Freudian Friday: Steampunk and Corsets

Today we have an AWESOME guest post by Liv Rancourt, one of my very favorite blog-readers and blog-writers! This is really exciting for me, because I’ve always wanted to see what another writer/reader/viewer might do with the Freudian Friday concept. In case you haven’t noticed, I love the idea of taking fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal genres seriously, and it fills my heart with joy to see another writer looking at the issues that inform the genres we love. Plus, Liv wrote about steampunk, and my very first book (which you will likely never see) is steampunk. I love steampunk. I love the fashion, I love the books, I love everything about it. So take it away, Liv!

Thanks, Kristin, for the chance to sit in on one of your Freudian Friday posts. I really appreciate the opportunity. Now, this is going to be a little different than your usual “martial-arts-expert-knife-wielding-hootchie-mamas and the vampires who love them” kind of post. I’m going to be talking about Steampunk, and more specifically, one fashion choice that I think is curious. Here goes…

Once upon a time, women wore undergarments UNDER their clothes.

I know. Can you believe it?

And then, things changed, as they do. First it was the hint of a slip, and later, maybe, a bit of lace at the décolletage. And then Madonna strapped bullets to her chest, and all bets were off.

Steampunk fabulous.
Fast-forward another twenty years, to a certain subset of the young and trendy who are making their way down city streets dressed in long skirts and bustles and corsets.  They’re wearing goggles and brass buttons, with dangling watch gears as jewelry. It’s Steampunk, darling, an awesome hybrid of Victorian romance and post-apocalyptic grungewear that’s making its way to a city near you.

Did I mention these girls are likely wearing their high-neck, ruffled blouses UNDER their corsets? That is, if they’re wearing a blouse at all. This isn’t your mother’s Mohawk, my dear.

But what IS it? What is Steampunk? It is a literary, design, fashion, and intellectual movement that looks forward by looking back, if you will. Here’s an explanation I pulled off Wikipedia:

Steampunk is a genre which originated during the 1980s and early 1990s and incorporates elements of science fictionfantasyalternate history, horror, and speculative fiction. It involves a setting where steam power is widely used—whether in an alternate history such as Victorian era Britain or “Wild West“-era United States, or in a post-apocalyptic time —that incorporates elements of either science fiction or fantasy.

It carries the  romanticized optimism of a country that conquered the world (Victorian England) or the North American Continent (Wild West steampunk) into our modern times. Some argue that this nostalgic view glosses over poverty, racism, and other social ills (like, say, the suppression of women’s rights).  Maybe it does, but to me it seems a more optimistic worldview than the nihilistic punk attitudes that were the norm when I was a kid in the ‘80s. Instead of saying, “we’re all gonna die,” it says that with a little ingenuity, we can figure our way out of this thing. “The iconic machinery of that age was—and still is—a symbol of strength, hope and ambition. It was powering the Victorians into a bright future.” (The Booktionary, 10/6/10)

For that, I’d strap a few cogs and gears to my belt, you know?

But would I put on a corset? Now that’s a different question. In addition to art, literature, and to an extent, philosophy, Steampunk aficionados also use fashion to express their viewpoint. In the face of modern technology, so much of which is invisible, Steampunk puts the working bits front and center. The pseudo-Victorian waistcoats and cutaway jackets for the men, and bustles and corsets for the women, are all prominently decorated with buckles, gears, and other trinkets. It’s an elaborate, exuberantly stage-y form of dressing that expresses creativity and optimism.

At least on the surface.

Along with glossing over social ills, the genre may also carry forward social and behavioral norms that aren’t so positive. Like, I don’t care how cute an outfit is, if I have to get the vapors when I wear it, no thanks. “All of this fits into a larger framework of the ‘retrosexual’ agenda. This conservative movement appears to have picked up steam (excuse the turn of phrase) within the past few years, and its major tenets are to reclaim strong dichotomous gender roles from times before the current ‘post-feminism’ era, back when ‘men were real men’ and ‘women were ladies.’”  (The Gatehouse, 11/1/10) The roots of Steampunk reflect a culture that grew up before women had the right to vote, and had a generally dependent role in society, and while I doubt many 21st century women would choose to adopt that kind of lifestyle, I worry that there’s an insidious subtext at work here.

