The Ironic Article on grunge

Mudhoney, Superfuzz Big Muff EP, 1988

Revivals keep happening one after another. The neo-80s new wave, pop disco movements that started in the 2000s with bands like LCD Soundsystem, The Killers, and Franz Ferdinand are still going strong . The rootsy thing that started with White Stripes and Black Keys has lead to a new appreciation for blues, classic soul, and country with acts like Sharon Jones (RIP), Sarah Shook, or Robbie Fulks. Hip-hop is more popular than ever, but is not a nostalgic genre as yet.

Seattle dominated music through the 90s, even when Nirvana came and went. Sub-Pop was the coolest low-budget label that everyone wanted to be on. Acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains were huge with their slow, melancholy hard-rock. There were smaller college radio bands like the amazing Mudhoney, who combined distorted punk guitars with a 60s garage sound, or the Melvins, who took it to the extreme, foraying into thick, sludgy heavy metal. Neil Young got in on it with his album “Sleeps with Angels”, but Neil has always been sort of grunge. Grunge had a presence on the east coast too, thanks to the amazing Dinosaur Jr, with the emotionally charged yet strangely reassuring vocals of J Mascis’s contrasting to the raw intensity of their guitar sound. New York’s art band Sonic Youth, whose raw vocals, distorted guitars, and hypnotic drumming paved the way for grunge. Sonic Youth’s music is worthy of its own article. They may seem like noise at first, but if you stick with them you will see that their chaos has structure and a lot of emotional beauty.

Seeing a grunge band live was a spiritual experience. Mudhoney was a force, Mark Arm’s wailing vocals and Iggy Pop-like demeanor, backed by a relentless guitar and distortion sound. You thought you were never going to come up for air and you did not care. Nirvana had the perfect combination of melody, touching vocals, and heaviness and if you can get past all the hype, were truly great live or in the studio. Soundgarden had the deep, satisfying world-weary vocals of Chris Cornell, (RIP).

I know I keep coming back to that word spiritual, but that’s the feeling I got from seeing a grunge show. When everything was in line, the heavy guitar sound, melancholy vocals, not growling like death metal, but torn open and vulnerable with themes like hating oneself, or feeling dirty or low or black., and the driving, primitive drum sound – it connected you to the primitive emotional heaviness, the nirvana of it all. It was absolutely pure.

After Kurt Cobain died, grunge was still going strong thanks to the big acts – Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, and collaborations like Temple of the Dog or Audioslave. Then, eventually (unlike goth!), grunge actually died away to britpop, synthesizer music, rootsy music, and a million other things as ipads and mobile phones made everyone feel happier and shinier.

But what perplexes me is – why hasn’t grunge come back? Everything comes back. Maybe grunge still seems so “new” that it’s impossible to think of it as “coming back”. We thought it never left.

Or, perhaps grunge just doesn’t fit the mood we are in right now. It’s a lot like the 80s right now. We want momentary pleasures, a new iphone, a quick thing from Amazon, a quick post on Instagram to distract us. Grunge was deep and introspective. It was about being out in nature and smoking pot, not caring if your clothes stayed clean or if they got old and “grungy”, it was not about Met Gala or Camp or Lady Gaga or anything that would influence anyone on Instagram.

(WARNING: Brief history of everything to follow). Grunge came about at the end of the 80s. The 80s had been really bright and colorful, with lots of money. It started out with punk and new wavers rebelling against “dinosaur” stadium bands like the Eagles or Led Zeppelin. But then by the late 80s new wave was bloated and nobody wanted to hear “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or “True” again. Even punk was wearing thin. It was immature with no subtlety. Then the glam rock Guns ‘N Roses thing came about, but didn’t stay long, although Axl Rose is an amazing musician who is thankfully touring again. I was working in a record store in Hollywood and I remember the end of the 80s when bands like Mudhoney or Soundgarden, wearing old jeans, boots and no makeup, but still with a more soulful, sexy sound than punk, started to appear on the shelves.

Then the recession hit and we Gen x’ers were all overeducated and underemployed like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites. I remember that moment where it felt like the party had ended, the mall was closing and now it was just dull people not getting dolled up anymore. Like the hobgoblin’s mirror in HC Anderson’s The Snow Queen or Frozen, grunge settled in everyone’s eyes and replaced the 80s mask, showing us how ugly we were, but and how real we were too. The new fairy tale would not be a Cinderella story starring Molly Ringwald becoming perfect through fashion, but one of introverted depression and transformation, and playing pool in old flannels and beat up doc martins. Truly one of the greatest accomplishments of the grunge era was that our common lack of money forced us to stop consuming and be creative. There was a flowering of indie fanzines, small bands, independent labels, and later on in the 90s, websites.

