01 February 2011

All Steamed Up

By now, I suspect most of you have heard of Steampunk, the latest fringe element fashion movement. It's sort of like adding a nineteenth century affectation to everything, but still being into computers and stuff. Go ask a 22 year old, they'll explain it to you better than I can.

British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his boys defining the Steampunk aesthetic.

First, it was the computer keyboards that are made of old typewriter bits, then it was the iPod dock that plays through a Victrola style horn speaker, then it was a full fledged topic on NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook. Fringe as it may be, there's got to be something to it.

Why would I bring this all up, anyway?

Over the weekend, I saw a young Steampunk couple walking the street outside of my job. I looked through the window and couldn't help but stare, because the guy was wearing a top hat. Not a silly new one, an antique shiny silk top hat, 1920s or 30s from the looks of it. In my thrift shopping travels, I come across these occasionally, always wrecked nearly beyond recognition. Bu this one was near mint. As I considered this archaic piece of head gear, they disappeared into the coffee house across the street.

Later, they entered my shop. Upon entering the store, the young gent removed his hat, collapsed it, and tucked it under his arm. Yikes! A collapsible silk top hat. When he came to pay, I asked him "that hat of yours, it's a real antique, isn't it?" He replied "It belonged to my great grandfather." A family heirloom no less. He wore a self tied bow tie, worn loose, and French cuffs. His lady friend looked sharp, despite her silly pseudo-Victorian goggles perched atop her head, in a well tailored brocade coat in burgundy velvet. A bit silly, perhaps, but much more lady like than the pyjamas/Uggs/sweatshirt trifecta seen too often on young ladies these days. They seemed like nice kids.

Those of us who like to dress in a classic way tend to get judgemental. We like to lament the loss of decorum and complain about the savage state of peoples manners, and on, and on. Yet we revel in gossip and criticism. We can get equally judgemental of kids like this for dressing "silly". I'm as much to blame as anyone in this regard. But really, these kids live to dress, clearly, and they probably always will. They pay close attention to detail, making sure every little thing is just right. They enjoy history, and have some kind of appreciation for bygone deportment. Once they outgrow being kids, they're more likely to wind up well dressed than many people. Oddly enough, this applies to a fair amount of punk rock kids and tack sharp hip hop fans, too.

Let's not forget, though we'd like to believe that a well appointed gent is at home anywhere, in any situation,  most people think a guy in a blazer and tie that he isn't required to wear is (more than) a little strange.

20 comments:

John Sherrill said...

I can appreciate and attest to the outrageous, yet carefully detailed style turning well-dressed and just as meticulous about detail that you speak of here. I myself was a young punk rock kid at one time. A carefully manicured mohawk and bondage pants that had to fit just right were the style of my youth. I am grown (or at least growing) up now and have traded in the patched leather motorcycle jacket for a nice patch pocket sports coat, but the same attention to detail and style are applied to my new fashion sense.

Although, I don't think I will ever love a pair of shoes more than a broken in pair of Chuck Taylors.

Chuck G. said...

Thank you for noticing the hip-hop connection. I never thought my attention and focus on coordinating North Face, Nike, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, etc... at Cambridge Rindge & Latin in the 1990s would shift to an appreciation of the cut and details of traditional menswear today. Must've been that damn after school yob in the Widner Library. Thanks for the great blog and keep up the good work.

IntsikAndy said...

I'm still in my youth, age 16, still in a public high school in a big city. I used to not really care about the way I dressed, and it was all about affordability, blending in, and not caring too much about it. After seeing such care being put into clothing and wearing them, I've found it to be just the coolest thing ever, and in an affordable manner. In the past few months, I've been thrifting and buying cheap but good-looking and well-fitting clothing, and have gotten a lot of gripe for it from the people who are less used to items such as blazers, dress shirts, chinos, or corduroy pants, but others who spend a similar amount of time on their clothing (girls especially) appreciate clothing!

Yankee-Whisky-Papa said...

While the aesthetic can be extremely costumed and appealing to a very narrow set, the approach is very encouraging. These are (generally) young folks who take a study of a past formality, and tune it towards modernization. While this can easily go disastrously wrong, the theory of the approach is laudable: adaptation and not taxidermy. While goggles and corsets are a bit much, you could do far worse than leather, polished brass or copper, with velvet and soft linens.

Thad said...

Steampunk is a great aesthetic. I was lucky to be able to be (slightly) involved with the first museum-based exhibition of Steampunk art in the world ... at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford.

