A close up of a male's chest sporting a bulldog harness.

Loving Your Leather: Part 1 Harnesses

Culture Jun 3, 2022

Almost four years ago, I was running for the title of Los Angeles Pup 2019. The bar that hosted the contest, the Bullet Bar, was also hosting the first North Hollywood (NoHo) Pride that year, as a small street festival. As my handler and I walked hand-in-leash through the live music, flogging demonstrations, and vendor tents, we stumbled on one tent that had leather harnesses all over and my eyes went wide. The leather crafter noticed how excited I was and we struck up a friendly conversation for a while. At the end, he invited me to come and see his studio. He also had a small retail space at the very back of the Bullet Bar’s patio area. His company was called Gearworxxx.

Fast forward a few months, and I’m the Gearworxxx shop boy/pup at the Bullet Bar. I owned a plethora of harnesses. And I’d been to a nudist camp in the mountains, every leather bar in the city, and Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco! Alberto, the owner of Gearworxxx, had taken me under his wing and was teaching me all of the tips and tricks of leather crafting, specifically with the harnesses. I learned how to make a harness from start to finish and, more importantly, I learned how to care for my harnesses to keep them strong and like-new for years to come. And that's what we’re going to be talking about today: proper care for your leather harnesses!

I’m doing this as the first part in a series of articles talking about caring for different leather pieces. Since I love harnesses and I feel that my time with Gearworxxx gave me special knowledge about them, that’s what we’re starting with! Now, I know I told you I would be talking about how to care for your harnesses, but first I’m going to veer off and talk about some common types of harnesses, and give you a quick lesson on where harness culture came from, because I believe that a large part of caring for your harness is knowing the history about it. And then we’re going to circle back and get into harness care with how to store and clean it.

So let’s quickly start off by naming a few super common harnesses that you’ll see at stores and in the bars. Obviously, there is no limit to the different styles of harnesses that can be made, and every leather house will make their harnesses a little different, but these four styles of harnesses: Bulldog, Backpack/Shoulder, Cross/’X’, and Asymmetrical, can be found almost anywhere that harnesses are available. All of the pictures I’m about to use are taken right from the Mr. S Leather website.

Bulldog Harness

A harness that goes around both arms with a horizontal connecting piece in front and in back. The horizontal pieces usually also have a D ring hanging from the center, as shown.

Backpack/Shoulder Harness

My first type of harness! And still one of my favorites. It simply goes over both arms. and has a connecting piece in the back.

Cross/’X’ Harness

This one is shaped like an X, with a connecting O ring in the middle of both the front and the back.

Asymmetrical Harness

These are any harness that goes over just one shoulder, or looks different on both sides, so it isn’t symmetrical. This category of harness can have the most variation out of the four, but I think the picture from Mr. S Leather provides a great overall example.

A male model from the hips up wearing an asymmetrical harness that goes over one shoulder.

These are any harness that goes over just one shoulder, or looks different on both sides, so it isn’t symmetrical. This category of harness can have the most variation out of the four, but I think the picture from Mr. S Leather provides a great overall example.

There are also a few other types of things you’ll probably see in a leather store like body harnesses, leather suspenders, and leather pouches.

Body Harnesses

A male model wearing a full-body harness that runs over the shoulders, under the arms, and leads to a jockstrap.

These normally consist of some type of chest harness, with a vertical piece that goes down the torso and connects to a piece on a leg harness, or jockstrap.

Leather Suspenders

A male model smiling brightly wearing no shirt and black slacks that are supported by leather suspenders.

Simple enough, suspenders made of leather that can hold up your pants! Great for any event really.

Leather Pouches

A close up on a male that has attached a small leather pouch to a pair of suspenders.

Also pretty self-explanatory, pouches made of leather that usually have a way to attach to a harness or belt. They can hold things like cigars, poppers, and condoms, but it’ll most likely hold your phone.

In the past seven or so years, we've seen an explosion of leather harnesses and body wear on runways all over the world, bringing kink culture into a more visual place in society, and making the leather look “cool”. Harnesses can even be seen as a symbol of pride and our collective strength, as this product description I pulled from fetish brand NastyPig demonstrates.

A quote from NastyPic which states, "From the gay motorcycle clubs of the sixties to the art of Tom of Finland in the seventies and eighties to the Dykes on Bikes that lead New York City's annual Gay Pride Parade, wearing leather is embedded in our queer history."

It’s hard for us to pinpoint exactly where leather and harness culture comes from, but they are right that it started growing out of the culture of motorcycle clubs of the 1960s. In cities like Amsterdam, Berlin, and San Francisco post-World War II, biker culture became a subversive way of living from the normalized “white-picket-fence home”, while also being seen as a tougher culture, both of which drew in LGBT members of this period who didn’t want to be seen as weak or “effeminate”.

