Charles Guyette was an American fetish photographer and major supplier of BDSM paraphernalia in the U.S. during the 1930s and '40s. He is also a central figure in the organization of the first social networks of amateur erotica producers and SM/fetish enthusiasts in North America.
The G-string King
Charles Guyette remains a mysterious and elusive figure as published details about his life are scattered, incomplete, and sometimes contradictory. Fortunately, many of his photographs, and the influence they had on artists such as John Willie and Irving Klaw can still be seen today.
In or around 1930 he and his brother opened a store in New York (at 116 E. 11th Street) selling theatrical costumes and burlesque supplies. The store had an extensive collection of exotic and unusual clothing, lingerie, shoes, and accessories used by strip-tease performers. This niche business was successful and Guyette soon became known as "The G-string King".
In the mid-1930s Guyette was approached by two German businessmen who struck a deal to supply him with German-crafted fetishistic shoes and photographs. These sold well and the store's inventory quickly grew to encompass a broad range of S&M clothing and accouterments. This included dominatrix-style high-heeled boots, rubber and leather corsets, gags, collars, harnesses for bondage and pony play, metal chastity belts, shackles, and so forth.
Many of the costumes and bondage items were designed and made by Guyette himself. He also imported much material from Europe, especially the Yva Richard fetish lingerie store in Paris. As the business expanded, Guyette became known as the primary dealer in fetish paraphernalia in the U.S.
Guyette also ran an international mail-order business for selling risque photographs by placing ads in various men's magazines. He was a regular advertiser in London Life during 1934 and 1935 and also supplied material for the magazine. A sample from one of his discreetly worded ads reads:
- Photographs — Collectors: We have costume studies of all kinds. Lingerie, corsets, high heels, etc. Female boxers and wrestlers in action. Also other types.
Sophisticated collectors of offbeat erotica understood what was hinted at in the etc and other types categories. These were the forbidden photographs from Guyette's private stock depicting scenes of bondage, Femdom, whipping, and other kinky activites. Guyette collected these clandestine black-and-white images from a number of sources in Germany and France including Ostra Studio, its parent company Biederer Studio, and the aforementioned Yva Richard store.
He was also a capable photographer, producing his own line of S&M-themed pictures. After re-creating the classic poses of Nativa Richard and others from the European photos, he developed an original style that was imaginative and sometimes whimsical. He created unique combinations by mixing the familiar bondage trappings with his inventory of theatrical costumes and props. An amusing pony-girl series, for example, shows a dominatrix ensemble made from an usherette uniform and a baby carriage converted into a sulky cart.
Another remarkable item is a bizarre all-metal slave outfit covered in spikes (see photo). This comprises a high collar, bullet-shaped bra, chastity belt, chains and shackles. This is most likely Guyette's version of a nearly identical outfit from the Yva Richard catalog (see photo on the Yva Richard page). Twenty years later, yet another version of this strange costume (possibly a revised design by Guyette) turns up on Bettie Page and other models in Irving Klaw's bondage photo-sets and the 16mm film-loop Second Initiation of the Sorority Girl.
In the mid-1940s, John Coutts (aka John Willie) was buying fetish photos from Guyette for publication in Bizarre magazine. It was through Guyette in the late 1930s that Coutts, then living in Australia, first made contact with members of the American subculture in Chicago and New York.
The American Social Circle
The popularity and uniqueness of Guyette's business led to him becoming the center of a growing counter-culture that began in New York and gradually spread across the nation. He appears to be the first person in America to develop an expanding social network for the underground fetish community.
By screening the names on his mailing list, he developed The American Social Circle. This was a private club with membership by invitation only. In the '30s and '40s virtually every known producer of fetishistic erotica in the U.S., both underground and mainstream, was linked directly or indirectly to the social circles surrounding Guyette.
Legal problems and later years
His business was badly affected when in August 1935 he was indicted on charges of sending "lewd and obscene material" through the U.S. mail. He was convicted and spent the next 12 months in a jail in Louisburg, Pennsylvania. Upon release he became publicity shy and ceased advertising in magazines like London Life.
By the late 1940s Guyette was out of the fetish photography business. He continued selling theatrical costumes and fetish-wear into the 1950s. Many of his leather dominatrix ensembles were used for photo-shoots in fetish magazines such as Leonard Burtman's Exotique, Masque, and Connoisseur.
Sometime in the '60s he became a nature photographer and had a business raising and selling exotic animals. From this point on he seems to fade away into obscurity.
Legacy and influence
Guyette's unique costume designs and photographs introduced a new American style to the emerging subculture. And his efforts at organizing the first SM social netorks had an incalculable impact on countless aficionados, dealers, and artists.
Among them, perhaps Irving Klaw is the most intriguing. There are a number of interesting similarites between Guyette, who is utterly forgotten, and Klaw, who has become almost a house-hold name.
Guyette's burlesque supply house on 11th Street was just a few blocks from Klaw's Movie Star News store on 14th Street. It is hard to imagine that Klaw was not aware of Guyette's business and photographs. Both men were deeply involved in the New York burlesque scene. Klaw made three burlesque revue films (two with Bettie Page) and regularly hired strip-tease dancers for his fetish film-loops and bondage photo shoots.
Guyette was called "the G-string King". In the early '40s Klaw dubbed himself "The Pin-up King" after turning his used bookstore into a movie memorabilia shop. (His fetishistic material was sold under-the-counter and through a mail order catalog.) And, at the same time Guyette left the scene in the late '40s, Klaw started producing his own brand of BDSM photos and films.
Both men tested the boundaries of the prevailing censorship laws and were thus plagued by a number of legal difficulties. Guyette served a prison sentence in 1935. Klaw was branded as a degenerate pornographer and was publicly humiliated at the notorious Kefauver Hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1957. This incident forced him (and Bettie Page) into early retirement later that year.
Biography and film
Charles Guyette: Godfather of American Fetish Art (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017) by Richard Perez Seves, provides an overview of Guyette's life and reproduces numerous photographs of his costumes and fetish designs.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) is a biographical film about William Marston, creator of the comic superhero Wonder Woman. Guyette (played by JJ Feild) appears as the costumer who makes the original Wonder Woman outfit for Olive Byrne, Marston's mistress and inspiration for the character.