Sometimes I Have Skin Trouble: Steampunk Edition

So, I love steampunk.

I love Victorian-inspired clothing to start with - the lush lace, the splurge-driven dresses, the elegant waistcoats, the delicate act of removing gloves, finger by finger, the corsets, the hats and feathers and veils. The wife of a photographer I shot with once showed me a coat made in that era - thick (broadcloth?) fabric handsewn and still looking none the worse for wear, with extra material at the small of the back for the bustle.

The problem with steampunk, though, is that it's pretty much white territory. I read Girl Genius, which in itself is a fabulous comic, and as much as I enjoy the sleek mecha of Robotech and Evangelion, the clunky robots, steam-powered with levers all over the cockpit, attract me more. The problem with Girl Genius is, although it does quite well on the PoC front, there are no real representative Asian characters (except for one doctor and his granddaughter). The only person in the comic with actual yellow skin that matches my own is Zeetha, who has green hair and belongs to a country that is unidentifiable from maps of our own.

My thoughts were crystallized further by Ay-Leen the Peacemaker's Carnival of Asian Woman entry:

... I realized something that made me sad about this cool, geeky subculture that I’m so eager to participate in: The steampunk movement romanticizes a time period where imperialist and racist attitudes prevailed and many people were oppressed as a result of them. When Queen Victorian sat upon her throne, a lot of other Western powers were doing not nice things to people in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa and the Western US, and now, a over hundred years later, people want to live in that time period again, or at least use it as creative inspiration.

I grew up in Malaysia, which was colonized by the British until the 50s when they finally let us go. (And we had to be invaded by the Japanese first. See, the Brits had really convinced us Malayans that we needed their protection, and the ruling classes let them do as they pleased - look, they had fucking guns, okay? - and then the Japanese came in and kicked their asses, and we realized we, too, could have our own fucking country and not have the British there.) Despite Independence, the influence of British culture remains - it is desirable to go do our A-Levels (based on Cambridge A-Levels) after high school. (Form 6 has gained ground as a cheaper, local alternative.) Many of us still think going to the U.K. is desirable. Many of my generation and class (middle-class, particularly non-Malay) speak English better than we speak the national language (Malay) or mother tongue (Chinese in my case). When I was in school, Malaysian history was sooooo much more boring than world history (which focused mainly on Europe, with whole chapters dedicated to the English and French Revolutions.

(Personally, I liked reading about Malaysian history, particularly the whole bit about WW II, but that was because my grandfather was involved. I found his logbook.)

Anyways. So, steampunk. A punk genre I could get into. I like the Victorian aesthetic. It pleases me. I never really liked the goth style, nor the general punk with the leather and the spikes and giant stompy boots. I like industrial music, but my fashion style leant towards the British mod (which appears to be purely male territory. I couldn't find anything on what female mod fashion was like. Perhaps I was looking into the wrong crevices of the Interwebz). Steampunk, though? Frills and lace? Totally. Let me at it.

The most recently Masq event (held by those who enjoy industrial music but there isn't really a singular venue for that kind of music) was steampunk-themed, and I had to go to see who participated, what they did. And it was, indeed, awesome. Couple of live bands, fire-eating performance, good industrial music, dance floor which wasn't too crowded.

I was also, very clearly, the only PoC in the entire room.

While I looked into the mirror and saw me dressed up fab, I wondered just how much I was buying into the Brit-is-better way of thinking that my own people must have thought during the era, how much I was giving in to imperialism, and what people in Asia were wearing at the time that they were referred to as "Orientals". Couldn't I also wear those kinds of clothes and be called steampunk? Steampunk is also about the tech, the revisionist histories, the ideas.

The Chinese were way ahead of the English Victorians in a ton of things - we'd previously discovered gunpowder, and our ships could move pretty fucking faster than their ships. We were torturing folks by putting them on giant kites and flying them up into the air. If they didn't die from fright, they died of starvation (yes, we, too, had our evil overlords). (I read a story, as a child, of a Chinese prince who stole a shiny jewel from a dragon by using a kite to fly up to the mountain where the dragon lived, stole the jewel, and tugged the rope of the kite to tell his men to pull him back to the ship.)

Can I wear the Victorian aesthetic without giving up my clearly-visible Asian identity? And if I did, would I be commodifying the aesthetic, since I could simply buy Victorian-looking stuff and clockwork gears, and what problems does commodification have?

The problem, of course, with going to Asian fashion during the Victorian era in steampunk is that I end up wearing clearly "Oriental" stuff, which also ends up stereotyping myself as "Asian". Wow, I can't win!

Obviously, I need to see what my other Asian peers are doing within the steampunk movement. The problem with my circumstances is that, while quite blissfully content, I'm not exactly surrounded by the people who share where I'm coming from.

It sucks being the only Asian in a whole roomful of steampunkers. =/


  1. While I certainly can't help you with being the only asian in a room full of steampunks (being white and not in your area), it is something I've grappled with a bit. I know that at least some steampunk communities online have also grappled with it also (people saying: "hey, this seems cool, but why is it all 20something, 30something white people dressing like aristocrats?") and I know that there are SOME representations of PoC (and children, and middle aged adults) out there in steam punk, but yeah it's pretty much the minority.

