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The Golden Age of Fetish Art – The Bizarre , Retro Erotica of John Willie , Irving Klaw and Charles Guyette

bizarre magazine john willie irving klaw

Bizzare Magazine by John Willie

Words by Jess Ralph


Ever since there has been art , there has been erotic art. The human appetite for titillating imagery can be seen across millennials and cultures – the explicit ( and often homo-erotic) pottery of ancient Greece ,  the sex as spirituality how-to manual of 3th century India’s Karma Sutra , the mass consumed Shunga woodblocks of Japan , with their depictions of the exploits of the floating world’s most glamorous – and sexually adventurous- courtesans. The invention of photography in the 19th century quickly coincided with the invention of photographic pornography; ideas that the Victorians fainted at the sight of a slightly hitched petticoat are greatly exaggerated.

In the early 20th century, ‘fetish’ was not just a dirty word, but a medicalised one. Originally an anthropological term for a worshipped , totemic object, its meaning shifted upon the advent of psychiatry and Freud’s studies of sexuality. ‘Fetishism’ meant having a sexual fixation on an inanimate object , particular material or ‘non-sexual’ body part (such as the feet). More, it was classed as a paraphilia, a disorder, an inversion, a moral corruption ; as was everything to do with sex that was not concerned with heterosexual pro-creation.

Yet for as long as there has been prudishness there has been kinkery, underground worlds for libertines and pioneers trying to buck societies sexual status quo. John Coutts was born in 1902, and after his military career was cut short due to marrying a nightclub hostess, migrated to Brisbane, Australia in the mid ‘20s. It was here that he joined ‘The High Heel Club’ , a covert community of shoe and feet fetishists with a mail order network for its members to share artworks, photography and media with those inclined to similar tastes. Already collecting fetish imagery and producing some of his own, Coutts lampooned The High Heels Club’s little black book of members to distribute his own wares.

In 1945, Coutts moved to Canada. In the same year, he published the first issue of his magazine Bizarre , titled under the pseudonym John ‘Willie’ – a tongue in cheek reference to the euphemistic slang for a certain body part any Brit will know. Bizarre was, in Willie’s words , “The magazine for pleasant optimists who frown on convention, the magazine of fashion and fantasies fantastic!…Coupled with the taste and ability to create the orthodox and unusual to the trend of the moment”. Within its short and erratic publishing history between ‘45 and 1959, Bizarre not only revolutionised (and to some extent mainstreamed) kink culture and media, but also set the pretext for a style of fetish orientated imagery – cartoonish drawings of buxom girls, tight laced and high heeled, yielding whips and speech bubbles with domineering, witty one liners. A campy mash up of superhero , super villain and pin-up girl. The drawing style of his best-known creation, Sweet Gwendoline – a flaxen haired damsel in distress, usually portrayed as the submissive tie-up-ee at the will of his other bondage happy characters, the dominatrix secret agent U69 and the aristocratic villain , Sir D’Arcy- influenced later renowned fetish artists such as the proto-feminist, “Rembrandt of Pulp”, Eric Stanton. Bizarre’ s short publishing tenure was dogged by trying to evade the conservative censorship laws at the time ( Willie’s commented they did so by trying to avoid any explicit  “nudity, homosexuality, overt violence, or obvious depictions of things that might be read as perverse or immoral and that might rankle those parties who were capable of banning, censoring or blocking circulation.”), however the community and conversation it created in regards to discussions of so called ‘atypical’ sexual desires and behaviours ( sadomasochism, bondage, amputee fetishism, body modification, same sex and transgender attraction) , as evidenced in its readers letters, are nothing short of an important social documentation of sexuality removed from the constraints of morally conservative, post war ‘50s America. 