Although grunge removed the glam from both men and women, grunge had a touch of glamour too. You didn’t have to be Janis Joplin with no makeup. You could be more like Drew Barrymore, who put on some red lipstick and a flowery dress. It was a natural, hippie look. We stopped dying our hair funny colors and grew it out long. The term “hair farmer” was not uncommon. Between the grunge kids and the deadheads, the early 90s must have looked like a big 60s party to our parents. Now girls want funny colored hair again, and boys want weird beards.

Creativity wasn’t grunge’s only good side. Grunge could be really deep and poetic. Influenced the spiritual side of the pacific northwest, hippies, and even the California singer-songwriter tradition of CSN or Neil Young, it brought us back to the garden. That made it profound, solemn, but it was not just peaceful hippies. Grunge was also born from punk, fast distorted guitars, mosh pits, feedback, desolation. Grunge was spiritual but chaotic. Just listen to “I am One” by Smashing Pumpkins, it represents the intense spirituality of leaving it all behind and becoming “one”. Then there was the dark side – death. Many of the musicians were on heroin. We lost many of our grunge heroes – Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Stanley, and now Chris Cornell, RIP.

I am one as you are three
Try to find messiah in your trinity
Your city to burn
Your city to burn

Then there was the middle, the mediocre side. That side could be cynical, snarky, overly precious. “flower petting, baby kissing” reads the classic Sub Pop t-shirt, insinuating that the stoned guy with long hair and ripped jeans had a soft side, which he probably did, but it wasn’t apparent in the mosh pit. I wrote about 90s irony before, so I won’t labor it here. But I think the irony was caused by the fact that grunge stars were not innocent like CSN or even Sex Pistols had been. They knew they would sell out to lots of money, so all they could do was laugh and point out the absurdity of it.

But still, for all the heroin and cynicism, grunge had as many gleaming moments as the sun breaking through a rainy forest in Seattle. It got people to see past their trivial concerns and money for a rare moment. And maybe new bands don’t need to come along and create new bands that “sound like” older bands. That always falls short anyway. After you’ve heard John Foxx, how can you listen to TV Eyes? If you love the Fairport convention, the Owl Service is a pale substitute. And Interpol should just be banned, such a terrible substitute they are for Joy Division. Influences, on the other had, are often good. Nick Cave was influenced by Jim Morrison. Conor Oberst was influenced by Robert Smith crossed with country. And Franz Ferdinand was pretty good at reconstructing that 80s Gang of Four or Wire sound, without all the heavy Marxism.

I’ll leave you with some good grunge songs. In true grunge fashion I won’t capitalize the words. Find them in your own way.

  • mudhoney – this gift, good enough, running loaded
  • melvins – lizzy
  • alice in chains – don’t follow, damn that river, rooster, them bones
  • nirvana – about a girl, heart-shaped box
  • soundgarden – somewhere,
  • mother love bone – stardog champion, words of gold
  • smashing pumpkins – I am One, Perfect
  • hole – Mrs Jones, Good Sister/Bad Sister
  • babes in toyland – Handsome and Gretel, Right Now
  • pearl jam – black
  • dinosaur Jr – blowing It, I Don’t Wanna Go There, over it
  • sonic youth – titanium expose, i love her all the time, poison arrow, eric’s trip, walking blue, wish fulfillment, calming the snake
  • meat puppets – plateau, oh me, backwater, whistling song

A 1960s Wardrobe Pattern

Now that I am getting back into sewing, I can make anything I want! All I need is a few good patterns, some fabric, a night, some coffee, and some upbeat 80s music like “Pretty In Pink” by the Psychedelic Furs. My life turns into an 80s movie montage. Actually I only have 1 pattern, but it’s a wardrobe pattern and wardrobe patterns have everything on them!

my glamorous wardrobe pattern

After I woke up on new years day, 2016, feeling like I want to be more mod, I bought Butterick 2179 on Etsy.

I can spend literally  hours looking at vintage patterns on Etsy, ordering them, and never making anything. So I decided to turn off my computer and start sewing. I love this pattern so much that I want to make everything on it, but I started with the shell top. I finally determined that my 1962 size is 14, which translates to a modern 10. I don’t understand the numbers, I just go for anything that says “bust 34” (which is nonsense because of course mine is much bigger!).


Anyway the top was really easy to make. A shell top can be worn with anything, a straight skirt, a full skirt, or capri pants, and looks great. I love the back buttons (confession – I’m terrible with zippers!). I chose light blue, because that was the only color I had 6 buttons of, but they worked! My fabric is a thick “fake shantung” in dark red. Perfect for the 60s style. I definitely think you should keep the fabric as true to the style as possible. So use gingham, fun prints, or stripes in 60s colors like avocado or orange. Nothing purple. Did you ever see Gidget wearing purple? Or Sissy from Family Affair? No way Mr. French! They didn’t wear purple in the early 60s.