In many ways it is a great movement because of the focus on handmade goods, quality craftsmanship, and detail. Unfortunately, for clothing, many of these same features are only superficial. Many Steampunk enthusiasts wear new clothes that are just as mass-produced as those sweatpants and Uggs! And, at least in parts of the UK, they have driven the cost of certain types of vintage clothing into the nearly astronomical range. Yet, despite my problems with the quality of some of their rags, they all take extreme pride in their appearance, and with that, I can have no argument. To see some photos of them, check out this.

Honestly, I have been thinking about getting a Deadman-style top hat for awhile ...

Cheers!

Lee said...

Thank you for sharing this encounter. Affirms my belief that dressing well is an outer manifestation of an inner grace.

Art Aiello said...

I'm familiar with steampunk, and kinda dig it, although I'm in my 40s. Would have loved to see the top hat. I actually found a website recently that sells nothing but Victorian-style waistcoats. Would LOVE to get one (when I get a couple hundred dollars). I think those things look sharp no matter what the era.

Anonymous said...

If only I was younger... The other night watching Downton Abbey I was wishing that men and women (particularily women, I love the dresses!) still dressed liked that. And now it appears a young group of people do! I would have loved to have seen those kids. Sigh. I was born much too late....

Noam said...

Damn, but Brunel had some swagger!

I feel I must respectfully take issue with the implied assertion that steampunk is something to "grow out of". As a 30-year-old, I can attest to steampunk being more than a youth culture, at least in the Big Apple. At least half the steampunk enthusiasts I know are older than me. People get into the aesthetic in greatly varying degrees: some are much more “costumey” with goggles and brass gadgets, while others (myself included) go for a more subtle old-fashioned look. Many people make their own clothing and props, as well. They've inspired me to learn to sew (still working on it) so I can make my own bow ties, possibly working up to fancier tailoring.

davidsl said...

i am approaching 50, and have been a steampunk enthusiast for some 5 years or so. there is an awful lot of what i consider costume play [cosplay] in the steampunk society, which i find silly. but i do love the victorian/edwardian clothing aesthetic. i have incorporated bits of it into my normal dressing and most people don't even notice. but, most men's wear hasn't changed THAT much since the 1800's. but, man, i'd love to wear a morning suit to work!

Jay B. said...

Really beautifully said, G. I agree -- I appreciate anyone who is trying to look their very best, even if it's different than my own style. (On a similar note. Did you see the movie, "Bright Star" about the poet, Keats? I would dress like that every day if I could!

RF Interference said...

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Jay said...

I was all about different sartorial subcultures throughout my youth. I worked at a used clothing store, and had the access to experiment with pretty specific styles and trends. As I got older, not to mention moved on from the shop and lost the ability to cycle my closet through the retail racks, I sought out more staples & classics, but certainly couldn't have done this within my means, if it wasn't for the obsessive eye I formed when adhering to different genres.
Regardless of the style, I always have an affinity for younger folks that are trying to pin something down, and are deciding to buck casualness in lieu of something they feel is more self expressive. If more people regularly put this amount of thought into what they wore, and how it reflected them as a person, I think the world would be a much more aesthetically interesting place

Coastman said...

As long as someone is "dressing", and not just putting on sweatpants from Old Navy, I say more power to them. It certainly makes for a more enjoyable world in which to live.

M.D. Cooley said...

Your a class act man. I Especially like the conclusin about trad/preps/whatever getting looked at stangly. I go to University of Nevada and get looks and smirks all the time about my various blazers and sports coats worn with a tie all the time. Good stuff.

MP said...

Having spent much time hanging around both communities, I'm convinced that steampunk fashion is what you get when Goths discover brown and brass.

Jay C. Howard said...

I love the well-crafted Steampunk aesthetic and fully admit to searching out quality goods from that era. That said, I don't care for the goggles, strangely implemented brass buttons, and tattered parasols I too often see. Anyone who cares about hand-crafted quality goods and clothing gets high marks from me. I appreciate this blog more and more, G.

Kionon said...

I am a big fan of the steampunk movement, G. I'm not into it myself, but sometimes I can see things that give me cues for something I would actually do.

I am a big fan of turn of the century looks (that's 1900s, not the 2000s!), although I have yet to find a good source of vintage style shirts and tweeds from that era.

Also, club collars for all...

Jean Caulfield said...

Dude, that is legitimate. Dapper Dan men are so attractive and interesting.
Where are all of these interesting gentlemen hiding? Probably at Jay Gatsby's house, darn them.

Suburban Princess said...

Oh I just love seeing kids putting some...any, effort into how they look! A friend has a 16 year old son and for his birthday I bought him a top hat and he just loved it! He wears it anytime he needs to wear his tux :O)