Perceiving A Book By Its Cover

Good morning, gentle readers.

I do trust that your winter, where-ever this season should find you, has begun in fun and adventure. And for those of you what celebrate Yule I hope ’tis a joyous one and promises you the next year will be one of wonderful things.

While I have been, at times, serious in my tone and my content I have also attempted to keep things light and friendly. I find humour is an excellent thing to keep the conversation enjoyable and the occasional chuckle makes discussion more vibrant. Today, though, I am going to write on a topic that has been making me increasingly angry. It is a topic I have touched upon before [please reference “Around the World in 80 Minutes” from September of 2011] and I’m afraid that this time I am going to be firm.

Please keep your misperceived white-guilt political correctness out of my Steampunk. Oh, dear reader, I shall freely admit to being strongly opinionated in many things but there is a certain oft presented point that truly stokes the furnaces of my ire. There are enough gender arguments, heated discussions of the socio-political Victorian influences in Steampunk, and other poorly stated comments to truly make a person wonder, at times, just why they may ever do more than just show up in appropriate dress, sit quietly with a tea in a corner, and go home after the poetry reading without ever speaking to another. And yes, things I’ve heard uttered in sincerity such as “Steampunk is where goth discovered brown” and “Steampunk is… well, have you seen ‘Wild Wild West’?” both get my dander up but this one topic truly makes me wonder.

It is something I have heard fair frequently and tonight it began with a gentleman stating: “It’s been my experience that us whites only understand cultural appropriation and could never grasp multiculturalism. (joking.. kinda)”

I call complete and utter PC bullshit on this, pardon my language, ladies.

Much like many of the other subcultures in North America and Europe the Steampunk community is, in the majority, Caucasian. I know a handful of folk from different ethnic backgrounds but it is, indeed, a group that is primarily what is called “White” [though in all honesty I am still sometimes confused by the term “White” and muchly prefer Caucasian, thank you very much]. This is true of the goth/industrial as it was and still is of the punk subcultures. It is true of the science fiction/fantasy fen and convention goers. Strangely, though perhaps not, I also find it true of the North American anime/manga subcultures though here my experience is only truly from a handful of cities and a couple of conventions. This is likely a geographically influenced occurrence as I have no doubt that the various subcultures in Japan, for example, are primarily populated by Asians.

So let us speak of cultural appropriation, shall we? And, as this deals with Steampunk, let us look at the Victorian era.

As has been pointed out to me by a very intelligent and learned young lady during my earlier writing there was a fascination among the Caucasians of this period with those things that belonged to other cultures. The Victorian era saw world travel and exploration as it had never been before. Dark areas on map were being explored and opened up. Adventure was available for those who could afford the time and money and it was written about to be shared with everyone who could read [or be read to]. It was a time of excitement. Archaeology was truly established during the reign of Queen Victoria and the fascination with history and past cultures was equaled by the fascination with current cultures that were not “our own.” And it was a two way street, ladies and gentlemen.

Trade flowed around the world and thus trinkets, keep-sakes, artwork, fabrics and materials danced between countries. Indian silk, Chinese fans, African carvings, Egyptian antiques, paintings of Indians [in talking with several who I count among my many friends I’ve discovered lately that most do not like the term “Native Americans” though I’ve yet to discuss the why of it] and many other interesting ‘foreign items’ poured into the heart of the British Empire through her vast trade networks. And things British flowed out.

The visiting Briton appeared often to the members of other countries as a very successful creature. He had tools of metal, clothing of strange fabrics and intricacies, amazing medicines, machines that performed astounding feats and created amazing things.

Take a few minutes and, rather than just relying on my words, do some research. Google is a good place to start though your local library is possibly better for it. Look for pictures from the Victorian era and focus on those photographed or painted in and from other countries. You will see many non-Caucasian peoples sporting top hats, waistcoats, morning coats, tailcoats and carrying walking sticks and parasols. They did this in imitation and in respect to the “powerful people of the mighty British Empire.” The thought was, and it is still true today, that to dress like a successful man was to become a successful man or to, at least, gain respect from other successful men. The British, during this period, were seen as the most successful, particularly by those who had less. The British Empire was powerful so it is not a surprise that others desired to be a part of that, to gain some of that power for themselves and to do so they imitated what they saw.

And yet by our own definition this was and is “cultural appropriation.”

