Failing the Basics

A failed comparison from the MTV website.

I had an outraged email from my friend and fellow researcher in fashion history, Emily, regarding this 2008 post on the MTV website. Their caption for the image above states: Thomas Gainsborough’s “Mrs.Charles Hatchett” exemplifies the Victorian style used by steampunkers today.

I’ll set aside my own rants and quote Em here, who says it all, really:

How does a GAINSBOROUGH portrait from 1786 exemplify VICTORIAN fashion used by steampunk. How?? How does it do this?

If ever evidence were needed of MTV idiocy… dear god, Thomas G is writhing in his grave. Not to mention Mrs Hatchett. And a whole host of Victorians who wouldn’t have been seen dead with such a peculiar hairstyle. Although it has curious affiliations with mullet perms of circa 1980 something…

Indeed. Furthermore the second photograph is NOT Steampunk! It is some glammed-up pseudo-18th century concoction of some couture stylist, and kind of interesting, but certainly not Steampunk. Now, I will refrain from an in-depth analysis of what Steampunk IS, but for those readers who may not know, a quick google will fix this, as will a quick trip to Also, I welcome great links in the comments below.

But I thought this worth mentioning here for two reasons. First, it shows the value of not just a basic education in art and fashion history, but in history in general (1786 = Victorian?!). Secondly, I am in fact very interested in these anachronistic interventions in contemporary fashion, and how this might be seen as a continuation of Artistic Dress. From the PhD conclusion:

Kambriel, 'Midnight Bustle Dress', 2005. Image from 'Gothic: Dark Glamour'

On 5 September 2008, the exhibition Gothic: Dark Glamour opened at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. Curated by fashion historian Valerie Steele, it was the first in-depth critical and historical analysis of ‘Goth’ fashion from subculture to a highly theatrical and artistic mode of dress and self-expression. The exhibition and accompanying text trace the ‘genealogy of the gothic sensibility’ over the past three centuries through various cultural phenomena, including the gothic novel, the Romantic and Decadent movements, Victorian mourning dress, German Expressionist cinema, the Hollywood horror film, and the development of the Goth music genre over the past 25 years.[1] In exploring the history of this alternative sartorial movement, Gothic: Dark Glamour reveals the critical influence of the Victorian era to Goth fashion, citing several sources of inspiration which were likewise influential to nineteenth century artistic practices: medieval art and architecture; d’Aurevilly’s and Baudelaire’s writings on fashion and Dandyism; the transition of costume (fancy dress) into couture; interest in exoticism; and, perhaps most notably, the English fashion for wearing black.

The non-normative perception of contemporary alternative fashion trends, such as those exhibited in Gothic: Dark Glamour, is not a new phenomenon, and in fact echoes the reception of Artistic Dress in the nineteenth century. This, coupled with the shared sources of inspiration, suggests the importance and relevance of Artistic Dress as a catalyst for an increasingly avant-garde mode of sartorial self-expression that continues into the present day.

I’m a big fan of Valerie Steele’s approach, and she will no doubt get many a mention on these pages. But for anyone interested in this subject, I highly recommend checking out the exhibit site, and the catalogue is fantastic. Particularly as she places the amazing couture of designers like McQueen (and let’s all take a minute to swoon over their Autumn/Winter 2012 Collection, an example is below) with the likes of Indie/goth designers like Kambriel (image above), who has, all on her own internet-based savvy, earned loyal clients like Neil Gaiman and (quintessential Steampunk) Amanda Palmer–and who, it should be noted, makes excellent Steampunk ensembles. I remember chatting with Kambriel several years ago on LiveJournal, and she is a lovely and talented woman – I’m glad she is doing so well!

I just thought this was an interesting tidbit, and worth sharing and thinking about these two examples of people getting it completely wrong, and very right. And I hope whoever wrote that nonsense at MTV has long been dismissed.

Alexander McQueen, Gown from the Pre-Autumn/Winter 2012 Collection.

[1] Valerie Steele, Gothic: Dark Glamour (Yale University Press, 2008).

Author: Robyne Calvert

Cultural Historian... art, design, architecture, fashion, etc.

2 thoughts on “Failing the Basics”

  1. Love this, and don’t get me started on fashiony people labelling anything and everything vaguely Hammer Horror as ‘Victorian’.


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