I love to sew but have had a hard time talking myself back into it as a hobby. Why bother? In the 80s clothing was more expensive. But clothing is so cheap now, and most every style is available at the mall. But here are some good reasons: you can set your creations apart with buttons or thread. You can probably get a sleeveless shell at TJ Maxx, but it won’t have all the darts that they used in the 60s. It won’t have the high neck that is so unsexy that it’s cool, and it will probably  be made out of something stretchy or in a tropical print with little metallic sparkles that you may not like.


Best of all, you can spend 6 hours driving around and hunting for your blouse. Or you can spend 6 hours sewing, feeling creative and listening to the Psychedelic Furs, Arctic Monkeys, Shangri-las, and New Order, and then have time left over to try new hairstyles. I can guarantee which choice will make you feel happier in the end! Happy sewing!

Programming and sewing

As someone who has been sewing since the age of 10 (that’s 20+ years) and programming Java since the mid-1990’s (yes I am old!), I am constantly amused at how similar the two activities are. In both practices, you are basically taking things apart and putting things together. Most people can envision how this works in sewing, but trust me, it’s not much different in programming. You put together smaller objects, like you would put together the pieces of a garment, and then you sew the objects together into a larger program. In sewing you finish off the edges so that things won’t unravel. In programming we do this by declaring final classes and static variables. In both you pick apart threads and you join threads together, which is never fun. OK the threads are already woven in sewing, but you still pick them apart sometimes. In both activities you have to patch things occasionally. In both we use patterns. These patterns are templates of how to do things to make something useful, and if the patterns are good, we use them again and again.

A Wedding Gown pattern from the 1940s, from Vintage Patterns Dazespast Blog.

Finally, sometimes our sewing creations are a joy to create and turn out wonderful and useful, and sometimes they turn into a lumpy ugly mess that we spend lots of time reworking until we finally throw them away.

Can you think of other ways that programming and sewing are similar?

Guys in Eyeliner

I know that guys are breaking the gender rules of fashion a lot lately. They are shaving their chests, legs, wearing spandex pants, and plucking their eyebrows. I know all this because I work with the 25 year old set. But they missed the one thing that makes guys so cute – eyeliner!

Eyeliner was huge in the 80s, for women and men. I remember being really bad at it! I never got the hang of liquid eyeliner, so I tried with a pencil and just smudged it. But eyeliner was something that could make or break your goth look, or “death rock” as we referred to it in the 80s.

Think Robert Smith in “Let’s Go to Bed” or any other video that the Cure made. I think Robert Smith slept in his eyeliner!

And the adorable and witty Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh. Now he can do no wrong, so any amount of makeup would probably look good on him, but eyeliner suits him perfectly

There are many more who look great in eyeliner. Such as Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes. Eyeliner? Well maybe he just looks like he’s wearing it, becuase his eyes are so beautiful!

And how about Prince? Now that man could wear some eyeliner! Eyes you could get lost in.

I guess that is why he made them into the Purple Rain poster, complete with the eyeliner. But maybe that’s a woman’s eyes. At any rate, it’s great eyeliner!

So kids, that just goes to show, eyeliner looks great on anyone, at anytime. Now go practice!

Misfits? Guess again!

People often wonder why I was an art historian, and why I took Visual Culture classes. There is nothing
lucrative that you can do with art history. And visual culture must be the silliest subject in the world. I mean all you are doing is looking at pictures, right?*

Yes, I know, your 5-year-old can look at pictures*. But that doesn’t make him a cultural critic. That doesn’t give him an understanding of the language of the visual world (visual semiotics and semantics) and the ability to analyze the power of images over popular culture. That is what we do in art history.Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop)

This might not seem so interesting or useful. I mean they are just harmless pictures, right? Why would anyone want to criticize pictures? Well, some pictures, like children’s illustrations, or paintings, are fairly harmless. But the majority of pictures that we see every day are not art or illustration. Most of the images we see today are advertising, and I believe advertising must be criticized and historicized. That doesn’t mean that we have to think ads are “bad”. But we should see ads for what they are, an attempt to sell us something in a very seductive way. Sometimes ads are cool. But they aren’t art.

I was recently thinking about those great 1990’s ads for Guess jeans (Georges Marciano). They were so beautiful. They looked like dramatic films stills and they featured top models like Claudia Schiffer or Anna Nicole Smith. They usually had a very “American” feeling to them, like something from a western. But others were very European like an old Italian realist movie. They felt gritty and cinematic.adv_4540

It occurred to me that a major influence on the 1990’s Guess ads was John Houston’s 1961 film, The Misfits. You know the one with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. If you don’t know it you should see it. It’s set in the American desert and tells the story of a divorcée and some struggling cowboys in Nevada still trying to live the frontier life in the 1960’s, but probably well on their way to just becoming trailer trash on the outskirts of Las Vegas in a world where global distribution and spreading suburbanism was killing the frontier. It’s a study of the end the cowboy persona and the American idea of “freedom” that came with it.


