Ever since the first human, back in the mists of ancient history, wrapped a bit of dead animal, or a fig leaf of whatever it was around a damp or cold part of their anatomy, we’ve been wearing clothes. And I would bet you that somewhere after the first fig leaf, someone else looked upon it and thought ‘well, I see the utility here, but I want a bigger leaf!’
Body adornment is universal, although ideas of what is beautiful are not. Alongside what we wrap around our bodies, we modify our flesh with tattoos, scarification, stretching, cutting off. We hide some parts and reveal others. All of this is culturally constructed, with a heady balancing act of fitting in and standing out going on at the same time. We want to be noticed, but we don’t want to be so different that we are ‘other’, often.
One of the many reflections to come out of a weekend of Steampunkery is about how dreadfully banal modern attire is. I don’t always see it, because I’m used to seeing it. When you’ve had a weekend of extravagant hats, amazing dresses, fabulous waistcoats and the such, the average bod in the street looks very dull indeed.
Why is 21st century mainstream attire so incredibly bland, for the greater part?
Some, if not all of it, comes down to mass production. It is cheap and quick to mass produce clothing that is identical and near identical, and to have everyone wearing that. The more individual an item is, the more time, effort and therefore money has to go into it. Most people at a Steampunk weekend will either have lavished hours on their attire, or will have paid appropriately for someone else having lavished hours upon it. This isn’t cheap.
Cheap is a consideration if you are in a state of abject poverty (been there, had the t-shirts). However, we’ve been sold the idea that low cost, banal predictability is actually a good thing. We should want the cheap and the samey any time we can get it, such that if you go into a more expensive clothes retailer, you can still get the cheap and banal aesthetic. We don’t value difference or quality, and I wonder if we are the first period of human history where that’s been the case in terms of how we normally dress and adorn ourselves.
I enjoy difference. I enjoy variety, and the interest that comes when things are made with love and imagination. It’s as true of a lunch as it is of a dress. Of course that’s neither easy nor convenient, and we’ve also been sold the idea that easy and convenient are measures of ‘good’. Increasingly, I am questioning how we got here, and what it’s for, and how to do differently.