Wednesday, February 9, 2011

An open letter to...

Dear Steampunks and Convention Costumers,

Corset ca. 1864 via The Victoria & Albert Museum
I know we all love the corset. It's fun to wear sporadically, give your body a lovely shape, and can even enhances a costume. I also get that modern corsets come in very lovely colours, patterns and fabrics; historical corsets also came in fun colours with lovely trims. I get all that as I myself love corsets but here is where I have a problem with you.

You never take into account the "character" you are dressing as or being. Steampunks love to create a character complete with backstory. I have one for my steampunk character as well but I have also done what any costumer should; I have taken into consideration what my character does (hunter), the historical fashions of the time period I am based out of (Victorian) and the implications behind it all.

So for this arguments sake, we are going to deal with Steampunk based very heavily in the Victorian time period and for a woman.

The first thing you need to know is that every woman wore a corset. Yes, every woman and all the time. This caused many physical problems (like rearranging your organs) and health issues, especially concerning childbirth. Yes, corsets are the cause of so many miscarriages and deaths during childbirth.

Langdon, Batcheller & Company, c. 1887.   
The second is that the corset is considered an undergarment which would only be seen by the lady wearing it, her female family members, her ladies made or her husband. No proper society lady would ever, EVER show her corset to society or, for the love of a bearded man in the sky, wear it on the outside of her clothing!

The third is that the corset is made to mold and shape your body to fit the styles and clothes of the time. The busk (aka the metal closure on the front) was curved, the boning was made out of whale bones and the lacing in the back pulled it all tight. A corset should not be tied by yourself or by someone who does not know what he or she is doing. A corset can bruise or break ribs if you are not careful. Also, you should never try to tight lace on the first wearing of a corset. You should tighten to where you are still comfortable, able to breath easily and can sit and stand without difficulty. After about an hour or two you can then go in and tighten a bit more. Alway stop tightening when you get uncomfortable or it's painful!!! DO NOT PUSH YOUR BODY INTO A TIGHT CORSET WHEN IT IS NOT READY FOR IT! YOU WILL HURT YOURSELF! Ideally the process to be able to tight lace (which I absolutely never recommend to do) should take weeks or months to do but this requires wearing a corset daily, which is a horrible plan.

Now that you know a bit about the corset lets talk about wearing one. As I mentioned before, when designing and creating a costume that requires a corset, try as hard as you can to not fall into the typical fashion trends of the people who are costuming in the same area you are. For Steampunk, this means that you need to make a conscious choice about how you wear your corset and don't just go right for the corset on the outside of your clothing because that's the trend.

Original hand-coloured antique engravings
Published for Bureaux du Journal Paris, 1872 - 1883 
Let's pretend you want to be a high society Steampunk lady, complete with rich colours, expensive fabrics, bustle, ruffles that could swallow the world and plumed hat. You know what you would never do for this outfit? Wear your corset where others can see it and I don't give a damn how pretty your corset is either. A high society woman would NEVER EVER show her corset. I don't give a flying fig if it's Steampunk or post Apocalyptic or whatever other excuse you want to give me about your corset fashion choice. If you are setting your character in Victorian times (which if you're Steampunk you most likely are), your high society character would never do that no matter the setting. It was a fact ingrained into the culture which would not change after a big bomb, or whatever you have decided caused the apocalypse, destroyed life as they knew it. In all honesty, it would probably be something they cling to in order to preserve some sense of normality in a strange and ever changing landscape. Moral: think it through the next time!

Woman with camera - albumen print cabinet card
 - A.J. Davison - c. 1880
I think I've made my point when it comes to society ladies but I understand that there are many other occupations people pick for their characters. There are hunters, trackers, spies, seamstresses, bakers, officers, clerks and the list keeps going. I hold all these positions to the same standards as the high society ladies. More so really as they are working positions and the people who they interact with would judge harshly upon a woman who showed her corset in a professional environment. A working woman wants to make the best impression she can and making sure her corset is safely tucked away under her garments, like it should be, is a top priority. However, here is where I will also make an exception to the "all women wear corsets" fact. If your character is a working character, she might not even need a corset. If she is a hunter or tracker or spy, then she is probably crawling around and trying to fit through small spaces. She would not want to be bound and immobile at any part of her body. She would not wear a corset. She also would most likely wear pants and other practical garments, which can still be pretty and fun and very much not boring. Moral: think outside the box and look at the practical end of your costume!

Not Victorian but I wonderful show of
what I mean.
Now let's take look at a position I would a) love to see someone costume/cosplay and b) would actually wear a corset for the world to see. That position would be a prostitute or whore or lady of the night or whatever you want to call it. But let's face it, she would be in search of business and her goods are what she would need to display. In that case she would want her corset, chimess and stockings seen. The corset puts your goods on display and, as I said before, shapes your body into a very pleasing shape. So if you are costuming as a courtesan, go hog wild! Wear that corset for all to see like it's nobodies prerogative but your own! Own it! Dress it up! Hell, make it gold and red with matching short bloomers and 4 inch heeled boots! You have my infinite blessing, especially if you are doing this at a convention as you never know what pervy boys will be there. Moral: if you're "selling your goods" then wear your corset for the world/"customers" to see.

So, in the end, there are some factors you really need to look at when it comes to designing your costume.

1. If you are basing it out of a time period, do some research into that time period. read articles, look at pictures, search for patterns. There is so much information out there and at your fingertips, use it.

2. Try and avoid the conventions of costume design that are out there and strong. If you turn the convention on it's head or utilize it in a different way then everyone else, you stand out more and people remember your costume.

3. Think through what your character does and what she needs in a garment. Does she need a corset? Would she show it off? (Most likely the answer is always no) Would she wear pants instead of a skirt? Is she formal? Is she rich/poor/middle class? Is she Steampunk or post Apocalyptic or historical or cyber punk...etc...? Does she care about societies rules? Is she proper?

Really, just take some time and use your brain. Don't be like everybody else and blend into a crowd.


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