The Misfits and those Guess ads have so much in common. Passionate love, beautiful dumb people, and a gritty, black-and-white environment. But I would say that the Misfits is art and the Guess ads are not. John Huston, filmmaker of the Misfits, wanted to say something about how the frontier no longer fits daily life. Like an advertiser, he used beauty to make his message attractive and seductive. But his message was so much more thought provoking than the Guess message, which is simply “buy jeans”. But I don’t think much more of an argument needs to be made for these differences.

guess_2But lots of people who grew up on the Guess ads (like me) stop there and see the ads as iconic. The ads do have the feeling of the film, but they are derivative. They only communicate how the film looked, and not Huston’s overall message. To get to the message, you have to think harder and find the thing in history that influences the ads. But in our visual world where new images are constantly replacing old ones, we are not conditioned to look up the older things. We are so caught up in watching the ever-changing slide show of new images, some of which make us forget the past, but many of which, like the Guess ads, evoke it. These “throwback” images represent consumer culture’s obsession with nostagia that post modernists like Fredrick Jameson referred to as the “historical amnesia”.

And it’s cool. After all, we don’t want to overanalyze and over think things. And yet, sometimes being constantly entertained gets old. We start to wonder if we are making our own choices any more. That is why I personally love old images and old things. I love to see what people watched on TV in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I love to see the products they bought, the brochures they looked it, their flowery kitchen wallpaper, their speech and lack of clever irony. I even love more recent old things, like techno from the 1990’s. I think it’s important to try to remember or research how people behaved in other eras. And I’m not just talking about cool hot rods and rockabilly music or raves and pacifiers. I’m talking about the boring everyday aspects of a past era. How they might only have had one telephone in the house, or a girl might only have had two dresses because clothes were made in America, the little forgotten details.

The misfits 2So overall, art history is good and useful. We see lots of images – art primarily. We see how they have been received through history. An understanding of these older images serves as a triggers for memory when we are looking around our highly mediated environment, so that we can demystify popular advertising images and understand where they came from, and we don’t get too swept up in the seduction of novelty, like hapless cowboys trying to live in a romantic past that doesn’t really exist.

* Here is the rest of my diatribe about your five year old. It felt like I was getting off-topic so I made it a footnote: Your dear child CAN make something that looks like a Rauschenberg, or a Jackson Pollack (more likely a Pollack. Rauschenbergs were really complicated multi-media collages and most 5-year-olds couldn’t do the nailing or sawing involved). What your 5-year-old cannot do is make them at the right historical moment. Your kid doesn’t understand the evolution of painting over hundreds of years, and the “art rules” that were in place up until the 50’s that caused manipulating paint in a seemingly haphazard way to be so revolutionary. Sorry. Your 5-year old is not avant-garde.

The Princess has an Ugly Robe

I love the bathrobe that the mom wears on Christmas morning in “A Christmas Story”. It’s such a  beautiful vintage robe with a shawl collar, tailoring, and a full skirt. I think it’s even got shoulder pads but that’s ok because it’s perfectly proportional. You could go around your house looking like great all day without even putting clothes on. It’s a robe of the 1940’s and it’s perfectly elegant.






In contrast, the robes of today are completely boring. Mostly they are just a straight kimono style without darts or fitting, like a sack:

ugh. What a boring robe.

If you do an Amazon search on “woman’s robe” this is all you will find, for upwards of $50. If you go to TJ Maxx, you will find the same thing. Sometimes they are made of nice materials like silk, but it’s always the same old boring style. Because they have a straight, narrow skirt, when you sit down the skirt splits open. Ugly! Impractical!

How did we get to this awful state of woman’s loungewear?

Perhaps we are still cringing from the abuses of loungewear that took place in the 1970’s when women like Mrs. Roper would go around in robes and mumus all day long.

Mrs. Roper in an ugly caftan.

Nobody wants to look like Mrs. Roper!

So we modern girls just throw on a hoodie track suit for hanging around. After all, we aren’t old ladies and we were just about to get ready for the day….OR ARE WE?…..more and more I see girls out and about in hoodie track suits. OK, a hoodie track suit is fine, but what’s worse, now people are walking through Target and the mall in ugly pajama pants! I think that pajama pants are the modern day equivalent of the 1970s mumu, a lounging garment that we kids ourselves into thinking is good enough for the street. I think we can do better. I think that robes need to be more elegant, like they were in the past, and they should be confined to the home.

A beautiful robe with a waistline.


In the 1940’s – 1970’s, they had beautiful women’s robes. They were edged with feathers or made of nice heavy padded satin. They had tailoring and button holes, like this beautiful quilted satin robe which is currently on sale at Etsy. Doesn’t look like much on the mannequin, but it would look great on!







