Peter Ross: The fantasy world of fetish clubs is exquisite torture

Anything goes at fetish clubs, as long as you leave your civvies at the door with your modesty

Anything goes at fetish clubs, as long as you leave your civvies at the door with your modesty

‘CAN I ask,” says Charlotte, “what you’re wearing tonight, sir?” The balding man in the leather blouson and blue jeans sweeps a drunken hand down the length of his body to indicate that this, and nothing else, is his intended outfit.

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“I’m sorry, sir, that is not appropriate dress. Rubber, leather, lingerie, uniform, cross-dressing; we’re looking for people who have made a real effort. Hence, you’re not dressed. This is my party and you can’t come in.”

Charlotte Hellicar, manager of Torture Garden, often described as the world’s leading fetish club, turns to the next person in the long queue waiting on Edinburgh’s shadowy Niddry Street. “And what are you wearing tonight, sir?”

“It’s PVC,” says a tall thin pale fellow in a long black coat.

“Can I have a quick flash?”

The man holds open his Jenners bag. Charlotte nods at the contents. They obviously pass muster. The man has his hand stamped and walks inside, looking for a nook in which to get changed. It is freezing tonight in Edinburgh, too cold to walk the streets in latex catsuits. But even if it were not, the usual thing at Torture Garden is to show up in your civvies, either carrying your fetish gear in a bag or wearing it beneath your warmest clothes. One club-goer unzips his thermal anorak to reveal a clerical collar; his partner opens her vintage mink wrap to show Charlotte she is wearing a lacy purple thong. In contrast to the usual cliché about Edinburgh, here it often seems to be a case of fur coat and knickers.

There are around 500 people cramming into The Caves, an atmospheric warren of stone vaults, used in the 18th century to store whisky. Scotland has its own domestic fetish, bondage and S&M scene, based around clubs such as Violate and DV8 in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but Torture Garden – which runs monthly in London – always whips up a lot of excitement as its visits north are infrequent. This is just the sixth time it has been held in Scotland in ten years.

What’s striking is the wide age spread. Revellers range from their twenties to their sixties, with most, I’d estimate, being in their thirties and forties. One woman, in fishnets and leather corset, shows up on a mobility scooter. There is a tremendous atmosphere of tolerance and bonhomie; no sense of threatened violence. As Charlotte puts it, “You can’t have a fight in rubber pants and take yourself seriously.”

Inside, it’s not just the bosoms which are heaving. The place is packed with folk on the lash. Everyone has changed into their finery: pirates, pervs and punks; regency dandies drunk on brandy; middle-aged gents dressed as middle-aged ladies and vice-versa; a vampire in a codpiece; a zombie in a tux. “This is an escape, it’s fantasy land, an indulgence,” says one chap wearing a Napoleon shirt and Mexican wrestler mask. “I’m middle-aged and middle-class. I’ve got the usual boring commitments. This is how I want life to be. To hell with lawn bowls.”

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Another man, this one wearing a silver skull mask, is employed by a pensions company and says he has come along tonight because he couldn’t face attending a work night out. As he says: “I could hardly wear this to the pub.”

Issy, a slender usherette, is here with her boyfriend Stephen, a musician. Both are in their twenties. She is wearing gold latex hotpants with matching nipple pasties, and has patches of gold leaf stuck to her face and body; Stephen has on a matching outfit, albeit sans pasties. “I can’t go almost naked anywhere else, and I don’t know anyone here so it’s okay,” Issy laughs. “And even if I do bump into someone I know, I can be confident they’re never going to tell a soul.”

A buxom young Londoner introduces herself as Ophelia Blitz and explains that she is in Edinburgh to scout locations for vintage porn films she plans to screen during the Fringe. She is wearing fishnets and a leopard-print slip and is leading her boyfriend, Paul, by a leather strap fastened round his neck. Paul is bare-chested beneath a tuxedo waistcoat. “The waistcoat is borrowed from a showgirl friend of mine,” Ms Blitz explains. “There are three showgirls and a showboy and we all live on a World War Two torpedo boat. It’s pretty awesome. If you’re ever in Chelsea, please do pop in.”