“In eras past, as a required fashion staple, corsets were sometimes considered to be the epitome of conservative male oppression of women with their restrictive binding.” (Streetdirectory.com) I’m not talking the naughty black lace things that are sold in adult toy stores. These are real, honest to God corsets, made with heavy fabric, stays, boning and laces. As a kid, my worldview was framed by women burning their bras on the evening news, and to me the corset has always represented restriction and control. When I see young women choosing to wear such a garment, it bothers the old-school feminist in me. The question I have to consider, though, is in terms of the Steampunk movement, who is doing the controlling?

A corset as outerwear is an unmistakable statement. It’s flipping a sartorial bird at something.   “The corset worn outside and used as an article of sexual attraction displays a woman’s pride in her figure, and as it is a counter-cultural choice put up against the tee-shirt and the sports-bra, it becomes a symbol of self-control and uprightness, freely chosen.” (Steampunk Empire, 6/5/11) Who knew?  I mean, there’s certainly more fabric involved than Madonna’s bullet bras. On its own, a corset is fairly discrete, keeping private things private, if you will. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I have the feeling that showing off my figure in a corset would feel a lot more revealing than just about anything else I can imagine wearing.

I might have to try it.

So grab your buckles and bustles and strap on your goggles, ladies and gents. It’s time to look to the future by reimagining the past.  I’d dearly love to find something to feel optimistic about, and if it takes wearing a corset, then lace me in. Do you agree? Do you think the modern incarnation of the corset is a statement of choice and self-control, or is it a throwback to a social system that would be better left to history?

Peace,

Liv

Liv Rancourt writes paranormal and romance, often at the same time. She lives with her husband, two teenagers, two cats and one wayward puppy. She likes to create stories that have happy endings, and finds it is a good way to balance her other job in the neonatal intensive care unit. Liv can be found on-line at her website (www.livrancourt.com), her blog (www.liv-rancourt.blogspot.com), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/liv.rancourt), or on Twitter (www.twitter.com/LivRancourt).

If you’re interested in reading more about Steampunk or corsets or both, check out the sites I either quoted or drew from for this post:

Battle of the Sexes: How Steampunk Should Be Informed by Feminism

CorsetInformation.com

Steampunk (Wikipedia)

Steampunk, Spirit of the Time by Mark Hodder

The Corset: A Symbol of Powerful Female Expression

The Future of Steampunk by Paul Jessup

The Old West Brings Steam by Felix Gilman

The Symbolism of Steampunk

What Is Steampunk?

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6 thoughts on “Freudian Friday: Steampunk and Corsets

  1. Great topic, Liv! I, too, have questioned the whole corset thing and have concluded that it really comes down to the individual and how they see themselves in it. If it is a symbol of choice and individuality, then I say go for it. If someone is forced to wear it, as women once were, or feels like they have to in order to squeeze into some irrational idea of femininity, then it becomes a symbol of oppression for them. It’s kind of like the women who wear the djellabas and head coverings in Morocco and other Islamic countries – many choose to wear it as a sign of their devotion. I made the mistake of assuming it was oppressive because that’s how it would feel to me. Not so for many of the women I encountered there. Hope that all made sense. 🙂

  2. That’s a great comparison, Tami, and not one I necessarily would have made. I live near a mosque, so I frequently see women dressed in hajib or headscarves, with or without the long robes. I wonder what it would feel like to always be so covered up. As I wonder what it would feel like to have your figure on display in a corset. It’s such an inarguably feminine shape, and even though it covers up most things, it kind of puts it out there.

  3. Fun post. I’ve gotten involved in a lot of the local steampunk scene (which is actually how the book I just picked up an agent on came about). There are a lot of things about it that are almost silly, but I love the free spirit that seems to encompass it and some of the fashion is deliciously unique and creative. I’d venture that most every woman dressed in a steampunk corset is looking to make a statement. I’ve worn a few myself and can honestly say that it can be oddly liberating. 😉

  4. I hear what you’re saying Nikki, although it took putting this post together for me to think it through. I generally dress like, well, a middle-aged mother (surprise!), and wearing clothing that accentuates my cleavage and waistline – what’s left of it, anyway – would make me feel damned near naked.
    And some day I might have the nerve to actually try it.
    😉

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