Saturday, October 24, 2009

Repost: What's a Wardrobe Worth?

This is a post I wrote in September while musing on steampunk wardrobing, its always-possible co-opting by mainstream capitalistic ventures, and other ethical questions.

One of the greatest punk contradictions is this: that the DIY look of the punk fashion is often copied and commercialized. From being a bricolage, something made with one's own hands (and thus, pretty darn cheap to put together), it becomes yet another capitalistic venture where the one with the most money gets the best look.

I daresay this part of the punk ethos is difficult to maintain within the steampunk subculture. It was difficult for the punks to stop capitalism from co-opting the style, why should it be any easier for us?

There is a certain look to a steampunk; it involves either the time, effort, and handicraft skill to put together accessories or a wardrobe worthy of the name, or the money necessary to buy said accessories or wardrobe.

I invest a great deal in my wardrobe: if I feel I won't be wearing it on a regular basis, I try not to buy it. This has led to the purchase of many work-suitable shirts from Suzy Shier, several black pairs of trousers (ranging from size 2 to size 10, which is slightly more than embarassing), good jeans, and such-like things.

But I do splurge, oh my, do I ever. Recent purchases are blouses of all sorts, making up for the number of skirts in my wardrobe (which I hardly wear. I love how skirts look on me, but unless they have pockets, they aren't part of my daily life).

I like the steampunk aesthetic, yes. But I don't do the persona bit. My steampunk wardrobe is dismally... mainstream. I have a few pieces?

But it bothers me when I see photoshoot after photoshoot of people decked out in finery. And it's not just sour grapes.

Firstly, it reminds me that this subculture is still subject to the influence and values of the mainstream culture. Hence, we are still judged by our appearance: if we look steampunk enough, if we don't.

The only upside is that we generally do look good.

Secondly, it reminds me that, like mainstream culture, we in our steampunk subculture will have our haves and have-nots. It is less marked for us, because some of us choose to take on have-not personas. Also, in a steampunk shoot, everyone's going to look steampunk in some way or another.

But what about our have-nots? Our peers who would like to be able to participate, but can't, for whatever reason? What about our peers who wish they could buy that awesome one item, but need to pay rent? Steampunk literature has been about dealing with this issue, of course - the proletariat uprising against upper classes - but what regard do we have for a steampunk who tries to look as good as our peers but can't manage it?

Thirdly, as in mainstream culture, we are still encouraged to consume resources in pursuit of our subculture's style and aesthetic sense. We often associate consumption with monetary purchases that is thrown away, but time is also a resource that a privileged person will have more of.

Many of us buy clothing and accessories from stores, which are in turn handled by crafters. The crafters use what may well be new material, for the pursuit of this aesthetic. This, in itself, isn't really that bad. I would hope that the crafters know where their raw materials come from, and be responsible with that sort of thing. I also hope that we, as consumers of their labour, appreciate them, and continue to support these crafters, who painstakingly work on these items for our glee.

I am not one against capitalism. I am, however, against a wholesale industrialization which renders people into objects, part of a larger machine that is a factory. Which, ironically, is what happened in the Victorian era. There will be some industries which cannot help this, and this is fine by me. But there are other industries, such as the fashion industry, in which we would do well to buy from artisans.

There will be those of us who deny that clothes don't make the steampunk, just as in mainstream, there are some who believe that clothes are just clothes. But we know that our clothing choices (or lack thereof) are indicative of many things about us: how much care we put in our appearance, how much money we have in what we can afford to buy, our talent for putting together a wardrobe that is considered acceptable by our audience.

What is our wardrobe worth?

1 comment:

  1. I feel a twinge of embarrassment when I think of how much money I've spent on my wardrobe so far. And it never feels like I have enough! I have some steampunk shirts that I've never even worn, for cod's sake, yet I'm always on the look-out for more. I'm banning myself from eBay until I sort out what I need from what I merely want. Part of this compulsion could come from when I was an even-more-impoverished goth in my youth. I couldn't afford nice clothes so now I tend to buy everything I can to make up for my deprivations of the past!

    Sadly I think the haves and have-nots issue is a defining part of all subcultures, not just steampunk. Subcultures come about as a way for the disenfranchised to gain power on their own terms. Rather than rejecting the concept of hierarchy as many claim (punks and hippies for example), they actually create new hierarchies. Often these new microcosms of power are more strictly regemented than those of the rejected hegemony.

    Think of the punk subculture of the 70s. You're right that there was a DIY ethos, but those DIY abilities conferred status on those with talent. Those without talent in effect become the new disenfranchised, have-nots of abilities rather than cash. To claim their place in the group the talentless have-nots became consumers, buying products made by those with greater talent. The producers may have been artisans rather than capitalist industrialists, but it still fed into a hierarchical system which lauded some while excluding others. You can see the same thing happening with the goth, raver and hippie subcultures. That steampunk has continued with this hierarchical talent/money consumerism isn't really surprising.

    It is sad, though, that some people will think they're not steampunk enough simply because they can't afford, or can't make, a fancy wardrobe. I know I felt like that in my early goth days. I think it's up to everyone in the steampunk community to encourage all expressions of steampunk. Currently it's only the full-on steamcon outfits that get attention. Personally I think a nice ruffle-blouse under a business suit is just as impressive.