An elegant 1970s ruffled robe


Also there are plenty of vintage patterns for beautiful robes! I am so excited about vintage patterns. You can have old garments in new, strong fabrics!




a nice 50s design. I could see this in velvet or rayon


Here is another fun vintage robe pattern, from the 1950s. The seller wants $20 which I think is a little high, but its stylish!









Butterick even did a re-issue of an old 40’s robe pattern. Elegant! I love the re-issue patterns.






ok, there are some ugly vintage patterns too, like this one :

Don’t wear this unless your hair is up in curlers and you have a cigarette dangling from your lips!

So make one of these great vintage robes, (but not the ugly one). and sit around looking elegant all day long. As long as you have a waistline, you will never look like Mrs. Roper! And please don’t go outside in your pajama pants.

A Discussion of Belinda Carlisle and Exene Cervenka as Fashion Icons, Wherein I Also Talk Trash about Madonna

blog post

A lot has been said about the coolness of 1950’s thrift-store clothes, and how essential they were to the punk scene. For me, a middle class punk in the 1980’s, whose family refused to buy expensive clothes like Izod shirts and such, thrift store shopping allowed me to have an identity, beyond that of “nerdy girl who couldn’t afford the expensive stuff”. I’m not the first one to have said this, either.

But shopping in thrift stores gave me so much more than coolness at school. It started me off on a road of nostalgia and my love for old, forgotten pop culture. It also helped me to appreciate the real history behind material objects, the story that each one of them has to tell. While many girls just wore the rockabilly knockoff looks (socks with pumps, colorful plastic jewelry, novelty prints like black/pink triangles), I knew a bit about the decades that actually inspired them. Anyway it also inspired me to go to graduate school, learn programming, have children, buy a house, and select a good 401K program (Well, OK that last part is bullshit but still thrifting was pretty cool)

My love of thrift stores also gave me a bond, however imaginary, to some of my favorite fashion icons of the 80’s….

Put down the Go-Go’s as much as you like, but we all loved them, and you probably did too! When they hit it big, clawing their road to success over the backs of some, they were fun. They were beautiful and inspiring. They gave me a love of my own town through their videos, shot in L.A., which always seemed to involve local street scenes, colorful music and their great combinations of thrift store clothes and kitschy scarves and jewelry.

I mean, everyone seems to think that Madonna was the queen of 80’s fashion,  but, umm…Madonna only wore black. Like, BORING!! The Go-Gos were much more colorful, much more inspired in their 50’s retro looks.

Belinda was my fashion inspiration back in the early 80’s. As pictured here, she captured exactly how I was trying to look, artsy, colorful and very new wave. This picture reminds me so much of an outfit I had in 1983 or so: bright blue tights, a long sweatshirt that said “Privilege” (which I think I actually purchased at the Glendale Galleria or at least the Lakewood Mall), and red ballet flats, or maybe pink moccasins. I can’t quite remember. But I love Belinda’s combination of 50’s pumps, baggy mini-dress and red sunglasses. OK, I don’t know why she chose the Vera Bradley knockoff bag, but it was 1981 so I will still give her credit. The overall look was shocking. Bright. Very L.A. pin-up fun, like the sun reflecting off of the pavement on a street full of 1920’s bungalows and palm trees with bright flowers and billboards.

My other fashion icon was Exene Cervenka. Exene was darker and more punk than Belinda. Exene had great instincts – 1940’s dresses, lots of bangles and chains mixed with the bangles. Red lipstick, and old lady shoes with white socks. Scraggly hair. Exene didn’t just look “shocking” or “punk”. Her intelligence always shined though. By wearing clothes from another era, she evoked history and therefore something timeless. Like an old weathered film poster from the 1940’s, glamour gleaming through the dust, the way she wore raggedly vintage clothes was poetic and  played to our sense of nostalgia.

I love this blog post about Exene. The writer, Caviglia, actually goes into the folk aesthetic that was so important to understanding L.A.’s particular twist on punk culture in the 80’s. It wasn’t about being streamlined, European, slick, technological, like so many imagine the 80’s to be. It wasn’t Depeche Mode or Duran Duran in L.A. Well it was, a little. In L.A. we were into high-tech MTV video stuff. But we were also into the old: “I Love Lucy” reruns, Gumby, old western films, Mexican folk culture and old sit-coms or teenage b-movies. X captured that aesthetic so well, as did the Go-Gos with their 60’s beach movie kitsch. And it was always about thrifting and looking funky as hell.

