My attention has sometimes been attracted to a phenomenon called Steampunk, and I got something of an exposure to it when I visited Jules Verne’s house in Amiens. Fascination for things from the nineteenth century is a two-edged sword. One quickly becomes saturated with gigantic technology and human arrogance with social status and progress. I have seen many films depicting the nineteenth century, but the view is partial and selective, even with views of the evils of the era like workhouses, poverty and disease so decried by William Blake and Charles Dickens. The Elephant Man is a poignant portrayal of the freak show, cruelty and exploitation. It also showed the noble generosity of the more altruistic of the moneyed classes. When we delve a little into the more exotic aspects of Victorian eccentricity and the modern steampunk optic, we will discover some very surprising things about an era reputed for its prim and proper moralism.
It is a story of human aspiration, but also of evolving fashions and trends in society. As a cleric, fashion was never my “thing”. As a child, I wore things not because they were in fashion, but because I liked the feel or appearance. Fashion can be a way to hide individuality. Nothing did that more than our clerical cassock and Roman collar, or our school uniforms in England. My own experience led me to a critical stance and a profound alienation from a society that has overtaken me – as for many people who arrive at middle age and are getting on in years. My wife is a little more fashion conscious than I am, since she works in town and has more social contact than I have. She tends towards a slightly 1930’s style with her “bell” hat and shoulder-length hairstyle. When we go out together, there is a distinct contrast between her style and my fashion-blind mixture of long hair and various articles of modern casual dress. For more formal family events, I do make the effort to put on the right things – though I stop short of wearing a suit (unless it is clerical dress with the collar). I then tie up my hair into a ponytail (the queue) or a tight bun.
Here in France, the cassock creates a bad impression through its association with traditionalists with “extreme” right-wing political views and a generally intolerant view on life. That being said, the cassock with hair tied up into a tail, eighteenth-century style, leaves a different impression, since the right-wingers often have very closely cropped heads. We long-hairs often unkindly refer to them as “clones”. Being the only priest of my Church in France, I have little contact with church people since the downfall of the TAC and my renewed obscurity as far as the traditionalist Catholic world is concerned. I am happy with my little lot in life, working to earn my living, pottering about in my boat and going about my most essential priestly duties in my chapel.
We have arrived at the notion of fashion that I find most unpleasant: conformity and surrender of personality and critical thought. Fashion brings people to dress in the same way and present the visible parts of their bodies.
Fashion goes way back in history as we look at what people wore in different periods according to their social status, how men and women wore their hair and other visible aspects. In many historic civilisations, fashion rarely changed, whereas fashions in our western world are changing all the time. New fashions came with people beginning to travel and discovering other cultures in the world. Rapid changes in fashion go back essentially to about the fourteenth century. Things became increasingly ridiculous in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with exaggerated hairstyles and hats. The French Revolution brought sobriety as did religious puritanism in different forms. The nineteenth century brought a different kind of exuberance, to a point resumed from the old order and partly influenced by the new dogmas of progress and status.
Unisex dress originated in the 1960’s, and men and women would become less distinct by their dress and hairstyle. Also, from this time, fashion began to make big money for designers and marketers. In our days, we have a wide choice of things to wear according to our tastes, cultural references and our place in society. Fashions are often set by film and music stars, and the fans of those stars begin to identify with them. There is also the question of age, since older people might look a little odd dressed as a very young person. I have that tendency – to dress like people in their twenties, and I seem to pull it off! I would feel very awkward dressing in the way my father does.
Fashion in clothes took off with mass-production in factories with standard patterns and sewing machines. More elaborate clothing could be afforded by more modest people through retail outlets. Fashion is a highly globalised industry, and styles cross cultural boundaries. Fabrics would often be bought in the Far East, clothes made in Chinese or Taiwanese sweat-shops, finished in Europe and sold in the USA and Europe at inflated prices. I have learned many things about this industry through my translating work. Fashions are often dictated by mass media, social networks and the internet. It is all very accessible and enticing, as I found when I translated a complete web catalogue for a large French casual menswear company (they make some very nice things like hoodies, and reasonably priced). That being said, my philosophy is always the same. I go out and buy something because I need or like it, not because the vendor has manipulated me for his profit. That being said, none of us is totally immune to the mental manipulation of advertising and modern marketing.
