There were what we’d recognise as bdsm clubs in the Victorian and Edwardian period. They called themselves things like “Miss Primm’s Society of Flagellants”, rather than bdsm clubs, but if we went back a hundred off years in time and visited one, we’d recognise most of what we saw. We’d know our way around.
Now take a couple from that Victorian or Edwardian bdsm club and bring them to a modern bdsm club. They’d also know most of what they see. They’d see dungeon gear, they’d see a school desk with a birch or a cane handy, and they’d know what those things are about.
But there are also things that would puzzle them.
For example, some of them would be looking for women wearing nosegays (a small bunch of flowers) pinned to the breast of their shirt. Because that was how women in the early Victorian period signalled that they’d be very pleased to birch a naughty boy and teach him to behave.
But bdsm has fashions, and that fashion has gone.
Similarly, other people would be looking at the women and men wearing leather collars round their necks, and wondering what on earth that was about. Because in Victorian times, collars were not part of bdsm.
Historical slave collars
Maybe one reason for that lack of interest in slave collars is that the Victorians were closer to real slavery than most of us now are. So they had an idea of what slavery was like, when it’s impersonal and non-consensual.
Actual slave collars existed but they were usually made out of wood, iron or cord, and they weren’t everyday wear for slaves. Nor were they romantic, or intended as decoration. They were hard things to eroticise, and it doesn’t seem to have occurred to any Victorians to even try.
Slave collars were for attaching together groups of slaves when they were made to walk from African villages to slaver ports, from which they would be taken to countries that had large-scale slavery, particularly Arabia and the United States.
These collars weren’t the stuff of erotic fantasies: more like brutal nightmares.
Slave collars in pre-Victorian, Victorian and Edwardian bdsm literature
Put simply: there weren’t any.
You can read bdsm erotica from the Victorian and Edwardian period, and you certainly had characters who were willing submissive partners in sexual slavery, because for them it was the best and hottest sex ever. But they don’t wear collars.
If their master, mistress or trainer wants them to feel powerless, they might be made to wear something super-feminine, that exposed more leg or bust than they were comfortable with and presented them sexually.
The image on the left isn’t Victorian. It’s 1950s. But it shows humiliation by feminisation.
I can’t give an example of a girl being humiliated in this way. It’s a theme in written Victorian and Edwardian porn, but from the descriptions it sounds to a modern reader that the girl’s just wearing a summer dress. A little, flappy summer dress. Nothing, to us; deeply humiliating, to a Victorian lady.
And I should write about why looking feminine was considered to be humiliating in itself, but – the hell with it – not today.
But you’ll look in vain for any reference to collars for those who choose to obey. Collars just weren’t a thing yet.
Slave collars in Story of O
O is collared, in the 1975 film of Story of O
The earliest reference to collars I’ve been able to find is in Histoire d’O, published in 1954. The submissive women at Roissy wear collars and sometimes blindfolds, and… well, that’s about it.
So the inventor of collars as a bdsm symbol is probably Anne Desclos, who wrote The Sory of O under the name “Pauline Reage”.
One of the interesting things about Descos/Reage is that when she wrote Story of O, she had no bdsm experience and knew very little about bdsm, except that her then boyfriend admired Sade. I’m no fan of the book, and I think that lack of experience and inside knowledge helps explain why the book is so oddly sexless, unsensual (most of the time*) and disembodied.
But it also explains why Declos should have invented bdsm symbols from scratch, since she had nothing much to go on except her imagination.
- The exception to my “unsensuous” comment is the bit at the beginning where O has to lower her stockings and panties and lift her skirt, so her bare bottom and thighs are directly against the leather of the car she’s in. That be a good sensual detail.
John Norman’s Gor books
But the person whose work brought collars into a central place in bdsm is John Norman. He gives collars enormous significance and power, which isn’t really present in Story of O.
There are all sort of thing wrong with Norman, mainly that he was a terrible writer, comically bad, and also his dodgy sexual politics. He thought women just naturally liked, or at least needed, to be slaves, so consent wasn’t really an issue. Male submissives don’t exist.
But the importance of collars, and collaring ceremonies. I have to give Norman credit for that, because it’s almost entirely his doing.
Now collars are so popular that they’ve moved into mainstream fashion. When a Goth girl wears a choker collar, she doesn’t mean she’s a submissive, just that she likes the style. Usually: you just can’t tell.
If you want to find out, you’ll have to talk to her. Conversation is still quite a bit clearer than clothing signs, signals and symbols. Which is fortunate, for us wordy types: ie you.
(If you do do talk to her, “Hey! Is that a slave collar?” probably shouldn’t be your opening line. It may lead to a loud clash of symbols.)
You can laugh. But we’ll all be wearing these in 2117
Bdsm culture isn’t fixed. We affect mainstream culture, and mainstream culture affects bdsm culture.
We use different symbols from the Edwardians, only 100 years ago.
In 100 years time, I have no idea what bdsm will look like.
But bdsm definitely will have a visual style, partly based on the old, and partly on new things we can’t begin to guess.
There’s a Wicked Wednesday episode of the Adventures of Maddie coming up. But after that, I want to write about collaring ceremonies.