I loved this video and still do. Jane Wiedlin’s little solo just the best. I think she is wearing a 50’s swimsuit! I’m going to tie a scarf around my ponytail next week and go for a splash in a fountain…


The Importance of Bright Plastic Jewelry

I think I found another piece in my ongoing fashion puzzle – “How Do I Have More Fun Wearing 1950’s Vintage Clothing?”. The answer: Plastic jewelry! It’s what they actually wore in the 1950’s. It was there all the time, the natural choice for those great 1950’s dresses. It can be necklaces or earrings. It can be dark:

black and pink dress

Or Bright:

Vintage 1950's aqua blue plastic flower earrings

Clip-On Pineapple Earrings


These types of plastic earrings are so bright and fun. How could one not wear them?.

I could see them with a 1940’s rayon dress, bright red lipstick and not too much eye makeup. (Of course they would also look great with jeans or low-top converse, or capris, flats and a bulky cardigan).

dark blue 1940's rayon dress

Of course, back in the 1980’s, vintage 50’s styles were just becoming popular. We wore lots of colorful earrings then.

Raspberry 1980's Earrings on eBay
1980s raspberry earrings

Yes they were tacky, and much more Valley-Girl than the 1950’s styles they were trying to copy, but at least they were an early attempt to be “retro”, wild and bright. Think of Peg Bundy from “Married With Children”.

The Bundys from "Married With Children"

Although I have been collecting vintage clothing of the 1950’s, since the 1980’s, I never realized how much more fun plastic jewelry adds to the whole look. I had always just worn vintage with my typical silver, red, and black “hippie” jewelry.

beaded hippie earrings

I mean, these are really pretty, but they don’t complement a 1950’s dress like plastic does. They are better worn with a miniskirt and boots or a long 1970s-style hippie skirt and sandals. That’s great stuff, but it’s for another post, and frankly, I think it’s going to be a really long time before I stop wearing button earrings, now that I have reached this level of inspiration.

I will start with these leather pistol-and-stamen beauties that I won in eBay auction yesterday for $1. Don’t worry, leather may be a natural material, but I will work my way up to plastic.

Yellow Leather Earrings

And next time you try on a vintage dress but are wondering what it is lacking, go for the plastic beads.

Peg Bundy would be proud.

Steampunk and History

A lot of people have been asking “what is steampunk?” and that is a good question. Its this eye-catching offshoot of goth, involving young people who wear aviator goggles and saying things like “smashing, good sir!”.  It seems to evoke the late 19th and early 20th century “mechanical revolution” – the train, clockwork, camera lenses, typewriters and early lab equipment (think the Nine Inch Nails video to “Closer”), and many other images related to early science.

An image from Godey's Ladies Book showing Victorian fashions.

Married to this mechanical world of early science is the fashion of the Victorian era – spats, top hats, coats with tails, long tight-fitting dresses, corsets, and bustles. The Renaissance Faires and cosplay ushered in a grand new era where we can wear costumes off-stage, so now steampunk is having events of their own, like the “Steampunk World’s Fair” where fans can show off their finery together and stroll about the hotel corridors with parasols and the trappings of the absinthe-drinking “flaneur”. OK, exhibits may not be the latest in radio or glass building technology, but it’s more fun to look at each other.

Although steampunk is mostly a visual arts-and-crafts movement, there seems to be music too and most of it is very enjoyable and swell.  Dr. Steel is a vaudeville entertainer/rapper/mad scientist hellbent on taking over the world. Professor Gall has a brass band with banjos and foot-stomping carnival fun a la Tom Waites. Thomas Truax makes his own crazy instruments. And Vernian Process sounds like Dead Can Dance combined with carnival music. Many of the bands sound basically goth, (like Vernian Process) and Waites has had a good bit of influence.

Dr. Steel
Dr. Steel - Steampunk Rap

Steampunk can also include literature, jewelry-making or even home decoration. It’s home-grown pop-culture, so it hasn’t reached the level or architecture. But if you own a 100-year-old-home, then get an old iron potbellied stove, you are in!

Now that we know what steampunk is, what is it not? It is not modernism. It is not “The Shock of the New” which has influenced American culture more and more throughout the 20th century, from the post WWI moment of “The Lost Generation” – Hemingway and Picasso and Miller, and Sartre when everything was stripped down to nothingness and minimalism. It is not the mysterious “olden days” before modernism, that long expanse of before machines when people meekly worked the farm with horses and plows. But it is the tail-end of that time. Steampunk is inspired by the exact pre-modern moment of transition, the rise out of agriculture to the steam machine but not quite the era of jazz and existentialism. With steampunk we are forced to re-examine the “olden days” as they really were in daily life, instead of dismissing them like so many dusty old photographs. Similarly, the era before our information age seems kind of fuzzy too in retrospect. What was life like in the 60’s and 70’s? Some people remember it and some do not. Everyone knows about Woodstock, but do we think about daily life when people only had phones on their desks and not computers? When people still wrote paper letters and used typewriters and local TV stations with their own Station IDs. We really don’t have the time to think about it anymore, and the collective amnesia of postmodern entertainment leaves us precious little time to speculate and dig up memories.

