Saturday, September 18, 2010

Asian Inspired Steampunk-Where the East Meets West

Genghis & Stephanie (of brass Apple) and V Adm. Narasimhan

This section will cover many different links, sites, and views, but naturally my own primarily.  It should be noted here that some people try to overlay the term Victorian to all things Steampunk, which of course is inaccurate and very Anglo-centric, but is a sometimes useful and well recognized term for describing the century where Britain's colonial expansion was a major part of world events.  Some people call Eastern fabric or clothing style inspired Steampunk ensembles  "Victoriental".  While this is a clever and catchy sounding turn of a phrase, it offends some people, who sometimes interpret this as Anglo people playing disrespectfully or even making fun of traditional Asian ancestral designs.  This is certainly not the case with us, (or with anyone I know) as Radha was raised in East Indian Culture from birth and I have been so fully assimilated into East Indian culture that I teach traditional Yogic practices and philosophy at a local Traditional Ekta Mandir Hindu Temple these days.

V. Adm. Radha Narasimhan and our friend Larry Amyett (of N. Tx Dieselpunks) 

East Indian attire is Radha's traditional (and favorite) style of clothing, so we have a walk-in closet, an armoire, and many other locations and closets full of it, minus the steampunk accoutrement, naturally.  Asian inspired or actual Asian clothing based Steam punk outfits may be just fashion taste, or they may directly derive from events occurring in the storyline of the wearer's steampunk persona, as is the case with us.  Actually they both apply in our case as East Indian clothing is a lot of what we own and wear normally, but also it directly applies to the story line our Acting troupe Kali's Houglass writes about and often portrays in one act plays. (These plays are often comedies that make fun of the arrogance of European imperialists, of ourselves, or even of narrow minded views that sometimes come up (oh say it isn't so!!!) in our own beloved Steampuk community.

We strongly recommend use of East Indian attire, if you aren't already very familiar with the culture involved, because Bollywood (the East Indian version of Hollywood) produces 4 times as many films as the US every year that very intentionally mix and match traditional clothing, fabrics, and dance with those of other cultures for entertainment purposes.  As a result, you are unlikely to offend with East Indian Steampunk, so long as you aren't foolish enough to choose to portray some type of submissive servant character or a prostitute type character.  Those can be a bad idea regardless of the culture you choose to draw from especially if it is not your own.  Japanese, Chinese, and Southeast Asian cultures are not yet so accustomed to blending of the traditional with modern and western clothing styles for playful purposes, so I really do urge caution and that you study the culture first.  Preferably ask for advice about cosplay with any traditional designs in them first.
Below is one of the few designs we have worked with related to Japanese traditional attire, but using only a very casual garment.

Below I'm wearing a Japanese print that is not a Hakama, but is sewn to approximate the traditional clothing of a Japanese Samurai.  I am acutely aware of the fact that some people consider this sort of thing cultural theft rather than what we really intend.  We have the highest possible regard for Japanese culture, traditions, and philosophies.  I also have more than a few past life memories from there and pick up Japanese language unusually quickly, probably for the same reason.  The fact remains that I do not know enough to sew traditional Japanese clothing the traditional way, so approximations and western designs with Japanese patterns must suffice for now.

Even with Indian attire, I would suggest avoiding use of deity images in cosplay, especially if the outfit is flirtatious or very revealing, but small religious symbols worked into the fabric design may be impossible to avoid.  One religious symbol often found in their fabrics you may want to avoid is the very sacred Swastika, used for thousands of years in Aisian and Native American cultures as a symbol of protection from evil, but clearly now associated with a great source of evil due to one of the worst examples of inappropriate cultural appropriation ever seen by the Nazi regime in WWII. Indian people might be somewhat sensitive about this symbol if it isn't used in a "good way" and others may react badly for other reasons and not even realize it is still a very positive religious symbol in the East.

In our fictional story line about the Covenant of the Kraken, during the "Victorian Era" we are mostly avoiding the Americas as our flagship is actually now a national icon there as the USS Constitution.  We didn't actually pirate the vessel, but came by it honestly when it went through a time portal in the Bermuda Triangle and found we had no country to serve back in the late 1400s.  In the story we spend much of the Victorian era very involved giving the English a black eye during the Opium Wars in the seas around China.  Why does this matter you might ask?  Steampunk was originally a genre of science fiction set in the past, and as such, even our costuming is about creative art designed to act out just such fiction.  Without the fictional back story, it becomes just a fashion trend, which it certainly is not with us!

My character is based on a real life ancestor who came to the Americas around the time of the Great Potato famine in Ireland and would likely have had a life long hatred of the English, or at least their ruling class.  (Actually almost every modern English citizen I know now I really like, so keep in mind this applies only to the ruling class of the 1800s)  As such we sail about looking for the biggst bully on the block, especially if they are English, and sign on as privateers with their strongest underdog enemies for both fun and profit.  We tend to prevail through clever approaches, exploiting incompetent enemy commanders, and our technological advantages such as modern research encyclopedias on the finest weapons and tactics of the 20th century.  We draw ideas from to use in earlier times and a few impossible elements to keep the 1700s era Kali's Hourglass still formidable when facing superior ships -rather like fighting "the Flying Dutchman (Mwa ha ha ha ha)  This makes for an interesting variation in the typical Steampunk fiction fare, rather like the Imperial Anti-piracy League that sprang up in response to all the Steampunk Airship Pirate groups.

