The British fetish industry has surprisingly practical beginnings. In 1957, John Sutcliffe, a former aircraft engineer from Hampstead, north London, was taking a girlfriend out for a trip on his motorbike. Heavy rain soaked her through, no motorcycle clothing being available for women at the time. “So I went into Soho and bought a dozen skins of red leather,” Sutcliffe said, “and asked my landlady if I could borrow her sewing machine.” The result was not only a waterproof suit for Sutcliffe’s friend, but also the birth of AtomAge, a clothing label and magazine that brought a fetish for rubber and leather into the open for the first time.
Sutcliffe’s designs came out of personal obsession. When his weakness for leather was diagnosed as a symptom of mental illness, he went through a breakdown and a divorce, gave up his engineering job and moved out of the family home. But his motorcycle suit brought requests for similar outfits, and an unexpected career shift. Working out of a loft in central London Sutcliffe used his engineering know-how to transform leather — notoriously hard to stitch — rubber and vinyl into “weatherproofs for lady pillion riders.” He designed a sewing machine for leather and approached Singer to manufacture it. “Singer were so horrified,” recalls his friend Robert Henley, “they called the police.” His experiments with rubber also brought a sticky encounter: Henley came into the studio one day to find Sutcliffe lying on the floor, gasping, almost killed by the toxic fumes of a rubber glue he’d invented.
Sutcliffe went on to make Marianne Faithfull’s all-in-one outfit for the 1968 film Girl on a Motorcycle and influenced Emma Peel’s leather catsuits for the cult TV series The Avengers. With the artist Allen Jones, he designed some extremely rude waitresses’ uniforms for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (they were never used), and his work was an inspiration for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s punk-era boutique Sex. But AtomAge remains Sutcliffe’s greatest achievement. It made extreme fetish outfits look as threatening as a car boot sale in Cobham, normalizing something previously seen as shameful.
Dressing for Pleasure: The Best of AtomAge 1972-1980
By Jonny Trunk
It was Henley who suggested publishing the magazine, which ran from 1972 until 1980 and captured that particularly British ability to combine kinkiness with a suburban sensibility. “It wasn’t pornographic, but it stirred up a lot of fuss,” Henley says. “It was terribly popular, but very hard to find an outlet for. When we finally convinced a bookshop in Victoria [central London] to stock it, people would queue for hours to get a copy.”
Readers were encouraged to send in photographs of themselves in their favorite outfits, resulting in a woman in head-to-toe rubber before a mantelpiece with a photograph of the kids on it, a man hosing down a caravan in leather waders and a gas mask, or a rubber-clad man on a ladder, by a shed, apparently engaged in some sort of sadomasochistic DIY. AtomAge introduced the uninitiated to such diversions as wading (walking through a river at night encased in rubber) and total enclosure. E.E.D. of Middlesex claims in a reader’s letter that after sitting around the house for an hour or so in head-to-toe rubber, he feels “wonderfully relaxed and at peace with myself.”
Jonny Trunk, who has compiled Dressing for Pleasure, a pictorial retrospective of AtomAge, says, “Leather clothing wasn’t available until Sutcliffe came along. He was out there on his own, creating a liberation in women’s fashion. Led by a desire to see women in odd yet functional outfits, he kicked off the whole thing.”