Monday, October 31, 2011

Current Costuming Controversy: Commercial Mainstream Costumes

It never fails to fascinate, the various little controversies that ebb and surge in Steampunk (not the least being the very definition, but we will leave that tricksy little topic for another time).

The most recent controversy to cross my vision was regarding costuming, and it so riled me that it inspired me to write this.  So take warning, a rant follow!  The starting issue was a query on a Facebook Steampunk group, as to how steampunk folks would react, at, say, a steampunk convention, if they were to encounter someone wearing one of the popular-this-Halloween cheap "Steampunk" Halloween outfits.

For those who haven't seen these commercial costumes around, by the way, I will paste a few samples here:
These are from a range of Halloween online sites, such as Halloweenmart, BuyCostumes, PartyCity, Anytime Costumes, etc, and I've seen some bits in stores here and there.

My standpoint is, I would not have a problem encountering someone at a convention or event, wearing a Halloween steampunk costume.  Most likey, I would assume they are new to steampunk, or relatively new, and perhaps didn't have a lot of costuming experience.

Now, while many people seemed to feel similar, there were more disparaging comments than I expected, along the lines of "buying steampunk from a store is an abomination" and accusations about "lazy steampunks" (a phrase that truly made my eyes roll).

You know, I've seen an awful lot of people at conventions and other events, clearly wearing stuff they bought.  So, there are already "lazy steampunks" out there, solving their costuming and accessorizing quandaries by throwing money at it - so this is an unenlightening standpoint.  Though it is of benefit to those who can take advantage by making and selling their craft.  In addition, if you want to look at this from a historical point of view, buying off the rack is very Victorian ... the invention of the sewing machine in the mid-1800's made the Victorian era the first time people had the option to buy ready-made garments at department stores (versus having a garment made specially for you or making it yourself).
Pointing out that there are already "lazy steampunks" out there buying things prompted a defense along the lines that it's okay when one is buying from "reputable" craftsmen.  I'm sure some of these are "reputable" craftsmen.  I've seen them in dealers' rooms and online myself.  Their stuff is awesome.  But this is a vague phrase, and some of the online "reputable" stuff seems to be simply carefully sourced items, bought in bulk (and just as easily made in China as the cheap Halloween outfits), well-combined and sold "ensembles".  (And no, I don't have a problem with that either.)

However, I suspect that what really dictates whether folks buy the commercial Halloween stuff shown above, or the "reputable" goods from steampunk online companies and individual craftspeople, is money.  The commercial stuff in question, here, ranges around the $50 to $80 range for entire outfits.  And when I've priced outfits at the "reputable" steampunk concerns (quotes only because that's the word used to me), the range was from $350 to $600 and it only goes up from there, especially if you start adding accessories and gizmos, and corsets, shoes and boots.

Now, I can tell you, that while I've drooled over many exquisite items I've seen in the big steampunk companies online, and at Etsy, and in vendors rooms (oh gods the drooling I've done!), I can't afford most of it.  Or really, hardly any of it.  I took over a full day at my first steampunk convention to talk myself into a handmade hat that was over $100.  And that hat is now a favourite, well worth every penny spent on it, as it's a high quality, exquisite piece of work.  But I did not buy it lightly, and it took the most of my spending budget for that convention.

I am certainly not going to blame someone else for going the $50 commercial route, if it's available.  Not everyone can sew, or knows how to go thrifting to source all the pieces (just know the pieces you need to start is somewhat of a skill), nor does everyone have the abilities to modify thrifted and found items.  And certainly, not everyone can afford costumes in the $400 and up range.  Especially when you're starting out.

I am just happy when people make an effort at a convention or event, to dress up.  We all have to start somewhere.  I think it's absolutely fine for people to buy an inexpensive Halloween costume for a few cons or events, until they a) decide that they're willing to commit to to steampunk, and then either b) find people willing to help them thrift / make / sew outfits, or c) commit to spending big money.  Depending on where you live geographically, sourcing steampunk stuff or finding folks to help one out, becomes much harder.  What if someone lives in the country, nowhere near a steampunk group, and has to travel just to get to events?  Suddenly all one's money is going to just getting to events and staying there and eating, and there's not much left for shopping for costumes.  And finding people to help sew, hire for sewing, or to help demonstrate how to thrift, isn't always easy, even in the bigger centres.  

