Heidi Klum’s project runway tagline, “In fashion, one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out,” may be cliché, but it happens to typify the fashion industry quite well. On the surface, evolution can be seen in terms of constantly changing style norms, (i.e., pleats are in today and ruffles are in tomorrow) however, on a deeper level, change is evident in terms of appropriation; taking something for one’s own use that is different than the original use, of clothing garments by different subcultural groups. Andy Warhol once said, “they always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself” (Warhol). In other words, when the cultural meaning of a garment changes, it is in direct relation to the work, actions and ethos of subcultural groups who reconfigure the meaning associated with a clothing item. The chap, originally a utilitarian garment used by cowboys and now central to both BDSM sex culture and the stage costumes of numerous musical performance artists, is a quintessential example of garment appropriation, which has led to an evolution in the symbolic meaning of chaps.
Leather chaps were conceived in the mid-nineteenth century as a practical work wear garment, used when handling livestock. Chaps, like blue jeans, gained popularity at their conception, because they were “supremely functional garment[s], comfortable, cheap, and require[ed] ‘low maintenance” (Fiske 56). The American chap, was adapted from “armitas”, a leather leg protector devised in Mexico. The garment became quintessential to the American cowboy uniform in much the same way the blue jeans became an essential garment for cowboys and blue-collar workers. The functionality of chaps, and their ability for modification in order to provide new functionality, was directly related to their popularity among the cowboy subpopulation. For example, Batwings, with wider cut legs that allowed greater range of motion, and Chinks, the short equivalent of chaps, became popular offshoots of the chap.
Appropriation Phase 1: Functionality & Performance & Costuming
The Batwing chap’s wider legs were not only functional but also easily adorned and ornamented, which caused them to rise in popularity among cowboys eager to use stylistic flair in order to assert their individuality. Cattle herding was a predominantly faceless and monotonous profession. However, because of the larger surface area for ornamentation rodeo riders, who needed both a functional garment and a stage costume, appropriated the Batwing. This demarcates the first fundamental shift in the meaning of chaps, from a simple utilitarian garment, to one ripe with potential for ornamentation and personal expression. Custom chaps expressed individuality, like “disfigured” jeans (i.e. ripped), which signified opposition from the mainstream (58). The use of chaps at rodeo shows, a hybrid between sport and show business, allowed women to wear chaps for the first time, which were originally restricted to the male-centric cattle herding profession.
Chaps were also worn by women participating in equestrian events, a sport divided based on sex, but still available to both sexes. However, when worn by males in rodeos, chaps could be construed as a sexist garment, used to promote machismo and associated misogyny (Frye 136). The availability of chaps to women is significant, because it is the first time the garment was made available to sexual minorities. However, the overall social implications of women wearing chaps were tame in comparison to the social upheaval caused by later sex minorities that appropriated the chap.
Appropriation Phase 2: Subcultures of the Oppressed
In the 1970’s and 80’s the chap was appropriated by two distinct, but interrelated, cultural subgroups, BDSM (leather) sex culture and the LGBTQ rights movement. More specifically, gay men began to wear chaps as an element of physical sexual practice, sexualized socialization (i.e., BDSM centered events), and gay pride social events. The fact that, when worn without another garment underneath, the chap lacks any rear coverage, makes it a tantalizing garment for appropriation into sexual subcultures. However, on a psychological level, the chap serves a similar function for participation in gay male BDSM culture, and gay male LGBTQ rights activists, as lingerie does for women. More specifically, both garments “define a ‘room for one’s own’ in which a distinct identity that otherwise might become blurred or even vanish can be preserved” (Jantzen 179). Both provide an experience for the wearer that is related to their membership in a certain subgroup, but also, the experience is deeply personal and related to a further cultivation of personal identity. The garments provide the wearer explore a side of themselves that they may suppress in everyday life. However, chaps, which are rarely worn under clothing, provide a greater opportunity for overt public expression of the personal self, while underwear can be worn under clothing, cultivating a private self that is never seen by public eyes.
Conceptualizing chaps as an undergarment to be worn without additional clothing, as a performative costume, it seems only natural that they would become incorporated into the movement for equal gay male rights. After spending much of their lives hiding in the proverbial closet, there is likely an inclination to not only make your sexual preference apparent, but also bear the majority of your physical form. Rodeo subculture helped to frame the chap as a garment that enabled the cultivation of an individual’s look. The chap as an element of gay sex culture builds upon this idea and frames the chap as a garment associated with freedom of expression, of social ideas through clothing. This meaning of freedom differs greatly from the conception of freedom originally associated with the chap and the American cowboy.
Appropriation Phase 4: Fashion Without Deeper Meaning?
The chap is still a staple of gay male sex culture and, in addition, has been appropriated by a number of mainstream performers, such as Prince, Christina Aguilera and Miley Cyrus. Prince’s choice of an ass-less yellow jumpsuit for his 1991 VMA performance shocked the country, however, the deeper psychological meaning behind the outfit choice remains to be seen. Chaps later became a staple in the outfits of Christina Aguilera while promoting her over-sexualized album Dirrty. Miley Cyrus donned a similar look when promoting her own album Bangerz just this year. However, all three artists seem mostly to utilize chaps in order to create sensational buzz and test how far they can push their sexualized personas without creating fan and media backlash. The use of chaps by designer Jeremy Scott in his SS12 collection seems similar in motive as well, to create buzz.
The chap is no longer just a simple utilitarian garment and it’s association with freedom of expression lives on in gay subcultural groups. Also, when worn by archetypes of the queer community, such as “leather daddies,” the chap represents pride in minority status and evading the mainstream. That being said, current mainstream media depictions of the chap are less sociopolitical and instead are used as media tools to provoke associations of sex and create gossip.