The Crossroads of the Aether
This topic came up in a discussion with a few members of the Steampunk Society of Nebraska. We were debating about whether or not jeans fit into the steampunk genre. They do fit the time period - Levi Strauss was making and selling jeans in the 1870's. However, my feelings are that as a culture and society, we automatically equate jeans with modern times: for Americans, jeans are a ubiquitous part of our general wardrobe. It seems like anyone who is going for a steampunk look would make the whole effect jarring and dissonant by wearing jeans, even if the jeans were appropriate for the persona (say the person was dressing up as a California gold prospector).
Any thoughts? I'm interested to hear what people have to say.
I would say that it depends on the look you are going for. If you going for a mechanic or working-man look, blue jeans could be just what you are looking for. Adding accessories to your blue jeans can really make a difference; a leather holster or fancy belt can really do a lot for an outfit. Or you can add a pair of knee-high boots. I would say that it should be persona-specific and the color, cut and style of the blue jeans would make a big difference as well. While they would probably not be my first choice for an outfit, I think there are plenty of people here who can rock some steampunk jeans.
I would say they are very appropriate for a workman / engineer impression. However look at the jeans...
Skinny jeans however would not but loose fitting ones or a bib overall would I believe just fine. We have a engineer who wears her bib overalls and looks fine.... I think its a use your best judgement... no bedazzled , stretch, skinny jeans..
I think it might even work for a coal shoveler or airship pirate lackey. Not bright blue ones obviously.
Jeans are made from a fabric called denim, they were generally brown and the blue color comes much later. Some jeans were made of canvas rather than denim. The blue color originally came from indigo, which was a labor-intensive to produce. Later synthetic blue became available in the 1890s – Prussian blue, which was more color fast and less expensive to produce.
As a side note, I don’t think jeans were blue until the 1880s and they were considered “sodbuster pants” and eschewed by cowboys until the early 1920s when they came into vogue. So the answer is jeans and jean cloth are acceptable, but you probably want brown rather than blue. There are some excellent brown workers overalls available, which would work quite well for working class steampunk impressions. Civil war reenactors can tell you that jean cloth is very period and below are some links.
Even though blue jeans were definitely worn in the 19th century (history does not necessarily equal SP) they just do not seem very SP for most outfits. A miner might wearing 501s might work well. Perfectly suited to CAS shooting though.
My only concern about wearing jeans, the blue variety, is that outside of a specific character who would wear them, I think them a bit lazy in Victorian costuming in general. I am not referring to those playing laborers, miners and the like. Put it into the idea of wearing sneakers with a half-decent costume -- the modern sneakers just ruin the illusion. I have seen it at too many conventions, sorry to say. They didn't even try to put on a pair of used dress shoes or brown work shoes. I generally don't sweat the small stuff, especially with folks starting out costuming, but an utter lack of effort does blemish the attempt. Jeans are fine, if used correctly and not as a shortcut.
One of the things I've read is that period trousers have a higher cut waist than modern ones, so you want to avoid low cut jeans. Another way to make them look more authentic is to wear suspenders/braces instead of a belt.
Of course, the hard core historian might still point out the anachronisms, but I think it will be overlooked by the casual observer, especially if it fits in with the rest of the persona.
I'm glad you mentioned the issue, Prof MacGregor. Pants were cut much higher because of the perceived vulnerability of the abdomen to colds. The rise of the waist line come up to the bottom of the ribs, making for the “high pants look” that was around for a long time. The Victorians believed that the liver and other abdominal organs might suffer with either cold, or in tropical areas, a chill from a sweat. They had a mental illness about “catching a chill”. Well that and “brain fever”, whatever the heck that was.
Generally pants were cut with a much higher rise than we have now. Because integral belt loops were not around, men either had tailored pants that fit snugly at the waist or had suspenders (galluses) to keep pants in place. The waist coat was cut shorter than now because the rise of the pants was not so high. By the way, another common error of costumers of the Victorian era is having creases on the fronts of the pants. That indicated the pants were “off the rack” a sure sign of poverty or lack of breeding. A man who could afford it had his pants custom tailored. The other problem is belt loops, which did not exist until quite late. The last is pants cuffs, which showed the pants were not custom tailored therefore taboo to the well dressed man.
You can work around most of these problems by cutting off belt loops and using suspenders, but they can also be hidden by the vest if it is cut low enough. The same for the rise of the pants – vests hide a lot. An easy fix is to get rid of cuffs by tailoring them inside, where they belong. Don’t iron in a crease in the pants and lastly zippers didn’t exist until the turn of the century, they used buttons. But that is not a big deal since (hopefully) the zipper is not seen by the public. You can easily modify dress pants to look pretty close to Victorian pants. Mind you this is general in character.
That is to say, outside of worker's jean pants (both demin and duck canvas types) and a few rare exceptions before the 1890s at the very earliest men's pants simply didn't have belt loops. They begin showing up in the very late 1890s, but until about 1905 or so, they simply were scarce. The U.S. army, for example, didn't have pants with belt loops until 1904 or so. It's not a big deal for steampunk, being a alternate history, with a springboard startpoint with the Victorian era.
Wahmaker, Frontier Classics, Crazy Crow, and other companies make 19th century cut pants but they are a little more pricey than most blue jeans unless you haunt Ebay. Of these makers I am happiest with my Wahmaker pants. They are tough and comfortable.
This is a pretty fair conversion job for modern blue jeans.
Accessories really are key aren't they?! Those brown canvas pants look great with the braces, but I love the waist coat idea. I have modern (but thrifted) brown jeans that I think are very steampunk, for everyday wear, with a white shirt and waistcoat. 80s jeans are high waisted, but it's hard to find them not acid washed - maybe they could be dyed? The button fly really does look different, more layers or something, and I thnk it's worth it if you are tucking in a top and using braces.
As to sneakers, apparently converse were made from about 1908, so they may fit in too!