Snibston Discovery Museum, Coalville, Northwest Leicestershire, is an eclectic mix of science and technology activities, steam engines and beam engines (both built by Gimson and Co. Leicester), transport and a fashion gallery. In some ways, the fashion gallery sits a little uneasily with the rest of the exhibits at Snibston, it isn’t that obvious why the gallery is here, rather than at another museum.
The fashion gallery was the main reason for my visit. Containing corsets and underwear from the Symington Collection, it was of interest for two reasons – its links to Harborough Museum where I have worked on the collections, and the influences on and links to Steampunk, one of my research areas. Within the gallery, there are fine examples of corsets over a range of time, which show the development in styles and corresponding effect on women’s bodies in terms of how they should look and what the corsets were doing to them physically and medically. These objects are part not only of our fashion and textile history, but also our social history and technological history. They demonstrate developments in textiles, pigments and dyes, the types of stiffening materials – whale bone, steel, etc. – all of which show the other types of industries involved in the production of women’s clothing and the moral implications of some of these activities. They also provide evidence of the more obvious changes in how women were supposed to look, be it high or low waists, wasp waists, and associated accoutrements such as bustles, which themselves grew larger or smaller, higher or lower, depending on the fashion in a particular season or year.
The influences of historical corsets on Steampunks are clear, in terms of inspiration for clothes. The interesting thing is how Steampunks take the basic notion of a corset and subvert it for their own purposes. The corset is to be seen, it is no longer a foundation garment, but a statement of fashion and identity. The type of corset you wear as a female Steampunk not only influences how you will be seen, but also the type of Steampunk you are, be it explorer, inventor etc. Playing with identity is an important aspect of being a Steampunk and so, just as there is cross dressing across genders and classes, so there are cross influences across types of identity; no style is definitive, mash-up is encouraged.
Steampunk corsets can be an adaptation rather than a faithful representation of a Victorian piece of clothing – there may be shoulder straps attached, which is not the case with traditional corsets. Traditional corsets sometimes included lace and ribbons, and Steampunk corsets may do so as well, but the addition of other objects is not unknown; for example, embroidered cogs and gears, or metal ones, a fob watch slung from the buttons and, in the case of author Gail Carriger‘s dress – spoons (for an image, see The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer with S. J. Chambers). Customisation and adaptation is encouraged in Steampunk, which helps to define identity. This does not mean that the corsets are not authentic. Their authenticity comes from the underlying influences on the culture and adherence to a Steampunk aesthetic, but perhaps more importantly Steampunk ethos. The corsets meet the ‘rules’ of Victorian, technological and do-it-yourself influences. They are not meant to be copies of Victorian corsets, they are meant to be authentic representations of a culture and individual identities.