The Politics of Fashion Continued, Part Two of SPC's Interview with Diana Pho aka Ay-Leen the Peacemaker << Prev Next >>
Editrix de Mode, Wilhelmina Frame presents the long awaited second part of her interview with Diana...
By wilhelminaframe on Nov 13 2012 Category:Fashion, Clothing, Steamlife
Editrix de Mode, Wilhelmina Frame spoke with Diana Pho aka Ay-Leen the Peacemaker. Their discussion of Steampunk in relation to fashion, ethics and poiltics continues in the second installment of the two part interview.
Wilhelmina Frame: What do you like about Steampunk fashion? What are you seeing that you find intriguing both aesthetically and politically?
Diana Pho: Aesthetically, I’ve always appreciated fashion from the nineteenth century. As a personal style I’m more of a Regency person and Edwardian person as opposed to a strict Victorianist. If you look at my outfits they’ve been drawn from the Reform Dress Movement or the Edwardian period or even before that. I’m a really big Bronte fan. I used to wish I could just run around the moors all the time. So I have a genuine appreciation of the styles of that time period. I also like the sense of play that comes with imaginative fashion possibilities. I like incorporating the ao dai, the Vietnamese gown that I wear. I put the corset over it because actually, after the French influence in the early 20th century, Vietnamese ao dai did become slimmer and more tailored to the body in a way that required women to wear corsets. It’s actually relevant! Or having the waistcoat or cropped vest to wear over it or changing the pants to have a modern or punk style. If you look at actual ao dai pants, they’re ridiculously huge. I’m into more of the punk in my wardrobe so I’m into mixing leather and lace, chains and safety pins. Safety pins actually are a Victorian invention.
WF: Or the much maligned zipper.
DP: Yes. So why not?
I’m also interested in how other people choose to express themselves. I can be critical of it but I’m still interested in what people are doing. I remember going to Nova Albion with Jaymee Goh, we were both guests, and that year they were doing the Wild Wild East as their theme. We were walking around seeing all these interpretations of the Orient done by white people, that has some good and some bad characteristics to it. Jaymee is very blatant about saying “Oh this is horrible because it takes all these Orientalist tropes and throws them together. Or this is OK because they can tell a story with their outfit.” For me it’s hard to judge because in some cases, as performance artists, I can see how some outfits were purposefully made to be art objects, some were made to be character outfits. I guess I give more leeway if I interpret something as an art object versus as a character outfit. I thought the whole experience was very interesting.
WF: That goes back to your concept about “The Traveler”. It seems to be a double-edged sword. It’s both a way to use that kind of imagery but at the same time it’s a copout.
DP: That’s how people can interpret the term “Traveler”, as the copout. I think in a lot of cases I have seen that. There’s a difference between someone who wears a Mandarin button shirt because he’s a traveler and he’s travelling through China as opposed to someone in very badly done Geisha makeup. They’re not trying to be a traveler and they’re not trying to be an art object either. I mean being Geisha is supposed to be a form of art, but their trying to be a character. That’s why it becomes questionable because your character has now become a stereotype of what you interpret to be an art form. Those lines can get very gray and subjective.
WF: Doesn’t part of the subjectivity become a question of execution?
DP: Not necessarily. For instance, I’m not saying for people who are doing Geisha face, that it’s all about how well you apply the makeup. There is a difference between performing a stereotype, even if you do it rather well; it’s still a stereotype. You can’t deny that.
WF: That brings up to me the whole Victorian concept of Orientalism, which was an art concept, a popular fashion concept, and a fascination that was held in the Victorian period especially in England but in Europe in general. Orientalism as I interpret it now, and this is my own personal interpretation, goes back to the concept of “The Other”. It has no foundation in reality. In Steampunk, if people are using that, but not being “travelers”, and they’re not trying to present an accurate viewpoint of a certain culture at that time -- but they are referencing the historical aesthetics of Orientalism -- how do you feel about that?
DP: (Laughs) Sorry, I’m laughing because you just asked a very long version of “Is this offensive if I do X, Y or Z?”
WF: OK. Call a spade a spade. To some degree, that is the crux of the question. It is a historical thing. You can go to museums. You can look at art that presents a certain kind of vision, viewpoint, and inaccuracy, that when you break it down is political. But it’s also an artistic and aesthetic movement of that era. How do you reconcile that?
DP: By reconciling its history. I’m not saying we should ban an entire school of art but we should recognize that this is how this school of art was created. What’s fascinating about Victorientalism is that there was a political dynamic that happening in order for the school to occur. People travelled because they were privileged. They happened to be the European conquerors that travelled there.
WF But it could also be technology as well.
DP: But the Orientalist school of art as a whole is not rooted in fantasy. It’s rooted in observations of people who are not from these places. It’s their interpretation of those places. I’m not saying all Orientalist artists are bad. Some are really bad, some are OK and some are really respectful. Not everyone who travelled there was an imperialist even if the reason they could travel was imperialism. That’s like Steampunk in a nutshell. You can have good interpretations, bad interpretations or OK interpretations of this other world. There isn’t a black or white answer of what’s right or wrong; what’s appropriate or inappropriate, always. There are definitely some that are a lot easier. Blackface? Yeah, you can’t really justify blackface in Steampunk, I’m sorry.
WF: I don’t think you can justify it any place.
DP: It all comes down to the ethics of art. People are art makers. They have to learn to reconcile themselves. What are my ethics in relating my art to other people?
While we think it’s all about self-expression, art is also about the expression of the moment and the conversation that you want to have with other people. What do you want to say to someone who looks at your art? I think that’s the most important thing to remember. I remember when I was six years old I went on my first field trip ever. We went specifically to see to Monet’s Waterlilies. There was a whole exhibit and I remember sitting in front of his absolutely gorgeous portrait of his wife called La Japonaise. It’s basically his wife, who’s a redhead in this kimono gown with a giant samurai guy emblazed on the tail end. Japanese fans plastered on the wall as the background. I remember thinking that she was absolutely gorgeous and how I wished I could get away with dressing like that in school. So when someone looks at your art it could be the most terrible stereotypical thing in some senses but it could be strangely empowering or provoking interest in other ways that you would never expect. That is one of my favorite paintings by Monet still because it gave me the impression as a little girl that people could look at clothes that weren’t jeans and t-shirts, and think they are gorgeous and be happy about it. That was an empowering moment for me in my own personal cultural identity.
WF: I’m seeing that there’s an interesting conflict between the audience and the artist goes on in Steampunk. The audience being whom you interact with when you’re “in” Steampunk or at a Steampunk event and the artist represented by the mythology you create for yourself when you participate. It’s kind of the universal art an observer give and take that occurs.
DP: I also add that as much as this is an argument about the ethics of art, the ethics of art do not exist in a vacuum. It’s always about how we move ourselves in the world at large. In today’s technological age, your image can be circulated, transformed and reinterpreted by the rest of world in a matter of seconds. That is also something people should keep in mind when they make the choices that they make.
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) and Steaming into a Victorian Future (Scarecrow Press, November 2012). She is also scheduled to appear at TempleCon 2013 in Rhode Island in February and Steampunk at Gettysburg in March 2013.
Photo credits: Anna Fischer http://www.anna-fischer.com/ and Phillip Ng http://www.knightmare6.com/
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 panelist. 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.