At first glance, the brick building could easily blend in with the surrounding apartments along the block from where some Loyola students live, study and buy their groceries. Its bold, white lettering “LA&M” is vague — passerbys might not even think twice about it. However, inside is a rich history of a kinky subculture waiting to be explored.
The Leather Archives and Museum (6418 N. Greenview Ave.) is blocks away from Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus and has been a part of the neighborhood since 1991. Visitors are greeted by a friendly staff member at the front desk and can check their coats and bags in a small uniform room with leather vests lining the walls.
Most people who come to the museum have little to no previous knowledge about the leather community, according to Leather Archives and Museum executive director Gary Wasdin.
Leather is a broad term which encompasses people involved with kink, fetishes and BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism), Wasdin said. It’s about power and usually connected to sex, Wasdin said.
The museum focuses on the history of the leather community — which is foreign to many people — and its Chicago ties.
The Leather Archives and Museum was co-founded by Chuck Renslow, an internationally known figure in the leather community, Wasdin said. Renslow was a businessman in Chicago who owned some of the first leather bars — common gathering spots for men in the leather community — in the country. Wasdin said Renslow also started the International Mister Leather pageant for men in the leather community.
Renslow died in 2017, but his legacy stands strong, Wasdin said.
“His connection to the leather community really helped him realize all of these individuals were not being remembered and their work collected by other research libraries,” Wasdin said. “His vision was to create a space that would collect the history and culture of those populations.”
The archives first started out in as a collection in multiple people’s basements, moved into a storefront and finally to the museum’s current location, which was purchased in 2000, Wasdin said. Renslow wanted to buy the building instead of renting it, and it’s supported through donations, Wasdin said.
Less than one percent of the archived material is on display in the museum portion of the building, Wasdin said.
Some artifacts are things a visitor could reasonably expect from a museum about the leather, kink and BDSM communities — handcuffs, whips and chains. The museum also carries items from organizations and clubs within these communities including pins, jackets, membership cards and other memorabilia.
On one wall is a timeline of important events and notable figures. Photos and text illustrate notable figures such as Mistress Mir and events including the first Deaf International Leather contest in 1991. Another section pays homage to significant figures in the leather community, including David Armstrong, who was known for making the leather community more welcoming and diverse.
One corner of the gallery is dedicated to bootblacking — the care and maintenance of leather goods. Bootblacking is described as a trade, identity, craft and kink, and is a part of leather contests. Renslow was one of the contest producers who opened the competition to women, too.
Next to the bootblacking display is “The Dungeon” — the most sexually charged artifacts. A red spanking bench donated by a kink club in Chicago. A case along the wall displays a variety of whips, floggers and other sex toys made of materials ranging from leather to stainless steel. Visitors might not notice the sex swing in the corner hanging from chains if they don’t look closely — a mannequin donning a gown with cutouts at the chest from Mistress Mir stands by it.
A purple wall near “The Dungeon,” shows a display about Fakir Musafar, who delved into the world of body-play. Photos of extreme piercing jobs are on the walls — one person is suspended, hanging by hooks punctured through his nipples. Another photo shows a man wearing a corset under business clothes creating a tight silhouette. A sensory deprivation helmet sits in the corner, and a case documents the short-lived Body Play magazine.
People often associate the leather community with white men, and it’s a prominent aspect of LGBT history. However, it has always welcomed people of all genders and sexualities, according to Wasdin.
“Women were always involved in the history of leather but as with almost all aspects of history, women were largely marginalized so one of the intentional efforts we put into is making sure that that history does have a place here,” Wasdin said.
These efforts are clear in the museum with sections dedicated to the contributions of women, the transgender community and other minorities in leather culture.
Outside the main gallery, a makeshift bar lined with memorabilia from leather bars across the country. Going up the steps near the leather bar exhibit, visitors are greeted with a display of different cuffs and restraints. Underneath is an interactive quiz with questions about bondage safety.
After exploring the exhibits, visitors can peruse titles in the non-loanable library. It carries an extensive collection of titles from vintage erotica to informational books about human sexuality.
“A lot of this material doesn’t exist elsewhere,” Wasdin said. “A lot of these magazines, journals and artworks were produced in very limited quantities.”
The building also houses an auditorium where events are hosted throughout the year. On the walls, there are several larger-than-life murals of muscular, mostly nude men by Chicago artist Dom Orejudos, better known as Etienne. He was also Renslow’s lover, Wasdin said.
Wasdin said the museum sees about 10 visitors a day and a few hundred researchers a year. The museum continues to grow every year, and it’s a place from which people leave with new insight, Wasdin said.
“Everyone who comes here just is surprised and amazed about what they see and what they find,” he said.
The Leather Archives and Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is $10, but students can visit for $5 if they show an ID.