But while those scenes involved a lot of leather apparel, harnesses were still more elusive. We know that harnesses appeared in the historic art of Tom of Finland in the early 1970s, and started popping up in small leather catalogues for purchase around the same time. But historians at the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago say that they don’t see a documented popularity of harnesses in gay men until about 1980.

A advertisement for a mail order catalog from Mr S which has a male model wearing only leather gear and shackles.

According to one article I read, “How the Harness went from BDSM to Streetwear” by Daisy Woodward on HYPEBEAST (linked below), around this same time Vivienne Westwood partnered with San Francisco Leather store Mr. S Leather to create her initial punk-wear pieces in her famed London store. Now, while I would love for this to be true, I’m just putting it forth as a fun possibility, because I couldn't find any other hard evidence that they ever worked together, and it is much more likely that Ms. Westwood worked with a London based leatherworker. However, Mr. S Leather did open its doors in 1979 - the same year as the first official International Mr. Leather competition in Chicago, and through the late 70s and early 80s, Vivienne Westwood’s boutique in London was making punk styles increasingly popular, including a lot of leather and metal elements.

Since then, leather and harnesses have stood as a backbone of BDSM culture, and is often a person’s initial purchase when entering the community. It’s hard to say why they have stuck around and grown so much in popularity other than lending to the restraint aspect, and that they simply look great! Becoming a fashion accessory has allowed these items to bloom like a flower, creating so many unique harnesses for purchase through small leather crafters, and anchoring the classic styles through the larger leather companies that we've been supporting for years.

Okay, now that you’ve made it through the history chapter, let’s move on to the real care tips. These days there are so many different harnesses, made of different leathers, that are different colors and have different types of hardware. It can feel overwhelming, but thankfully, the main necessities of harness maintenance can work for all types of leather harnesses (I say leather specifically because a neoprene harness requires different care) and they break down into four main parts:

  1. Store your harness correctly - Much of the time, our harnesses end up thrown to the floor or tucked into drawers, but the best way to keep your harnesses are hung in your closet, with metal hangers. Not wire hangers! Usually they are called “heavy duty metal” or “chrome plated metal” hangers. Most importantly, make sure they have notches in them, so your leather straps can sit comfortably and securely in the notches. Even plastic hangers can be fine as long as they have notches. I asked Google “what is the name for hangers with notches?” and it just said, “Hangers with Notches”.
  2. Make stiff leather more comfortable with regular wear - Sometimes your new harness can feel a little stiff, or perhaps you’re between a couple of notches on the buckle. One feels too loose, but the next one down feels too tight. Wearing your harness regularly can help with both of these issues. It’s totally possible to wear your harness as a part of your outfit if it is a style you’re comfortable with, but you can also wear it at home while doing chores around the house, or relaxing the couch. Stiff leather will soften with wear, and tight leather will loosen and settle with time, allowing for a better fit to your body.
  3. Regularly clean your harness - A part of harness ownership that can feel tough to figure out is how to clean your leather piece. Water will dry out your leather and make it brittle, so this isn’t recommended. What I find is best is to take some regular baby wipes and give each strap a wipe down. Then, most importantly, find a leather polish that is mostly made up of carnauba and/or bees wax, and has no color to it. The waxes help your leather stay healthy, waterproof, and shiny. Using too much directly on your harness can make it feel waxy though, so take a washcloth and put some of the wax onto that, and then hold that in your hand and pull each strap of your harness through the rag two or three times.
  4. Look after the hardware - Lastly, you have to make sure you take care of the hardware pieces on your harness. These are things like O-rings, D-rings, buckles, and sometimes chain. Over time, they can lose their shine and start to look dull and yellowed. A good polish will bring that shine right back, though. Usually these pieces are made out of either silver or nickel, but can be made of other metals. You should be able to get this information from the manufacturer that made your harness, and it’s important to know because each of those different materials uses a different type of polish. Once you find your correct polish, again put it on a washcloth, and rub the washcloth on the hardware pieces until the shine has reappeared.

Now throughout this article I’ve mentioned a few more recognizable names in the Leather world, and I gathered info from a couple of others. Mr. S Leather, Nasty Pig, Rough Trade Gear, and 665 Leather, to be exact. To conclude today, I would love to quickly praise these companies for their innovation and amazing quality with leather, but I also want to urge you to seek out smaller leather companies in your local area, like I was able to with Gearworxxx. You can often find them at kink events, flea markets, and Renaissance fairs. If it is hard for you to find kink culture in your area, online sources like Instagram, Etsy, and Depop are other great ways to find leather crafters and purchase online. Supporting small business is very important, and usually with a smaller crafter, you get a piece that is hand crafted and made with love.

Wherever you get your leather from, make sure you wear it comfortably and with confidence. There’s a lot of history in those straps.