Jaymee and I had a discussion the other day triggered by the use of the word “Victorientalism” (also spelled “Vicorientalism”) in the steampunk community and whether it is an appropriate description of the transcultural blend of Eastern and Western fashion. I had my first (rather angry) rant about Orientialism sometime around this time last year, and now would be apt to revisit those thoughts about Victorientalism.
First, let me say that steampunk, because it deals with the dynamics of history and its alternatives, can never, ever be considered apolitical.* History is always subjective, choosing to expose or veil people, events, and perspectives based on the bias of the teller. In fact, it’s not surprising that the most widely-known histories are those written from the perspective of those in the dominant culture and that underrepresented histories are so because they have been ignored or oppressed by institutions in the dominant culture (government policy, school education, media representation, etc).
Even something that seems frivolous like fashion has political ramifications, since clothing, as the most basic form of self-identity, has always being subject of control by others. Threadbared, a journal that focuses on the politics of fashion and beauty, captures the sentiment of how the politics of clothing impact everyday life during their discussion about vintage:
Clothing matters because it is through clothing that persons are understood to matter, or not. Consider the Sartorialist’s captions for the presumably homeless man, or his driver, which attribute to these anonymous figures qualities of human dignity and pride because of what they are wearing. Consider the hijab, and all the histories and conflicts that hinge upon the presence of absence of the veil as a sign of civilization and modernity or its opposite. Consider legislation throughout the centuries to regulate what might be worn by whom: European medieval sumptuary laws forbidding the conspicuous consumption of the bourgeoisie; Dutch colonial missionaries insisting that African “converts” abandon their “heathen” clothes in order to reform their bodies and souls; World War II-era rationing bans on the material extravagance of the “zoot suit,” the informal uniform of black and Chicano youth, as “unpatriotic;” and contemporary legislation across cities in the United States criminalizing black male youth in sagging jeans.
Thus, when speaking about Orientalism aesthetics, its existence as an art form is undeniably entangled with its political and social consequences.
Filed under Essays, History