Dragon*Con Preview: Politics and Fashion with Alt. History Track Guest, Ay-Leen the Peacemaker (Pt. 1) << Prev Next >>
Ay-Leen the Peacemaker is a guest of the Alternative History Track at Dragon*Con 2012. Earlier this...
By wilhelminaframe on Aug 28 2012 Category:SpC, Fashion, Clothing, Events, Conventions, Steamlife
Ay-Leen the Peacemaker is a guest of the Alternative History Track at Dragon*Con 2012.
Earlier this year as part of the 2012 Steampunk Chronicle Reader's Choice Awards, Ay-Leen the Peacemaker, (Diana M. Pho) of Beyond Victoriana, was awarded a special BEST OF STEAMPUNK Award. In addition to being the most nominated person across all categories in the SteamLife section, Ms. Pho was uncontested in the areas of Feminist Steampunk and Most Politically Minded Steampunk.
Editrix de Mode, Wilhelmina Frame, recently interviewed Ms. Pho via Skype about fashion, politics and the politics of fashion.
Wilhelmina Frame: So I’ve noticed, in Steampunk, that we’re starting to see more of a fashion trend towards using other cultural reference beyond the British Empire or from countries that were part of the British Empire but are not “western”. I’m also seeing globalism as a trend in Steampunk.
How would you define globalism?
Diana Pho: How do I define globalism? Wow. Well, actually, I saw this talk Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a famous post-colonial writer and Spivak is best known for writing an essay called Can the Subaltern Speak? In her essay she argues that there exists a subaltern class. When we talk about history, literature or politics, the subaltern is a class that the people from it actually have no political power or access to the state. Yet, often times, in politics, people make excuses for their own politics actions, in the name of this disenfranchised group. Spevack is well known for using the phrase “white men saving brown women from brown men” in connection to her arguments. The connection to globalism is that during her talk, people were asking “What is the relevance of the subaltern today?” She said that the subaltern is still important, but that people aren’t really subaltern anymore, it’s a process of becoming global, or of globalism.
So I would define globalism as referring to the socio-economic process of globalization. We’re at a point in our social moment where we are more and more integrated. Looking at it on an everyday level, it’s the integration of our world because of technology. Everything we do we can see more closely the direct social, cultural, political dynamics in a way that you wouldn’t have been able to see and analyze as quickly fifty years ago, let alone one hundred years ago.
WF: Generally, Steampunk references the Victorian era and the world as it was at that time. Those years saw an extreme amount of technological innovation, communications innovation and travel innovations. The world, in many ways, did become smaller and more global at that time. Do you think a contemporary Victorian might think similarly to a modern person as far a globalization is concerned?
DP: By contemporary Victorian do you mean a neo-Victorianist?
WF: No, I mean someone living in the Victorian era, someone who is actually contemporary to that time.
DP: A great quote by Felix Gilman, which is very relevant to how I see Steampunk myself in relation to the nineteenth century, is “The Victorian Era was the last era that the people who were living in it felt that they were on the edge of the future.” I think that right now we are also at that cultural moment where we’re just peering over the edge and seeing the future ahead of us. Some people think it’s frightening. We’re in the midst of war, economic downturn. There’s this level of uncertainty. You don’t know whether you’ll keep your house next year or your job. You don’t know if you can be successful if you go to college. There’s a whole level of uncertainty in the world that is partly fuelled by these technological advances. I think that the Victorians, themselves, had those same thoughts. They had the Industrial Revolution. They had the ability to travel the world so much faster and make so many more different things. But it was also a time of great political and social upheaval and class warfare. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn.
WF: I want to focus specifically on the United States, because I think there are different things going on depending on the locality of the players.
How do you think the American Steampunk scene is interpreting Neo-Victorianism in reference to these concepts?
DP: It’s very interesting that you say American Steam because I also think that there are a lot of Steampunk observers who think that Steampunk is exactly the same; that the scene has the same ideas and groups all over the world, which I definitely don’t agree with.
WF: Nor do I.
