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Subculture Clothes Versus Workaday Wardrobe

Alice Marks of the Twin Cities

A lovely goth par excellence, getting ready for a night out. Photo courtesy John Morson.

Lots of my friends have two separate wardrobes. There’s the clothes they wear every day – to work, to school, to the supermarket. And then there’s the clothes they wear when they’re participating in subculture activities – dance evenings and productions, goth club nights, medieval or retro immersion weekends, live role-playing games, science-fiction and steampunk conventions. So this post strings together some thoughts and inspiration on the topic.

It’s challenging to afford two wardrobes. Subculture clothing sellers often charge a premium because they are custom-making, or dealing with small manufacturing runs. And don’t we WANT to support our subculture vendors?  Often, in New Zealand, we make the clothes ourselves. Even this isn’t a cost-saver if your houppelande requires 7 meters of fine wool or velvet – the result is that you’re spending both money AND time.

When you are investing in a subculture look, it’s easy to get heedless about workaday clothes. It’s hard for me to get psyched about a new work blouse when I am tempted by sequined burlesque splendor, or the ever-increasing array of Ravishing Retro Dresses.

I hit up a toy from the $2 shop with gold spray paint for the ray gun

Thrifted steampunk, Exhibit A. Thanks again, Digitalpix!

For steampunk and retro, thrifting can come to the rescue. It can help if you’re goth. Because people are wonderful, I and others often get given subculture-relevant items; I am the fortunate recipient of feathered bags, lingerie, flowered hair clips, and lengths of unusual fabric.

Can you combine the two? Yes. You’ll care more about your clothes and appearance. And you’ll just have more fun. One time, a contractor paused in the hallway, scrutinized my cats’ eye glasses, leopard cardigan, and full red lips, and said, “You’re one of those retro girls, aren’t you?” It turned out that we knew people in common, and we were friends for the duration of the contract.

Here’s some good reading on this subject:

Another useful concept to get the most out of both a subculture wardrobe and a workaday wardobe is that of the wardrobe capsule – a group of garments designed to mix and match, so that you get many looks out of relatively few garments. This is a great way to get the most out of a small workaday wardrobe, and to extend the return on stunning subculture items, such as a steampunk jacket or a pin-up dress. Wardrobe capsules are having a moment in blogland, thanks to Polyvore‘s image collages. Some quality inspiration is at two of my style favorites, Wardrobe Oxygen and Inside Out Style.

Then there’s storage space. I’ve seen subculture wardrobes overflow from closet space and trunks to take over entire rooms. I’m incredibly lucky to have two closets that I can use – one is contemporary, and one is vintage/costume. Someday I’ll combine households with a special someone and the jig will be up. In the meantime, hats, wigs, and shoes are still especially difficult to store.

Small but perfectly formed

My vintage/costume closet. Note the clothes steamer beside the closet.

Subculture-signifier hair remains polarizing. In Wellington, New Zealand, vivid tints and streaks of candy colors or silver/white, are surprisingly OK for professionals. Retro hair is also OK… up to a point. (I’d feel better making strong statements about this if I knew retro-coiffed doctors or CEOs outside of the Louise Brooks bob zone.) Simply moving up to Auckland is enough to turn vivid hair into a vivid work problem, and this discussion of pink hair for a scientist discusses the contrast between Boston and London style. These are usually all incorporated into shorter hair styles, and there’s often bias against very long hair for women, and longer hair for men. A full head of candy-neon hair has become a new marker of luxury, indicating that you don’t have to work, or you’re Free of the Man – either way, nothing is stopping you.

I’ve enjoyed the drama and fun of retro and cosplay clothing since I was a teenager. For me part of maturing has been deciding that I deserve to have fun with all my clothes, both workaday/mundane ones and subculture/cosplay ones.


Cosplaying as an elf ten years ago.

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