The music at Torture Garden is loud and it is great: Bad Romance; The Model; I Love Rock’n’Roll; and, perhaps inevitably, Louis Prima hollering about being king of the swingers. That last seems to be something of an anthem. Although many people who attend Torture Garden are simply into the flamboyance of it all, there are also significant numbers for whom fetish is a lifestyle and an important part of their sexuality.

In the dark cobbled lane outside, taking a fag break, are John and Pet. John is a big man, burly and bald in a black T-shirt that shows off considerable biceps. He’s Pet’s brother-in-law. The husband is somewhere back inside, I think. Pet is 31 years old, quite plump, wearing a leather hood with batlike ears, a present for her 10th wedding anniversary. She is sipping from a can of Red Bull. John is holding a chain which leads to a pink leather collar round Pet’s neck – “I’m just taking her out for a bit walk for my bro,” he explains.

Pet is beaming and chatty. “I’ve been with my master since I was 19,” she says. She usually wears a wedding ring but has taken it off tonight as shackles make her fingers swell up. Three months after her marriage she was given the collar which meant, formally, that she was a submissive in a deep and committed relationship with her husband. This ritual is known as collaring and – being just between the two of them – it meant more to Pet than the marriage ceremony itself.

“I like knowing I’m always going to be under the same master; it’s like knowing you’re married for life,” she says in a strong Edinburgh accent. “It’s the old-fashioned way.”

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What, though, does her family think of it all? Is this the sort of thing she has to keep secret? “Oh, my family know all about it. My mother was a dominant when she was younger.”

Two rooms, known as dungeons, are set aside at Torture Garden for S&M. In the upstairs dungeon, a woman dressed in the manner of Marie Antoinette is striking with a riding crop the exposed buttocks of a man stretched out on a black leather bench of the sort you may remember vaulting over during gym lessons. Other equipment includes medieval-style stocks and a wooden St Andrew’s cross.

Even here, perhaps especially here, there is a prevailing health and safety culture. A sign on the wall outlines some house rules: “No wax, no blood.” In fact, drawing blood is an extreme rarity, I’m told. The real problem is with spilt Baileys, which is a bugger to scrub off one’s bondage bench.

Roy, the dungeon master, explains how it all works. He is a silver-haired paunchy man wearing sensible glasses, perspex stilettos, sheer stockings and a hoop-skirt made from the inner tyres of several bicycles. He also has hairy chest and a rubber tail. “I am basically a referee,” he says. Roy is there to ensure the house rules are obeyed, and that when anyone says the safe word – in this case, “red” – play must stop. “The most important thing is that it’s safe, it’s sane and it’s consensual. People here gently bring others up through pain to pleasure and to get the endorphin rush.”

Back downstairs, the party is peaking. Over by the bar, a group of friends in elaborate latex costumes drink cocktails and people-watch. One, a gentleman known as Miss Britné, is forced to sip through a straw as most of his mouth is covered by a mask, part of a rubber milk-maid outfit, leaving just one small hole. Drinking straws are essential part of Torture Garden kit, and a number of people carry them in small vanity cases alongside their floggers.

Herbie, a Glaswegian woman of middle years in a tight latex dress, explains the appeal of that particular material. “It’s the visualness, it’s the way the light bounces off it. It emphasises the contours of your body, showing the good bits and hiding the bad. Anybody can wear latex and look fabulous regardless of size, age and shape.”

Daz, a graphic designer wearing a black rubber suit and clinging green mask, says, “In my normal life I’m a pretty shy guy. But this is your classic superhero scenario. Once you’ve got the mask on, you feel you can take over the world.”

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This is the crucial point, I think – the fetish scene, it seems to me, is all about transformation, about sloughing off the everyday, the deadlines and worries, and becoming someone else entirely. The last record of the evening is Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, and to see so many people up dancing, make-up smudged, leathered in leather, backs striped with lash marks, is to witness a tremendous moment of abandon and a weird kind of innocent joy.

Too soon it is all over, and the clubbers spill out into the cold night in search of what, at 3am, are the greatest fetish objects of all – shiny black taxis. As one man says, quite sensibly: “I really don’t fancy risking the night bus in this gimp mask.”