DP: Exactly. Whenever I write about Steampunk I specifically say, “I’m writing with a North American focus or particularly an American focus.” It’s so easy, especially because of the internet and how quickly information can spread, to make assumptions about a global community just from one person talking from one particular standpoint. What I think is very interesting about American Steampunk first of all is that the Steampunk subculture started off as a subculture in North American and not in the UK. I’m sure there are Victorianists in the UK and that there certainly was a proto-Steampunk scene there that existed contemporary to whenever American Steam started. But I think that particularly in America, it had influenced the formation of a subculture in a dramatically different way than it has in the UK and that perspective is the one that has been popularized in the media. American culture has a long fascination with Anglophilia so it’s not surprising that we’re all into the Victorians. Also, because American culture has a long-standing fascination, there has always been a British “other” versus the American identity. Whether it’s the bad guy from Die Hard or The Beatles or those people who called us “Those Damn Yankees!” America has always had this interesting self-reflexive relationship with itself that is connected with the fascination of England and English culture. American Steampunk, on one hand, does have that anglophilia obsession. With the growth of the Steampunk community, what Steampunk has been doing as a general trend, is turning away from Victorian England, and becoming more focused on what is important in local culture. This is not just for Americans but also for Canadians, Mexicans, Latin Americans and other European countries. Of course, there is still a fascination with Victorian England but people more and more are becoming more interested in their own culture and in what was happening during the nineteenth century for them.
The turning point in American Steampunk was the publication of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. It was the first blatantly reactionary attempt to make “American Steampunk”. That’s why I’m pinning it there. That was in 2009. The more and more Steampunks that are trying to become a community, the more they are reaching out towards things that are rooted in their local history. People are making contact with local museums, art galleries. I’m glad it’s going that direction because it opens up possibility of Steampunk lasting longer if people can find a more person investment in why they’re interested in it.
WF: I think it’s interesting that you bring up the concept of “The Other”, which I’ve read about in some of your writings, specifically on fashion. In reference to the UK, I also see the trend of Anglophilia in Americans. It’s one of the things that originally drew me to Steampunk as well.
Do you think tendency to cultural or historical exoticism is one of the hallmarks of Steampunk and is part of what makes Steampunk what it is?
DP: I wouldn’t say that. It runs the risk of being too general a statement. Of course, we’re always fascinated with people who are different than us. I would say that there are people who are fascinated by difference as a bridge to explore culture in a self-reflexive manner and are able to engage with that other culture in a way that is not purely voyeuristic or “touristy”. But, it is a very particular American trend to create fantasy foreign spaces. Look at Disneyland or Epcot Center, with little Paris or Italy. That theme part is also part of the American tradition. Or reenactment villages. I remember growing up and going to the Colonial House three different times for three different grades because it was such a important point to go and see how the early Americans lived. There is a distinct American attraction to not only creating these places of otherness but also recreating historical times.
WF: Steampunk fashion is reflective of the Victorian era. I think we can say that is a given. Or some would argue eras before and beyond, for example some would put Steampunk in the Regency because of when steam power was invented. Some pull it farther into the Edwardian era and at least up to or past World War One. So we’re talking about popular western fashion of that time.
As people move beyond the representation of England into either colonial holdings of the British or places that were not, technically speaking, part of the cultural history of that empire, how do you feel about those influences and how they are being used in American Steampunk?
DP: I’ve seen non-western fashion used in variety of ways, some of which I don’t agree with at all. (Laughs)
WF: I want to talk about that. What you agree with and what you don’t and why.
DP: I understand the intentions of Steampunk not just being about Victorian England. It’s expanding. There are other places around the world where stuff is happening. It’s important that we recognize them too. So to some extent, I think everyone can agree with that sentiment. Where I think it gets thorny is where people have the reasoning, other places exist, but then they end up fetishizing these other places and think that’s OK. That is being reflected not only in fashion choices but in artistic choices, writing choices, performance choices, etcetera. Fashion is always tricky, because in general, it’s really hard for people to think that fashion is political. They think it’s ephemeral. It’s only cloth. That it doesn’t have any political reflections or ramifications because you can always take it off. But fashion is very political because it always exists in this cultural moment that is very unique to its time period and it always speaks. No matter where you get the fashion from, how it’s produced, who is in charge of distributing it are all political choices. That’s why I think Steampunk fashion is a highly charged fashion aesthetic. It deals with history and history is always political. It also deals with social mores and technology. Those have political ramifications as well. Who gets technology when, who is in power and able to make those decisions?
What I don’t agree with, in a nutshell, is when people write off fashion as being a serious of shallow choices when the context of that fashion is not shallow at all. You can’t just write it off. It’s your personal expression. When you say it doesn’t matter if I wear “this”, it absolutely does matter to you because you made the choice to wear it. If you don’t think about why that choice is important, yet you think that it’s important that you wear “it”, that is a weird contradiction to me.
I’m really all for marginalized groups and marginalized cultures being able to feel a sense of liberation by wearing fashions from their culture. It’s an expression of power that they were systematically denied in history. I think it’s very different if a Native Steampunk like Monique Poirier wears her Wampanoag Steampunk outfit as opposed to a non-Native person wearing Native American regalia. There’s a difference because in their cultural history Native Americans were systematically denied the ability to wear their regalia, or be proud of it, or to be proud of being Native American as opposed to a Caucasian being able to run around in a headdress for fun, which they’ve always been able to do.