As far as I'm concerned, elitism will get everyone nowhere, and it only serves to destroy what steampunk is to me.

If someone is happy showing up in a cheap costume, because that's what they can manage, and afford, that's just fine.  If someone else doesn't like it, then they should kindly and politely offer help looking for thrifted items, and tips on modifying, rather than offer criticism and ostracize.  And if a body isn't willing to help someone with reasonable and affordable alteratives, or to help them make things, then maybe, just maybe, that person should keep their mouth politely shut.  

My steampunk is not about ostracism and being exclusionary.  We should be welcoming, and polite, and helpful, and open.  I would personally far rather see someone show up at any steampunk event wearing a cheap Halloween steampunk costume, than find out someone didn't show up at all because they didn't feel comfortable.  Making any attempt to dress up is better than no attempt at all.  Nor, for that matter, should we scoff at someone who shows up without a costume to an event, because they don't know what to do.  

My steampunk is friendly, and open, and non-exclusive.  I want to help people.  I may not have the money or time to make stuff for other people (I'm appalled at how long it takes me to complete something for myself!), but I can tell you, I'm willing to provide what help I can,  especially when it comes to thrifting, a pet hobby of mine.  

So there's my rant on this subject. 

On a side note, what does bug me about the commercial steampunk Halloween costumes I've mostly seen (in addition than their shoddy workmanship), is that women aren't offered the same level of "class" (if I can call it that) that the men's mass-produced outfits convey ... men get more dignity, women get the slutty outfits, by and large.  Unfortunately, that appears to be de rigeur among all mainstream Halloween costumes, and in fact, much of mass-produced clothing.  (And I don't have a problem with women deciding to go the slutty route - though I prefer my slutty costumes to have a touch of class - I just think women should have more options available, besides slutty.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fangirl Squeeing: Scott Westerfeld in Vancouver

So, with the inaugural convocation of the first Vancouver Steam Librarium & Consortium scheduled to discuss Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, imagine my delight upon discovering that Scott Westerfeld was scheduled to speak in Vancouver on October 11, a bare week after the book club meeting, as part of his tour for the third book in his trilogy, Goliath.
"Meet Scott Westerfeld" was hosted by Kidsbooks, with a ticket price of $5, redeemable against the purchase of one of his books, and there was a signing opportunity after the author spoke.  The crowd was mixed, mostly older kids, young adults, and parents, with a few avid young steampunk all dressed up!

I was most delighted to realize that Scott Westerfeld is an excellent speaker.  (Not all authors are good at getting up and talking to their fans.)  He discussed the Leviathan series at length, and also made references to his previous (non-Steampunk) series, the Uglies.

Along with sharing the information that the Leviathan books were inspired by the "boy's own adventures" that were popular in previous decades, and were written to provide an opportunity for girls to have their own adventures, the author also gave an interesting perspective into the place of artwork in fiction.

Previous to and throughout the Victorian era, adult books often included art, including the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.  This was a common feature which fell out of favour and was delegated to children's books, as photography came to prominence and replaced artwork in newspapers, magazines, and catalogues.  Book artists lost their bread and butter of commercial artwork, and as a result, faded.
Shown above are two illustrations (by Hugh Thomson and C.E. Brock) for Victorian editions of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, as well as one by  George Cattermole for Charles Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop.  Below is the frontispiece for the original printing of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
By deciding to include illustrations by Keith Thompson in the Leviathan series, Scott Westerfeld brings art back to our literature.  He completely dismisses the modern notion that illustrations belong solely to the sphere of books for young children.  And thank heavens for that.  Anyone who has seen these books has surely admired Keith Thompsons amazing illustrations.  If you want to peek at more of his art, his gallery is here.
Westerfeld discussed the unique relationship between himself and his illustrator, pointing out instances where they have pictured things differently, and times where Keith Thompson has inspired him to write scenes.  In order to ensure continuity when doing scenes on board Leviathan, Thompson apparently has drawn layout diagrams of the ship, which introduced Westerfeld himself to areas of the ship he hadn't even imagined (and then had to set scenes in, just because they were there).
Westerfeld announced at the event that there will be a fourth, supplementary book in addition to the Leviathan trilogy, which will utilize the layout diagrams and other behind-the-scenes artwork by Keith Thompson, to give fans a further view into the workings of the fabricated beasties and clankers of Westerfeld's and Thompson's alternative world.  I keenly anticipate the publication of this 4th supplementary art book, and will be keeping an avid eye out for further information and preordering!  How can one resist an entire book of artwork like this:
Keith Thompson's caricature map of the powers of Westerfeld's alternate 1914 world.

