When Goth Found Brown

Please do bear with me, dear reader, while I rant a little bit.

If you are into all things steampunk then surely you’ve head this mouthful of blather: “Steampunk is when Goths found brown.” I have never heard such a handful of bulldroppings in my many years. Even when said in jest, and many do not do so, it is misleading, misperceptive and just wrong.

To begin with let us examine the goths, particularly those at the start of their own subcultural growth. Back in the 80s when goth sprang from both punk and new wave/glam there were several styles of fashion for those who set the foundations for this movement. It was dark and it was spooky or morbid and it was a little piece of this and a little dash of that. The cybergoths and rivetheads had yet to truly emerge but within the beginning years there were quite a few who did the NeoVictorian look and they did it well. At the better clubs one saw tophats and tailcoats, bustle skirts and lace shawls, walking sticks and parasols and fashions familiar to the steampunk crowd scattered in through the jeans and band shirts, the fishnets and skirts. You can see the possible, if tenuous connection being made by people today who just don’t know better.

The first misunderstanding that this saying fosters is that steampunk is built mainly of goths. While there is a lot of attraction, particularly to the NeoVictorian old school gothy sorts I have found this to be completely untrue. Steampunk attracts many types of people from many walks of life with diverse backgrounds and interests. I have met many in the steampunk subculture who are not goths and would never be goths. Steampunk did not even begin in the goth subculture and so yet again there is a lack of any connection at all.

The second misconception inherent in this saying is the inference that goths did not wear colour. While the predominant colour in a goth’s wardrobe is black there was an array of burgundies, greys, blues, jades, whites and an assortment of other shades and hues beyond the basic ebony. Colour was, for the gentlemen, often worn as an accent while the ladies would wrap themselves in luxurious, deep colours at times. Pastels were rare and brown, orange and other ‘soft’ colours were frequently passed over in favour of bold, solid tones.

Coming from the other side of the statement this little saying also seems to hint that steampunks wear black a lot as it equates them with the gothier set. This can be somewhat true but it all depends on when one takes one’s look from. During the early part of the Victorian period [1837 to 1861] fashion was bright and bold and brassy. Colours were seen everywhere in eye-catching combinations and patterns could be liberally mixed. Checks with stripes or plaid and herringbone, interesting combinations were well accepted. Colours tended to make the males, in particular, look like strutting birds during mating season. Black was worn but browns and greys were often the province of the lower classes and did not make much of an appearance on the gentlemen of this period. After Albert’s death in 1861 the Queen set the tone. Victoria dressed in mourning for the rest of her life and the British people imitated her, as is usual, with much more somber trends in fashion. While there was still colour it tended to be used more to accessorize, as accents or for particular and specific reasons. Blacks and greys also grew very popular as they did not quite so easily show the soot and other particulates that floated in the air and settled on one’s clothing.
Where brown was popular was in the western regions of North America. Browns did not show the dirt or dust that would result from unpaved streets and regular work in the dirty out of doors.

So the next time you hear ‘steampunk is when goths found grown’ do feel free to laugh loudly and merrily, knowing that the speaker has no idea of what they say.

H.A. Higgins-Keith