Interview with Stef Dickers, the head of UK Leather & Fetish Archives

Discovering kink history is empowering. It allows us to push the boundaries of shame, to find a community, and accept that we, as kinksters, deserve respect and appreciation. Kink history, and especially LGBTQI+ leather history, is a home when you can’t go home anymore because you’re too much of a perv. Kink history means that you can never be too much of a perv – because there were other talented beautiful precious pervs before you. This is why archiving vintage smut is a very important political mission. 

UK Leather and Fetish Archives is part of the Bishopsgate Institute which is located next to Liverpool Street Station in London. It offers a unique opportunity to have fetish, kink, and BDSM history at one’s fingertips. From publications like On Our Backs, Skin Two and Drummer, to works of Eric Stanton and The London Vagabond, to the legacy of influential Mistresses, photographers, and fetish labels, the archives have it all – all you need is enough time on your hands. 

Stef Dickers started working at The Bishopsgate Archive in 2005. He previously was an archivist at the London School of Economics, with the Hall-Carpenter archive, which at that time was the biggest LGBT+ archive in the country. “I’ve always been interested in history, and a kinky person at the same time, which is a good combination,” he admits. “When I arrived at the Institute it was very much not like it is now. It was very much about London history and family history. Over the past 16 years, it's been a process of turning it into what it is now”.

The Bishopsgate Institute started collecting LGBTQ+ history in 2011, and kink history in 2016 – the first kink archive was from Midland Link MSC, the leather fetish club for gay and bi men in Birmingham. The archive has grown significantly since then and keep growing. During our interview, Stef mentions working through the materials from The Baroness, the cult NYC-based latex designer. He also stresses that he is always looking for materials to archive from today’s kinksters – and you don’t have to be famous for that. “We are always looking for further material and would love to archive your and our kink history!” he says. “Whether it be a flyer, a photo, or a bit of kit, all of our histories are important and there’s a box waiting with your name on it”.

For Other Kinds of Pleasures, I chatted to Stef about queer BDSM history, the politics of kink, and his favourite things from the archive.

I guess I'll start from the question which is kind of obvious. Kink and fetish are rarely looked at as subjects to record, archive and preserve – why is it important?

At Bishopsgate Institute, if we're going to record queer history, I want it to be a queer history that celebrates everybody. And previously kink history did not exist in any other archive, apart from a couple of wonderful archives in America. Or if it was in an archive in the UK, it was as a medical specimen, or talked about as a psychological condition, not celebrated in the fact that people who are into kink go out, and have a great time, enjoy themselves and feel socially connected to a network of like-minded people. What we're looking at at Bishopsgate is very much about celebrating and recording the history in a joyous way. I've always been very passionate about it not just as a kink person, but generally about all voices that aren’t heard in the archive.

Do you think the work you do in the archive has a positive impact on the kink community? Or maybe even has potential to change the way kink is looked at in our culture?

I've had people come into the archives who cried, because they couldn’t believe this was their history being recorded. It makes them think, this is something that's been with me though emotional ups and downs, my own kink history and my sexuality, and now it's here, and it's being celebrated.

This is important to me as a kinky person who was ashamed of being kinky for a while. I don't ever want to be called normal or to normalise kink – but saying that the history of your sexuality is important is empowering for the kink community. I am very conscious of the power it has to make everyone feel proud about their own history.

I am very interested in the question of kink’s political significance. With kink and BDSM, there is always a question and a choice: is it your private pleasure or could it be part of your political identity, especially if you’re queer?  What is your take on kink’s political potential?

It’s 100 per cent political. What we're doing at the archive is a political statement. I consider that everything I do has a political motive behind it. Yes, it’s an institution that is politically neutral, but at the Institute we allow voices to be heard and speak for themselves. People tell us what to put in the archive to record their queer kink history and we leave the decision to them, not like a major organisation which feels it has the right to record a community from the outside.