Oh, indeed you will see pictures of British military wearing turbans and other ‘native’ headwear of different ethnicities, or sporting a very non-British outfit. In many cultures trading was a sign of friendship, of welcoming, with personal gifts being exchanged. The British caught on to this and headwear was oft traded with natives of other countries.

Who could resist a few mementos to bring home after a long military or trading tour? In our modern world it is often photographs or post-cards or little tourist-junk that is brought home from vacation as a reminder of the fun, the adventure. At the least during the Victorian era what was brought home wasn’t made in some factory by underpaid labourers.

Besides the exchange there were two other reasons for Caucasians of that period to ‘appropriate’ the ‘native appearance.’

The first was simple geography and, resulting from that, climate. Standard British wear during this period tended to be multiple layers and those layers were mostly either linen, cotton or, more popularly, wool. I have worn a British uniform on the kind of hot day one may experience in India, in southern Spain, in the middle Americas and it is not at all comfortable. The native fabrics and clothing styles took climate into account, naturally. I have worn a Victorian gentleman’s attire in 90 degree heat and it was not pleasant, and I found myself longing for the flowing, cooling robes of an Arabian.

The second was called “going native.” Again, I would recommend doing a little bit of Google research and you will find that though this is now perceived as not being common, it happened frequently enough to be, at times, a concern. While particularly an occurrence in North America it also happened in many other countries of the world including Russia, India, Egypt, Africa, and most of Asia. Going native was often voluntary in the case of adventurers or military who became either enamoured of the culture in which they were placed or who “deserted” their company for one reason or another. It also happened that, through some tragedy, a young Caucasian would be raised by native parents in some country and thus would grow up acclimated to that culture.

Is a Caucasian who joins a culture therefore guilty of appropriating the trappings of that culture?

It was more cultural exchange and less appropriation.

Let us see. Appropriation – ap·pro·pri·a·tion [/əˌprōprēˈāSHən/] Noun: The action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.

And if permission is tacitly given or understood through action? Who gives permission for an entire culture? With historic precedence set is there a need for permission?

As a closing note I have spoken with several people of non-Caucasian culture and ethnicity and they see nothing wrong with a Caucasian steampunk dressing up in a non-British period outfit or adding non-British touches as long as it is done tastefully and with respect. It seems an almost purely Caucasian thing to call someone out on “cultural appropriation” and it is, I feel, not our place to do so.

Finally, I am going to quote myself from that September writing: “However, I would note that if you do decide to add in some item or style belonging to another culture that you are aware of what it is you are wearing, the why of it, and how to explain it respectfully. There are those who get upset with past issues [even though there are enough current issues that they do not seem to care for so much] that in public one MAY be approached and called on the borrowed bits.
There is nothing wrong with exploring other options than the most often seen British/American characterizations from the Victorian period in your Steampunk wardrobe and presentation. Just remember it is to be both fun and respectful.”

Be well, good readers, and I hope that you enjoy a wonderful holiday season, a joyful Yule, a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a fantastic solstice or whatever it is that you celebrate at this time of year.

H.A. Higgins-Keith


Around the World in 80 Minutes

It is entertaining, is it not, that a classic by one of the giants who is attributed with being a huge influence, and I speak of Jules Verne, wrote a book called “Around the World in 80 Days” and Steampunk takes it to heart, in a world where a message can fly around the world in .80 seconds and one can travel it in 80 hours. Though Verne’s book has no hint of science fiction nor the slightest flavour of retro-futurism it does shine like the sun on the British Empire of the time, shortly before its peak.

And here is where it relates to today’s topic: Steampunk. It’s a world. A broad, diverse, wonderful world populated by many peoples, rich with many cultures and societies, and chock full of things to fuel the imagination. And yet the primary focus of those involved in the Steampunk aesthetic are either completely Victorian Great Britain or the United States Wild West. It is very, very rare to run into someone dressed to portray a Steampunk Asian or Native American or Indian or Russian or… on and on. There are very, very few Frenchmen or Dutch or Germans even. As an aside, Jules Verne is French.

But before we take a stroll through culture or society, let us look at class and gender.