    Personally, my bent when I started looking into it (I haven't followed up really at all), was that I wanted to do working class engineer type stuff. The idea of wanting to be aristocracy from such a horrible time for race and class relations squicks me out. (Not to mention that I'd probably look terrible in a top hat). I suppose that's one reason I like Girl Genius (though, I hadn't really noticed the total whiteness of everyone... *le sigh*) is that Agatha isn't walking around in over the top dresses, even if she soon will be Queen High Mighty.

    I wish you luck in finding a community where you don't feel like an out-lier.

  2. Replace steampunk with burlesque and yellow with brown and you have my issue. I like the scene because (a) I love the corset/red&black/saloon girl aesthetic and (b) the people are really friendly and open. However, I am often one of the only non-Anglo-Saxon people in the room, and like you I quibble between wearing "white girl's clothing" and looking like a stereotype. sigh!

  3. GG being an Eurocentric comic, I would expect it to have done a whole lot worse on the PoC front. But there're a lot of really awesome PoC - Rivet, for example, I didn't realize was a woman until I'd read the comic TWICE (same with Jenka, but I'll talk about this another day). Dr. Sun isn't drawn nor written like a stereotypical Fu-Manchu type, although he could have bee. Embi has what is possibly the most KILLER line on Orientalism in a work of fiction I've ever seen:

    "I travel these savage lands in search of the rare and exotic!"
    "Europe? Savage? Exotic? I never thought of us as uncivilized..."
    "You know, that's what I always used to say to visitors to MY land!"

    My other problem with being a steampunker is that I do so want to have all sorts of cool gear but I have neither the money nor the means to! I would so love to be the adventurer type, but ah well. I did, however, get to dress up and model as a mad scientist during a shoot last Halloween. One of the other models loaned me a wicked pair of goggles for it.

  4. Tiara: And ain't that the truth! The burlesque scene here is also extremely similar - white, slender chicks, and I'm usually the only WoC in sight. I did meet one burlesquer who drew her inspiration from Josephine Baker, a black dancer most famous for her banana outfit. She was white, of course, but still, it was nice to know she saw value in a WoC's act.

  5. Honey, most of us in the steampunking 'community' certainly have no desire to return to the mental landscape of the time.

    The 'white aristocracy' look so prevalent at the moment is more a statement of what people have been able to get their hands on and mod up so far i think. (tis easier to build that kind of outfit around a corset & long skirt that you already own than an indian/chinese/malay/islander-esque outfit) Also, a lot of the established Steampunk crews that you probably found images of are in temperate/cold climates, therefore their costumes reflect that in that the victorian layering of garments is a lot easier to work with in that kind of climate. When our crew were trying to figure how to Steampunk in a tropical environment, indian, chinese and other sub-tropic cultural ideas were right up there on the list of possiblities to wear.

    We are only enjoying the visuals and frippery of the victorian time. (Any excuse for corserty, petticoats and fun!)

    Also, some of us worry about insulting people of different backgrounds by using aspects of their national dress-codes in our costumery fun. I must admit, that when i wear one of my salwar kameez out and about, i cop more comments and grief from Indian-backgrounded people than i do from anyone else. Some are positive, but a lot question me really hard as to why i am wearing 'their clothes'.

    Most of the international crews that i am in contact with include people from all sorts of backgrounds. Some of the Asian-based peoples on Deviant Art are starting to discover the trend and really get into modding it to their own styles and culture. So far we have seen, steampunk versions of arabesque travellers with magic carpets, asian ladies with deadly fans and martial arts kick-arsery, an amber princess who steamed up a cheong sam outfit and did a damn fine job of representing the malay/indochinese theme, just for example.

    Our very own steampunk crew includes everything from aristocrasy to the lowest of the greasemonkeys.... And we fail to care what racial background anyone is from. We have simply not have much interest from any PoC.

    I personally think that more PoC will step up and be noticed in the Steampunk community as and when they are interested in it. Most steampunkers believe more in equality than anything like the colonial british mindset of the time. We "white" steampunkers certainly have nothing against anyone of different background or race.

    In fact, take it as a priveledge, to be able to do something really different with your steampunk ideas. Don't get trapped into the 'has to look like british aristocracy' mindset and really stretch the creative concept itself! :)

    It is called SteamPUNK after all.... doesn't that itself encourage one to branch out and do it your own way?

  6. feybles: Thanks for your input. Certainly I do see the "punk" bit of the genre! (Which is a reason why I was attracted to it, yes, any excuse to wear corsets and lace!) My problem isn't with the steampunk community so much as it is questioning my motives and options when creating costumes and participating in it. The only problem with the steampunk community here is that there are no PoC I can bounce ideas off on! (Which is no one's fault.)

    Thanks for sharing what you've seen - it's certainly encouraging when I see other people have taken note of what PoC steampunkers have gone through already!

  7. Jha'Meia, this is exactly the point I made at Steam Powered in the fall of 2008 in my presentation on Captain Nemo as an excellent exemplar of the steampunk hero. Not only is he anti-colonial (as most good steampunk is), but he is a Person of Color. And the British Raj was historically the setting for one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) rebellions in Colonial history. In my mind, it actually follows that the best locales for steampunk heroes and heroines to be from would be places where insurrection against colonial oppression could occur, ergo People of Color are effectively more steampunk than us caucasians. As for orientalism, I think it would be very "punk" to include ethnic elements in the costuming of your steampunk wardrobe. Check out Legion Fantastique's website - they're a Jules Verne improv group in the San Fran area, and the woman who plays Lady Iouda is a great example of a WoC who is working out that whole steampunk business in spades.


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