Steampunk is not hipster-ism, and yet it is, because really it just another flavor of goth, which is another flavor of punk, which appears at the end of that long line that began with that Lost Generation. But still the whole steampunk genre delivers this uncanny sense that the angry era of Post-WWI bohemianism just never happened, the whole jazz -> rock-and-roll -> hippie -> punk -> to hipster-ism path just disappears in a cloud of opium smoke. We have to learn a new pop cultural language and understand how they were thinking in 1890. People weren’t angry and rebellious. Nor is this the modernist “cool” lack of affect that has permeated since the 1940’s. In steampunk, people are affected! They are surprised and amazed, just as people were in the age of inventions. I say good sir! It’s marvelous and stupefying! The cinema and the circus is Dazzling!

Another question might be “why steampunk?” It’s because we are in an era much like that of 100 years ago. We are now emerging from another “turn of the century” with many new technological inventions – the “information revolution”. In fact, it’s uncanny how similar our era of computers, text messaging, digital photography and video is to the era of trains and film. Like the people of 1900, we are having constantly to react, to pay attention to the next new development so that we won’t be left behind, but we don’t have too much time to write modernist manifestos on it all. Other times, such as post-WWI modernism or the 1850’s with the French Revolutions, are characterized as being eras of political manifestos, when people were at the center and their thoughts and philosophies (and egos) were more important. Today we cannot even express a complete thought because it would be too much trouble to type it into a text message! Back in 1900 people were similarly distracted by the blindingly new light bulbs, or the cars and cinemas moving into the neighborhood. I think of that scene from “Hugo” where Melies films of trains are causing the audience to gasp in horror because they thought that a train was about to crash into them.

Joseph Niepce. A Farmhouse in France. 1826.
the earliest photograph

Ironically, the mechanical era of the turn-of-the-century was all about progress. Mass-production and assembly lines were supposed to make life better. Now, with steampunk we are disgusted with mass production, and the cheap faceless Chinese goods that it and global capitalism have led us to. With steampunk, we have adopted the the “maker” and “hacker”  cultures, and are beginning to create items and machines of our own, which ironically look like they come from the  Sears Robuck catalog of 1890.

In the mid-nineties I studied art history at the University of Chicago. The department there was experiencing many cultural changes. For one thing it was the era of “culture wars” or “political correctness”. This meant that I could no longer just look at a painting by Gainsborough and admire its prettiness or read a book by Bronte and admire its romanticism. Instead, I had to feel guilty because of all the oppression wielded by the people in the painting or the characters in the book. The other big movement in humanities at the university was an interest in the first “era of mechanical reproduction”. This was probably due in large part to the influence of the Art History Departments director and professor Joel Snyder, an enthusiast of early photography and all that was late 19th century.

Under Snyder, we took classes on art historical methodologies. We learned to rethink the way we had done art history and become more politically correct. We also learned a lot about art during the first “era of mechanical reproduction” and how it tied into our contemporary era – the mid-1990’s where the Internet was being established. We studied early photography and film, conceptualism with a heavy dose of Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement, and “visual culture” – sort of a catch-all where we studied anything we could see and talked about post-structural ideas of language. We read the writers of the Frankfurt School – Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Benjamin in particular was a favorite of Joel’s. The most important text that year was Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction” which we discussed over and over again: the impact of the mechanical revolution and how it created mass culture and turned art on its head by casting aside the cult of the “original”. These ideas were further cultivated by others such as Miriam Hanson of the film department who was interested in early cinema and the heterogeneous nature of film programs in the 1890’s.

Studying at the university in the “grunge 1990s” and working as a cinema projectionist, I was memorized by all of the opportunities I had to get close to the first “gilded” 1890’s. It seemed so exotic and romantic not just to be “punk” or “modern”. OK, I gravitated towards the modernisms that I had always known and felt more comfortable with – Russian Constructivism such as Rodchenko or Vladimir Tatlin or Duchamp, and Le Corbusier, but in between the shock and starkness of so many glass-and-steel skyscrapers, I also saw glimpses of that earlier, sepia-toned more “steampunk” era which had preceded it, when things were still ornamental and heavy and people were not so dramatic. With Miriam Hansen I learned  and read about the composite programs of early nickelodeons – combinations of vaudeville and magic and film. I read about Edouard Manet and the idea of the “flaneur” who strolled about Paris, drinking absinthe and observing the sordid sides of street life. These were my first introductions to steampunk. They, combined with being in Chicago, home of the World’s Faire, and the industrial landscape and early skyscrapers, led one to feel many parallels with the earlier “fin de siecle”.