Class is generally poorly represented in Steampunk costuming even though the societies of the period were very concerned with class. There is an abundance of gentlefolk, learned persons, gentry and those with the means and abilities to explore and adventure with little nod to the people who fill the engine rooms, the factories and workshops, the mills and mines, and all the occupations needed to allow the well heeled to enjoy their free time. This is romanticism hard at work here. Just as the SCA is generally filled with nobility and land owners of some level or another with few, if any, ever representing the serfs and servants, so too is the Steampunk subculture one of tophats and bustles, walking sticks and parasols. strange [but intricate] mechanisms and lots and lots of tea presented in fine service. The military shows quite often as well among those who portray Steampunk fellows and ladies, and please do not get me started with how well armed the Steampunk societies seem to be. But where are the grease-monkies? One of the easiest and simplest outfits to create is that of the working man or woman. Denim is period. Overalls and wifebeaters [then simply called undershirts] are proper. Big boots, ash smears, gloves and caps of all sorts. And goggles! While some argue why goggles are worn atop various headgear it must be obvious that grease-monkeys would have regular need for goggles and even respirators. Daily need! Grease-monkies are also fun to play. They have the same manners and politeness, the same respect that the gentlefolk do though they may present it in a little less polished manner. They drink tea from clay mugs and cups but they’ll still lay a handkerchief across a knee to do so. They’ll hold a door or a seat and address everyone with respect. But they also get to rough and tumble, play the fun games and enjoy a level of entertainment a little more bawdy and rich. Additionally, the ‘lower classes’ need not be all cogs in the great steam machine. Consider seamstresses and tailors, tinkerers and crafters, sailors and common soldiers. Nudge it up a bit to architects and chemists and the like as well if you’d prefer. Engineers. Surveyors. A world needs all sorts.

Something that I have noticed in the Steampunk subculture is a freeness with gender restrictions that pushes the pendulum far, far to the other side. True, the Victorian period was a very patriarchal society though strong and adventurous women did live during this time. In the modern, romantic portrayal of these characters of alternate history there is an abundance of lady sky-pirates, female scientists and inventors, woman adventurers and more. Generally as well armed or better than the males. I have heard some discussion that this is necessary for women at the time were repressed and thus did not have many of the career options that men had. But one forgets crossdressing! Masquerade and disguise! And women did have their own power as well during this time. Don’t forget that the period is named for a Queen, not a King. But here… a little reading:

There should be no argument nor discomfort in a woman dressing as a man and assuming a man’s role in a Steampunk world. Nor should there be any argument nor discomfort in making of herself a strong woman’s role as this IS but a world of alternate history. And as for the ‘tit for tat’ of it, well, men have been crossdressing as women for many reasons for many years (a number of the reasons being safety or comedy).

Now that we are done with class and with gender [though shall we e’er truly be done?] let us move on into culture and society, shall we?

The biggest problem, of like, with dressing in a nonBritish or nonAmerican manner within the Steampunk subculture is that, like most subcultures the majority of the participants are Caucasian. For me this presents no problem but apparently for others it does.

There is a feeling that to dress in the manner of a nonCaucasian culture, even in Steampunk roleplay, is to improperly appropriate that culture. Balderdash! It does depend, of course, on how it is presented and the why of it but it is not a thing unknown from that period. Cultures influence each the other all the time. Look at pictures from the Victorian era and you will see Native Americans, Asians, Native Africans and Australians sporting top hats, walking sticks, parasols and even tailcoats. Are they improperly appropriating the Caucasian culture? Not in the least. They were dawning the trappings in both imitation and respect, among other reasons. While Western Europe, for the most part, had an image of how one should dress that was as strong as how one should comport themselves, influences did move in both directions. There are as many pictures of British Military in India wearing local headware as there are of locals wearing that of the British. Indian, Asian and Egyptian influences were very strong during the Victorian period as the people of Western Europe were fascinated with these other parts of the world.

Then there is ‘going native’. Travelers, merchants, adventurers, soldiers did, at various times, become assimilated into the cultures of the lands they visited or were stationed in. This is particularly true of military scouts in the U.S. during the period. Surely it was not a mass migration to a different way of living but it did happen and often enough to be noted and, at times, to become a concern. Adding a certain flavour to one’s outfit if done with respect, thought and care is indeed period.

However, I would note that if you do decide to add in some item or style belonging to another culture that you are aware of what it is you are wearing, the why of it, and how to explain it respectfully. There are those who get upset with past issues [even though there are enough current issues that they do not seem to care for so much] that in public one MAY be approached and called on the borrowed bits.

There is nothing wrong with exploring other options than the most often seen British/American characterizations from the Victorian period in your Steampunk wardrobe and presentation. Just remember it is to be both fun and respectful.

H.A. Higgins-Keith