Also on a broader level, there is a lot of political stuff in the archive in terms of how kink has been scrutinised and criminalised. Like the Spanner case, or campaigns Mistress Tytania led over attempts to censor her website. So there's a lot of political activism connected to kink, such as the records of SM pride which I do think, potentially, has got legs to be started again.  The lifestyle is consistently under threat, and our freedoms are so easily taken away. I think having the archive is almost a bit of a bastion against that – because it says, no, there are histories there, and you can try and take that away but it's here right now living and celebrated, and it's available for people to come in and see.

There are also a lot of conversations currently about the commodification of kink and how it’s represented in the mainstream culture. Do you think kink is something which can actually be commodified?

It's been going on for so long! Yesterday I catalogued Madonna’s Sex book from 1992 – when she decided she was gonna become some kind of kink ambassador. Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols also commodified kink in a certain way. McLaren took what was going on very much underground around a guy called John Sutcliffe and the culture of rubber leather fetishism, and basically nicked all their ideas and sold them in the Sex shop. I think it's something that's gone on for years and years and years.

Everyone's got a kink. It could be anything which affects you in a certain way, it could be ladies’ ankles or sports shoes… But there's a difference between people who identify that as an intrinsic part of their sexuality – and people who buy a basic bondage kit. There's very much a difference between people whose kink and fetish are a part of their sexual identity and everyone else.

Do you have a favourite item or theme in the archive or something which particularly impressed or surprised you?

It is a very difficult question. There's a lot of stuff that's coming into the archive which is legendary. Kink artists like Eric Stanton and Gene Billbrew whose work goes back to 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and who I was aware of, and actually having original work by them is mind-blowing.  We've got this collection of an artist called Bill Ward, who drew a lot of art for Drummer, Sam and other magazines. But equally, the new stuff I find as inspiring, especially photography, like The London Vagabond and many others.

I just love it all really! Everything that comes in becomes my favourite! Materials from latex designer The Baroness which I’m going through now look wonderful! And we recently got some stuff from Mistress Sidonia von Bork who runs a famously wonderful femdom site called The English Mansion. It’s a joy to do this job! You know, when you go in every day, and something new comes up that just makes you go, it's the best job you could possibly want.

And is there anything you would like to see more of in the archive?

Definitely more diversity – whether that be for gender identities, sexualities, body types. More diversity of representation of kink. But also every time I speak to an older generation kink person, they tell these stories about stuff that was lost, that went in the skip or was burnt by family when the person passed away, really sad stories. There was one story about the Royal Air Force pilot in the Second World War, who was one of the most famous crossdressers on the scene in the 1950s and ‘60s. He had a wife who was very accepting of the cross dressing, and he flew RAF missions in women's lingerie and recorded it all in diaries and notes. And the family burnt it when he died. You know, if only 10 or 20 years earlier we have an archive… But then would we have been able to do that 10 years or 20 years ago? Would we have been able to set up a kink or queer archive that collects the way we do? Probably not.

It's probably a devastating feeling for an archivist. How do you cope with this feeling of missed opportunity?

The answer is we work hard to engage with people who are creating now to make sure that stuff doesn't get lost. There's so much creativity on these proprietary platforms like Instagram, and I worry that one day someone's gonna pull the plug on all that, and it's gonna go or it's gonna get censored to the point where you just lose any way to express yourself online. So we try to document and archive as much contemporary work as possible! We finally have an archive in a stable and supportive institution dedicated to making sure that fetish and kink history not only survives and is documented but is celebrated and available to all.

Does it mean you’re open to collecting materials from people in the community today?

Absolutely! This is a community archive which needs your support. We are always looking for further material and would love to archive you and our kink history! Whether it be a flyer, a photo or a bit of kit, all of our histories are important and there’s a box waiting with your name on it. Kinky people have always been here and it’s so important that our history is here to entertain, empower and inspire future and current generations. We need to make this happen, so get in touch!

The UK Leather and Fetish Archives is open at Bishopsgate Institute Monday to Friday, 10am to 5.30pm (with a late night on Wednesday until 8pm) and no appointment or ID is necessary.

More information is available at:

Twitter: @UKLeatherArch 

Instagram: @ukfetisharchive 

Email: [email protected]

Images courtesy of the archive. 

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