An interesting metaphor I’ve heard come up in talking about non-western fashion in Steampunk is the concept of “The Traveler”. I think Jeni Hellum uses it in her Multiculturalism for Steampunk blog as a justification or an intellectual metaphor to talk about how to use non-western Steampunk in fashion. I know that a lot of people think “The Traveler” is an apolitical term but it’s really not. Who travels in the nineteenth century? Why were they able to travel? A lot of artists had the opportunity to travel to the Middle East but why, because their governments had conquered the Middle East. How did African fashion first get to The Americas, through travel – slavery.
It’s really hard to depoliticize Steampunk fashion. Even when you try to do that using these metaphors you can’t ignore the historical context because it’s always there.
WF: Then here’s my question. It’s basically a given that Steampunk is derived from historical sources, at least to some degree, but it’s also something that reinterprets historical sources. What is your comment to the argument that some of the cultural appropriation that goes on is a reimagining or reinterpretation of a perhaps more egalitarian Victorian era, a post-apocalyptic scenario, or something that’s some sort of hybrid of the two? I think you could even extend it beyond non-western fashion to cultural items that are not of your original culture or experience.
DP: I’m not the fashion police. You can actually quote me on that: “I am not the fashion police.”
WF: Ok, I will quote you on that!
DP: I’m not the one to discourage people from using fashion from across cultures, particularly because I think culture itself is fluid and dynamic. In reference to the Vietnamese Steampunk I do, Vietnamese identity did not actually formulate until arguably the 1700s. Of course, there has always been a people who lived in the geographical area where Vietnam is but as a nation state, it has not always been “Yes! We are Vietnam!” even thought the history goes back two thousand years. Vietnamese culture itself has been influenced dynamically most obviously by the Chinese, also by the French, and in the 20th century by American culture as well. You can’t deny the power of cultural change, even if it happens in discomforting ways like war, colonialism or forced assimilation. What is important in acknowledging that is one, to acknowledge it, and two, when you make the fashion choices that you make realize that whatever storyline you have going on in your head is not the actual storyline that happened in our world. That’s why Steampunk is always a performance of identity. You can make the fashion choices that you want to make but realize that whatever is going on in your head is your imagining of it or your revisionism and that other people or other Steampunks are not mind readers. No one is a mind reader nowadays. You have to be able to talk about our modern problems and our historical problems in addition to your story. And that does not deny the other person who is listening the right to have their own opinion about your fashion choices. That’s kind of a long answer to that question but I hope it was clear.
WF: Long answers are fine because these are not easy questions. It’s not like “Where did you buy that fabric?”
My interpretation then, if I distill it down, is that nothing is verboten, but you have be willing to take responsibility for your choices and understand that your choices may not be interpreted by someone else the way you interpret them for yourself.
DP: Exactly. Steampunk is art and you’re making artistic choices. For every artistic choice you make you have to be able to take the responsibility for your art. That’s all there is to it. So that’s exactly what I meant.
WF: Well good! At least we understand each other.
In the next part of the interview, Ms. Frame and Ms. Pho discuss other trends in Steampunk fashion and disagree a bit more.
Attendees of Dragon*Con will have many opportunies to see Ms. Pho and her alter-ego, Ay-leen The Peacemaker, as she is a special guest of the Alternate History track. She recently posted her Dragon*Con schedule on her blog, Beyond Victoriana.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker (Diana M. Pho) is a fandom scholar, activist, blogger, and general rabble-rouser. She is a recent graduate from NYU University with a Master's in Performance Studies, where she focused on performance in the steampunk subculture. She has also traveled the country as a professional convention speaker about social justice issues. Her academic published work can be found in Steampunk Magazine: Issues #1 – 7 (Combustion Books, 2011) and in the academic anthologies Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style (SUNY Press, September 2012) and the upcoming Steaming into a Victorian Future (Scarecrow Press, November 2012).
Editrix de Mode and Part Time Lion Tamer, Wilhelmina Frame travels the globe in pursuit of adventure and style. When not in the circus ring with Rajah, her tiger and the rest of her “Kitten Kabal” (seven lions, three cheetahs and a rather droll panther), Ms. Frame can be seen at the most fabulous parties, in the latest fashions, sparkling with wit in conversation. Ms. Frame is the founder and Tiffin Master of The American Tea Duelling Society. Ms. Frame's alter-ego, Gretchen Jacobsen, is a freelance producer, award-winning costumer, prolific crafter and frequent convention panellist. She sings quite well also. Visit the home of The American Tea Duelling Society on Facebook, follow Ms. Frame on Pinterest or @ptliontamer on Twitter.