Willie was introduced to the American fetish underground by the burlesque costume designer and photographer Charles Guyette. Also born in 1902, the ‘G-string King’ as he was later known was already something of a cult figure in the underground fetish community, a martyr to the cause having served time in prison in 1935 under ‘obscenity’ censorship laws. Guyette’s theatrical background and passion for vintage corsetry set the tone for his own pioneering fetish fashion creations; invoking something of the Edwardian beauty archetype of the wasp waisted ‘Gibson Girl’ , along with his other signatures of masks, opera gloves, extreme high heels and of course, the infamous G-strings. Prior to working with Willie at Bizarre, Guyette had supplied costumes and the occasional photo spread to the publisher Robert Harrison for his  “cheesecake” pin-up girl mags such as Beauty Parade, Titter and Whisper. Notably, the photography in Harrison’s titles was originally wholesome, if slightly cheeky, fully clothed imagery “Glorifying the all American girl”, yet in the post war years was increasingly focused on sadomasochistic themes.

Arguably described as Guyette’s spiritual protege, Irving Klaw was another seminal fetish art pioneer that contributed to Willie’s Bizarre magazine. Klaw was not a creator – like the cartoonist Willie or the costumer Guyette- but a merchandiser of kink, pulp , BDSM and fetishist content. Taking over a run-down basement  bookstore in Manhattan in 1938, he noticed the teenage frequenters of his emporium were tearing out magazine images of their favourite movie star beauties , and had the lightbulb moment of selling “Pin-up” stills and photo cards of starlets, earning him the title of “ The Pin-Up King”. His favourite and now most famous model was the raven haired, micro-fringed Bettie Page.

Klaws shop was called ‘Movie Star News’, and although undoubtedly this name was intentionally ambiguous to avoid any street level suspicion about the nature of his business, Klaw’s combining of showbusiness glamour and kinky content is emblematic of the cultural climate in which The Golden Age of Fetish Art occurred. It is, after all, the same period as The Golden Age of Hollywood – the era of deified movie actresses, pedestalled and objectified in equal measure. More, the most lusted after actresses of the day were no sweetly shrinking violets – stars such as Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn were sharp witted, sharp tongued and wore sharp shoulder pads to match. Added to a society in which women had more visibility and autonomy than ever before in history due to the second world war, it’s not hard to make the leap between these incarnations of domineering, powerful, beautiful women and the prevalent themes of muscled, big booted dominatrixes in the fetish art of the era. The combination and influence of proto-feminist ideology and sadomasochistic imagery even reached the world of comic books. First appearing in 1942 and created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman-the amazonian superhero, with her burlesque-esque costume, ‘lasso (rope) of truth’ and ‘bracelets of submission’- in both her image and mode of crime fighting was heavily influenced by fetish and pulp artworks. Marston was something of a libertine himself – a vocal advocate for women’s rights, the character of Wonder Woman was allegedly based on both his wife Elizabeth Marston, also a psychologist and creator of an early form of polygraph, and his polyamorous lover, Olive Byrne, the daughter of first wave feminist Ethel Byrne, who opened the first birth control clinic in the USA.

Original Wonder Woman Sketch by William Moulton Marston

As the 50’s came to an end, the dogmatic censorship laws that Bizarre’s roster of artists had been ducking and diving since the magazine’s incarnation finally came to bite. The Kefauver Hearings on the subject of Juvenile Delinquency in ‘57 tried to link pornography to teenage crime rates. Klaw was branded a degenerate, a threat to society and his business was forced to close and most of his archives destroyed. Even pin-up queen Bettie Page was brought to testify at the trial. Bizarre magazine folded in ‘59, with Willie’s similarly destroying the publications archives. He moved to California and died of a brain tumour in ‘61. The Golden Age of Fetish art had took off its boots and hung up its whip – ironically the public desire for Willie and co’s style of artwork waned as obscenity laws laxed in the wave of 60’s social change and titles such as Playboy made softcore porn accessible to buy in any newsagent. 

However the aesthetic language and depictions of transgressive sexuality in the artworks created and distributed by Willies, Guyette and Klaw had a lasting impact. A nostalgia fuelled cultural revival of 50s Americana in the 1970s saw Bettie Page being retrospectively dubbed a pop culture icon. At the same time, there was a renewed interest in retro fetish art, inspiring a new generation of provocateurs including Robert Bishop , Jeff Gord and Allen Jones, of Clockwork Orange furniture fame, whose work we see below. The burlesque artiste Dita Von Teese named her gin company ‘Sweet Gwendoline’ in homage to Willie’s most famous creation.


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