A piece of Clanker propaganda, drawn by Keith Thompson.
In summary, the evening with Scott Westerfeld was highly enjoyable and well worth attending.  My only regret was that I had lent my copy of Leviathan to a friend's son, so did NOT have it with me to get signed.  Though I did buy a copy of Behemoth, which I got signed.  I will await Goliath in trade format, which is easier to read on public transit!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Vancouver Steam Consortium & Librarium: Steampunk Book Club Discusses Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Greetings everyone!

Apologies for the distinct lack of activity over the last couple of months - life has prevented me from having the time,  and more critically, the spare brain power to allow me to write here (or tinker as much as I'd like either!).  Alas, I lack minions upon whom I can toss all the menial and uninteresting tasks that periodically occupy more of my time.  (If anyone has spare minions, do let me know).

However, one of the things keeping me occupied has been my attempts at prompting more local steampunk events.  I started up a craft meet on a bimonthly basis, and so far have had one in July, one in September, and one is upcoming in early November. 

I also created and instituted the Vancouver Steam Librarium & Consortium, since a few like-minded keen readers expressed an interest in us having a local steampunk book club.  
I am organizing this through my Facebook group, Vancouverites for Steampunk, and our first meeting was in early October.  The book voted for the first discussion was Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld.
I faced various challenges starting this up: firstly, I have never attended a book club, let alone run one (though I do have a BA English Major), and secondly, there are not a lot of book club questions out there for steampunk literature (that I could find).  All I found for Leviathan were a few questions on E.M. Rowan's blog.
So I had to make up my own.  And, it occurred to me, as our consortium meets and discusses various books, perhaps I should post the questions here, for the benefit of others starting up Steampunk / Dieselpunk book clubs in their area.  So, good folks, I am including here:

Discussion Questions for Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan:

1.  Steampunk as literary genre:  Is Leviathan steampunk?  Or not?  Does it matter?  What makes it fit or fail the steampunk genre.

2.  Did the plot pull you into the book, or did it leave you cold?  Are you anticipating reading the sequels?

3.  Were the characters (Aleksandar, Deryn) sufficiently developed?  Were they engaging?  Realistic?

4. Were the illustrations an enhancement to Leviathan? What are your thoughts on the art?

5.  Was there anything unique or different about the setting that caught your attention?

6.  Any thoughts on the world created in Leviathan?  The Darwinist fabricated beasts versus the Clankers and Monkey-Luddites?

7.  What do you think of the time-period of Leviathan's setting, and of it being based around the reality of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria, and his wife, Sophie?  Would you have preferred an entirely fabricated world?

8.  Upon reading the cryptic ending of the book, what sort of beast can you conceive of, “no bigger than a top hat”, which could possibly keep an empire out of the War?

9.  What are your thoughts on reading Young Adult fiction as part of a book club? 

10.  Finally, on a scale of 1 to 5, rate Leviathan (1 is I hated it, 5 is I loved it, 3 is meh)

Let me know what you think of the questions.  Alas, for the first meeting of our Steam Librarium, of the four others who attended, only one other person had read the book.  Though, to be fair, when the others said they couldn't come as they hadn't read the book, I encouraged them to come anyway, so we could discuss the club in general, select the next book, etcetera.  And everyone had a good time. 

I will keep everyone posted on how this experiment in running a steampunk bookclub goes.  Our next book, as voted at the Consortium, is Soulless, by Gail Carriger, discussed in mid-November.

Does anyone have any feedback?  Questions?  Suggestions?  Has anyone started up a steampunk bookclub in your area or attended one?

Note: The book and glasses image which I am using for the Vancouver Steam Librarium & Consortium is borrowed from an archive post from at , until I manage to create an image of my own.