Naturally true Victorian European attire would not be the best thing for our characters to wear when meeting with representatives of the Imperial Chinese Government, whose flag our privateers are flying, while currently working under alongside the largest group of pirates ever assembled under (true history, not made up characters) "the 7 pirate Lords of China" lead by a woman, no less, who controls over 400 (some say 800) ships at their command.  That, along with the fact that we own more Asian attire, than any other type already, causes us to wear a fair bit of it at times in, under, or over other more western items that are part of various Steampunk Ensembles.  Even when we go out dancing, we try to wear at least a stripped down (and cooler temperature wise) version of one of our cultural ancestors or another with Steampunk accents. That could mean a Kilt, a Kurta, or many other things.

When wearing Eastern Steampunk attire, I may be wearing anything ranging from Japanese pants with a sleeveless long buckled vest (mixing east with west) to Indian Kurtas with a "dhoti" (like worn by Mahatma Ghandi) and lots of weapons. I would consider dressing like the East India Company Sepoys (Indian Nationals that made up most of their soldiers) except that the East India Company is who I am usually fighting against. We often have revolutionary (we say freedom fighter you say mutineer-so what?) Sepoys fighting them with us, but even they would reject wearing a uniform distinguishing them as the "black dogs" of the English Army as their racists masters so lovingly liked to address them. I am working on incorporating more Chinese attire, but with a closet full of traditional Indian clothing, why work too hard on that?

 (The fabric in the above photo is hard to see here, but is a beautiful print of Japanese ladies, but I don't claim to be expert enough to say anything more for certain about the print.)

I actually have more affinity with Japanese attire than Chinese, but can't remember my lives in Japan well enough to tell you why. Oh well. We will probably work our way over to Japan eventually, but for now, our fleet is happily beating up the British Shipping, stealing, er uh, I mean, confiscating/liberating their cargoes of silk, dyes, spices, gold etc, keeping any decently fast ships and sinking or selling the rest.


Life with the last Emporer hidden away in the forbidden city is kind of strange, but interesting. We never really know if they are going to reward us or threaten to kill us for failure to bow low enough, so we tend to meet their representatives on board our own vessels with plenty of help nearby. For now though, the emperor agreed to graciously permit us to keep Hong Kong permanently in trade for killing all the English we find there. What a deal? What a great guy! He can't hardly get anyone near the place, other than pirates, which are the bulk of real fighting ships in China right now, but he actually considered that a great offer. We accepted of course as we will need as many island nations as possible in the later centuries when privateers go out of style and we will need our own nation of islands (rather like Oceania or Polynesia today) to help us claim the right to keep a standing modern navy without absolute surrender to outside powers. (Have fun and stay strange out there!!! Day to day normal can be poisonously boring!)

 Below is an example of an Asian fabric inspired dress uniform Vice Admiral Narasimha that was made for acting roles where she is portraying an East Indian Gypsy Pirate that often has meetings with the 7 Pirate Lords (real historical figures that formed a Chinese pirate alliance of over 400 ships) or with state officials during our involvement with the Opiums Wars against The East India Company.

The pattern here is the imperial 5 toed dragon of China.  Yes we know we would not have been allowed to wear that in China at the time, but the fabric was so wonderful, we added a side note to our back stories about our son being engaged to one of the Emperor's hundreds of daughters, as a boon in return for capturing and killing the slayers of their last real imperial dragon (OK that's a story for another time) , so that we would be allowed to wear this fabric and use the dragon scale armor we sometimes wear which normally is permitted only to the royal family.

Here  is an example of myself in an Indian Kurta, but with the scarf worn pirate style and the rest Steampunk Style designed to scare anyone I encounter while boarding an English "East Indiaman Merchant Ship".

Below is another excellent ensemble made in a more European style using East Indian Silk Brocade fabric with leather straps and brass buckels (very hard to engineer on such delicate fabric!)  She sometimes wears it Steampunk style with a corset, goggles, gadgets, skeleton keys, etc..

I will add to this over time, but I hope this gives you a few ideas about ways to share your love of the East in a Steampunk ensemble in a manner that respects the culture you so admire.

Take a look at the websites of some of our friends that often use variations of Asian Inspired Steampunk for more examples of a good approach.

1 comment:

  1. I love the costuming! I am fairly new to the steampunk genre but I'm really enjoying the passion and the love. I have often wondered about other cultures and how they are viewed through the goggles of many of the steampunk enthusiasts, so it's nice to see asian-inspired costuming. Thanks for posting this. :)

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