It is easy to take a caustic attitude in regard to our consumerist culture and mass fashion. I tend to look at it from a philosophical point of view rather than in terms of business. It is human for each of us to think of ourselves as “special” or different. The human person is unique and constituted by relationship with the other, as we read in Eastern Orthodox Trinitarian theology. We live in tension between our desire to stand out on one hand, and conform to the mass on the other.
As a cleric, I am used to being “counter-cultural” especially with the cassock that is associated with traditionalist Catholic ideologies combined with long hair, seen as an expression of anti-conformity. I tend to shock, and I have learned to live with it. Most of the time, I “dumb it down” by wearing modern casual dress and tying my hair up in public. It is often advantageous to slip through a crowd without being noticed – when I am not on duty as a priest.
The notion of fashion and anti-fashion is interesting. The cassock is a uniform like any other, and is worn only by clerics. Long hair on men was last in fashion at the beginning of the nineteenth century – two hundred years ago. Even the Beatles only had shoulder-length hair – and that was quite outrageous in the 60’s! The fashion to which Steampunk refers is the complex attire of the later Victorian era when gentlemen wore large moustaches and sideburns and cut their hair short, but much less short than during and after World War I. Fashion changes very quickly. Anti-fashion remains stable and changes only rarely and then only in a very conservative way.
One thing stands out in our world, that of subcultures associated with tastes in popular music. The Steampunk movement is associated with sounds one would never have heard in the nineteenth century. We are confronted with modern technology looking like things from the Victorian era, computers for example. I have already written in this blog on the fascinating subject of retro-futurism – projecting our current knowledge and technology onto an earlier historical period. From thence comes the fascinating and absurd idea of the Great Invisible Empire of Romantia. Apparently, the Ladies have changed the name of their Empire, and it is dottier than ever!
One can only go so far with eccentric quirks and anti-conformities. I am aware that being too odd alienates people and has a discrediting effect. I have often thought that it must be very pleasant to wear a Tunisian thobe in summertime, an alb-like garment worn by Muslim men suited for the desert – but I don’t because of what it means to other people. Already, people freak out when they see a man in a cassock! One has to gentle with people at the same time as creating a degree of tension with the all-consuming conformity.
Quentin Crisp’s attitude could be summed up in these words:
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile,
Be yourself no matter what they say.
He did so by being as “camp as a row of tents”! The rest of us have to walk the knife edge between social acceptance and claiming our personality that is ours, God-given and unalienable.
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I also quote this from Quentin Crisp, of which I find little to dispute:
The object of having a style (as opposed to merely being stylish) is not to be different from other people, but to be more like yourself than nature has made you. A really good portrait is more like you than your own face. Ignore other people. Mr. Sartre says, “Hell is other people.” But not if you ignore them.
You must decide who you are and be it like mad. Do not decide on a lot of bizarre mannerisms with which to encrust our self — just as a writer does not decorate boring material with bejeweled phrases (as Mr. Wilde was wont to do). Take away all the words that are irrelevant to your meaning. In other words, style is a process not of accumulation but of denudation.
Mr. Sargent said, “A portrait is a likeness with something wrong about the mouth.” But really a portrait is more than that. If you are not spectacular in any way, the unspectacular is your style. You must be able to imagine someone saying to one of your acquaintances, “Come to my party and bring that hum-drum friend of yours.” And everyone knows that it means you.
I was asked on one occasion if one could be dowdy and have style, and I thought immediately of Eleanor Roosevelt.
The reason why style is so important is because if you are sure of yourself you do not seize upon a group style — your class, your nationality, your sex. You can avoid this pitfall if you never use the word “we” except to mean yourself and the person to whom you are speaking. It is a mistake to say (or even to think) “we lost a football match” — I didn’t loose it, you didn’t loose it. Eleven other people that we don’t know and have never even heard of us lost it. So, do not go raging through the streets of the Netherlands breaking everything in sight and killing many of the inhabitants.
Stay with it! Never give up!