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Over on Tor, [livejournal.com profile] fantasyecho has an excellent essay on how – indeed whether! – Steampunk costume alone can interrogate and deconstruct imperialism, or if additional performance is necessary. Unsurprisingly, it has spurred a discussion that has given rise both to fine insights and unfortunate displays of privilege.

I by no means wish this piece to draw anyone away from continued participation there, but by the same token I want to riff on some of our dialog there without derailing – and boosted signals are always good.

Let us first put paid to this arrant nonsense that a costume is or can be “just” a costume, a bit of fun that makes no statement, and from which no reasonable person could possibly find cause for dismay. Sure, people complaining about pith helmets harshes someone’s squee. You know what else harshes someone’s squee? The Belgian genocide -- by people who took the pith helmet to be their badge of cultural and racial superiority -- of the Congolese. The question isn't why some people have that reaction to a pith helmet, the question is why some people do not.

Very few people seriously suggest that a swastika today has any connotation beyond Nazis and the Shoah. Many people, such as Buddhists, who have a very long-standing prior claim to the symbol don’t pretend that the twentieth century never happened, and they struggle with how to honor what is to them a sacred symbol while not erasing the horrors for which it was a symbol.

No one, but no one, puts a swastika on their costume, claims they’re just having fun playing dress-up and then gets all huffy and asks how dare everyone and their dog call bullshit. There are several reasons that these two genocides and their icons get different treatment, whether it’s fifty or a hundred years later. The politics of whose lives are valued by whom and whose voices are valued by whom is a very big reason why, and the very claim that a pith helmet isn’t political is itself a political statement.

Any frosh at the Fashion Institute of Technology will tell you that costume is a language. Just as words mean things, clothing means things. The clothing choices we make speak to our gender, our historic, current and aspired classes, our cultural affiliations, our temperament, and a million things besides. Granted, some people may be more conscious of what they’re saying with their clothing than others. One of the technical terms for people with such consciousness is “costumer.” At best, a costumer who claim costume is just dress-up declares their art incompetent and unworthy of attention. At worst, it is a demand that the world simply allow one to speak while insisting that no one speak in reply. This expectation that one gets to give a monologue instead of take part in a dialogue is privileged behavior.

Turning back to the question of Steampunk costume as a way of interrogating and deconstructing imperialism in and of itself, I think we have a challenge before us! My initial thought, as expressed in comment #35 to Jha’s post, is that we don’t currently have the lexicon we need to utter very much critique without adding the performance of Steampunk persona, literature, etc. yesterday, [livejournal.com profile] yuki_onna raised an excellent point in bringing up something often smirkingly critiqued about female Steampunk costume: I see [deconstruction] lately in costuming, where the insides of the bustles and corsets can be worn on the outside, (hell, corsets themselves were never meant to be worn on the outside), the workings of the clothes made explicit. I’m downright excited about [profile] fantasyecho’s counterpoint: I am sick of corsets worn on the outside (we get it, ladies are sexy in corsets, now get your Male Gaze offa us)

Not that these statements were posited in counterpoint to one another, simply that they both look at the same fashion statement from very different angles. I’m very excited about this! I look forward to whatever synthesis people come up with. I look forward to more people writing about what corsets on the outside means to them – and corsets on the inside. How about non-corsetted female Steampunk costume? Men in the Victorian era did corsets that enforced a “male” silhouette for aesthetic and purported medical benefits, might those see a comeback?[1] How are Lesbian gazes, Gay male gazes, Bisexual gazes operating alongside the female-attracted Male Gaze? Will the Male Gaze Jha refers to evolve in response to all of this – and into what? And that’s all just about corsets. There are tons of things to say, and things to say about what’s said.

I don’t see how that conversation can happen just through the wearing – or eschewing -- of corsets, though. The fact that I don’t think of all this when looking at people’s costume might point out limitations in my own costume literacy, or it might point out that people have to talk about what people are wearing to fully bring these meanings and dialogues out. It may be an opportunity to build language or it may be an opportunity to learn language that has been in limited circulation to date. Perhaps those Steampunks who are at places like FIT will have a lot to teach us in the days to come

[1] I dare say that there's a whole dialog to be had about why it hasn't already!
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