All of this experience in Chicago was wonderful of course, but it was at the level of academia. No one else talked about the 19th century. Most people were still interested in modernist things – the 70s retro movements, grunge, or trip-hop, tails ends in a long line of pop cultural movements – punk, mod, goth, glam, industrial, grunge which had begun with modernism and had once been so shocking  but were now kind of tired, (just as modernists had once thought the 1890’s to be), while we in the steampunk revival believe it to be the most exciting of new trends!

And now, almost 13 years later, the steampunk thing has really taken off in pop culture. And it has so much resonance. When I, urban citizen of our current information age, am sitting down reading the paper, then being pulled away by the need to check my smartphone or any number of bleeping things, I am reminded of the dizziness that it must have been to live in 1890 and walk down the street, amazed by photographic posters on the walls, turning quickly to avoid a streetcar, or the machinery of a steel building being put up by European immigrant workers, or blinking light bulbs, cursing the smoke and pollution and the factories just as we curse the emissions and global warming today, feeling agitated and thrilled by it all just as we are now, like there is something coming up over the horizon, anything but “cool”.

And now, since steampunk has hit on the level of mass culture, I am suddenly noticing it everywhere – from “The Velveteen Rabbit” which I read to my daughter at night, that innocent story which I heard as a kid, now noticing its references to clockwork animals. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is steampunk, with its images of early flight and motors and cars. Is “Mary Poppins” steampunk? Sure! “Little House on the Prairie”? Steampunk? (OK, well maybe I’m going too far. Ma didn’t use a sewing machine. Maybe “Little House” was just old-fashioned). And of course I am proud to say that my very own hometown of Edison, New Jersey, is steampunk! And I thought it was just a working class town with low taxes. But in fact it’s right near Menlo Park where Thomas Edison once sat up late at night just a few miles away, playing with electricity, completely unaware that he was not just an inventor, but would also one day he would be ancestor of an international fashion craze.

And what about the pre-modernist era before steampunk? That will be in the next essay…

The Real New Jersey Housewives Wear Nylon Girdles

Today I went to the Newark Museum. My intention was to see my favorite painting by Edward Hopper. It is “The Sheridan Theater”:

The Sheridan Theater

As with all paintings by Hopper, I love this for its loneliness, nostalgia and carpeted plushness. It generates a lot of emotion and raises a lot of questions for me. Didn’t everyone live amongst cocktails in silver glasses, velvet drapes, plush carpet, sleek, sreamlined furniture, and satin lounging gowns then? A Roxy Music-like lifestyle perfection must have settled over all of life during the 1930’s

I took the NJ Transit Northeast Corridor line up to Newark Penn Station. Usually, I then take the light rail to Washington Park, but this time I decided to walk. I guess Broad Street used to be a busy center. Most everything is boarded up now, or just little remnants of life.

img_3027 img_3036

Washington Park is usually the same – just a handful of drunks standing around. Not this time! The park was full of people and most of the Firemen were drinking Miller Genuine Draft. It was a pretty nice looking picnic,


with just a few drunks, like this guy:


Newark is not a popular place. It is not Atlantic City. It’s poor, but it’s not the loud, sleazy 1970’s Times Square of the New York Dolls or Warhol. Newark is just empty. There are apartments over the storefronts, just as there are in New York.


In 1970’s New York, we knew that drug addicts and prostitutes lived in those storefront apartments. Today, in “cleaned up” New York, we know that bright young designers and brokers have moved in. In New York, you always know what’s going on. But in Newark we don’t really know for sure what is going on, and who lives in those apartments? And what they are doing? Maybe they are sitting there, all day long, above some abandoned shop, dust collecting on the windows. The feeling of apartment dwelling is a feeling of lowness and loneliness, like listening to “The Tenant” or “Obscure Alternatives” by Japan or Bowie’s “Low”, or an Edward Hopper apartment scene:

Edward Hopper apartment
Edward Hopper apartment

In Newark you see back alleys with half-torn down department stores that are left to decay.


There are no-name boutiques on main street, dusty, dated looking mannequins greeting the passers-by, wearing tacky sequined party dresses that nobody would wear to today’s, or tomorrow’s parties. There are stores that advertise “lingerie and girdles”. Inside you find pink nylon pajamas and slips. Who buys this stuff? Maybe they get visitors from 1965 who creep down from the fire escapes of the Hahne and Company Dept. store, at night. These zombie housewives buy the girdles and then creep back into their abandoned stores and buildings by day to disguise themselves once again as mannequins.


This is a diner in Newark that I love to visit. It is always open, and you can sit at the counter and have a sandwich for about $5. Today I sat at the counter and drank my tea while white layer cake with thick coconut icing languished under a glass dome. I listened to the waitress crack jokes with the Mexican dishwashers about how she didn’t speak Spanish. They told her about some guy who didn’t speak a word of English. In fact he didn’t speak Spanish either. He just didn’t speak. They all thought that was very funny. It’s the kind of place where you can just sit and just not speak.