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.  


  1. Hi,

    Can I just say as someone starting out how nice it was to read this. A couple of months ago I encountered the same sort of argument about modding Nerf guns. Some people espoused the view that people who modded Nerf guns rather than making a gun from scratch were not real steampunk and shouldn't be encouraged. Thank you for understanding that all sorts of people want to get involved and that the skill levels and wallets of these people are not equal.

  2. Okay, I can't understand someone grousing about modding Nerf guns. Sheesh. I'm sorry you had to hear that (frankly I don't think I have the skills to even do that, let alone make a gun from scratch!)

  3. I think one of the issues here is, where does the money go, an artisan or small company or a mass production company? Does the steampunk subculture's financial capital circulate among steampunks, or does it get drained away to outside institutions? Buying that $600 one-off outfit means the person who made it doesn't have to go back to their day job this month.

    Interesting point about buying off the rack. But isn't the whole point of the steampunk aesthetic choosing an artisanal, one-off mode of production over mass production?

  4. @ Mighty Fast Pig (love that handle!): I support small artisan concerns, and where I can afford to, I follow through in money. I also make my own stuff where my skills allow (sewing, mostly, some jewelry). I believe steampunk is about making stuff, and I believe in supporting artisans where possible in many aspects of my life. However, not everyone has the skills or time to make their own things, or the money to buy from one-off artisans. So the question is, if they don't (or they're starting out and don't want to commit to lots of money for a hobby they may not take to), does that mean they should be excluded entirely from steampunk? Or is it okay to wear the mass-produced things, until they learn the skills / get the help / scrounge the money? Personally, I believe in the latter. And as a corollary, I would like to see much more sharing of skills within local communities, so those who don't start out with the skills or money aren't always left with the options of mass-produced, or not-at-all.

  5. Here here! And my 12-yr-old daughter who "modded" her own Nerf gun feels legitimately very proud of it (and herself...) She is equally impressed with the leather goggles I just stitched for her. Each to his or her own ability and budget!