so long.
Successful development of this new London scene involved ditching some of the values that had kept fetishism in the shadows for so long
Taking its inspiration as much from Punk and the New Romantic dressing-up movement as from traditional kink, this new movement sought to legitimise fetish culture by reinventing it as a young, energetic, club and fashion-oriented scene in which, for the first time, women had an equal creative role.
The readers’ letters selected for Dressing for Pleasure (see example above right) give some indication of why changes were needed. While AtomAge did, of course, have female customers, the old scene was dominated by men’s fantasies, and while some wives and girlfriends might indulge them, they were rarely the initiators.
A lot of what went on was solo activity and even when it wasn’t, it was carried out surreptitiously, at dead of night, behind net curtains and closed doors, or in remote outdoor settings where the possibility of discovery was very small.
The new scene empowered women, giving them a safe, supportive and respectful social space in which to discover and develop their own notions of kinkiness, and their own kinds of kinky creativity.
In the new world of emancipated fetish fashion, female designers became the innovators, creating stylish latex clothes that they and other women would happily wear in a posh restaurant or a fetish club. Pervs could, for the first time, be out and proud.
Sutcliffe himself understood the significance of what was going on. Chatting with me at a Skin Two screening of his short film Under Three Layers, he was full of praise for the club’s publicity imagery, which, shot by Peter Ashworth, featured model Sue Scadding in a black rubber catsuit on a rumpled black rubber sheet.
“No one has photographed rubber like this before,” John said admiringly, and he was right. Turning fetish into fashion required more than just a fresh approach to garment design; the quality of the imagery had to be ramped up as well.
Sutcliffe was a competent photographer, but Ashworth was an artist, a man who shot album covers for a living. It was an early glimpse of things to come.
After the virtual destruction of his business, John Sutcliffe relocated in 1983 to a less glamorous part of London, where he continued to publish sporadically for another four years.
But this gentle, nice man never fully recovered from being prosecuted — it had broken him, said friends — and he died suddenly at his desk in September 1987.
What then is Sutcliffe’s legacy? He was not quite the man who “normalised fetishwear” or “brought leather to the masses” as one review of Dressing for Pleasure claims. At the height of its popularity, AtomAge was still very much an underground venture.
But John did, unquestionably, inspire the new movement that actually did take fetish into the mainstream. Today, his legacy can be seen in every kinky costumier’s catsuits and bondage-wear designs, while original Sutcliffe pieces now change hands for thousands of pounds.
It’s no great credit to the fetish industry that it has taken 23 years from John Sutcliffe’s death for anyone to publish an AtomAge book, and then for it to come from “outside” the scene. But that doesn’t diminish the illumination Dressing For Pleasure now throws on its chosen subject.
Sutcliffe continued AtomAge after his prosecution but this gentle, nice man never fully recovered from the ordeal – friends said it broke him