Thursday, July 5, 2012

upcycling: can you take it too far?

Wool military side cap
Several years ago my grandfather gave me my inheritance- an old scrapbook from the 1950s of family photos and snapshots from his brief army service overseas during the Korean War, and all of his army items from Korea. Unfortunately there had not been any attempt to preserve the clothing, and the entire woolen dress uniform was too moth-eaten to be of any use to even the most dedicated preserver of

historical clothing. It was unceremoniously thrown into the trash.

But there were other items that were still in decent condition, such as:
  • 1 trench coat with removable wool insert 
  • 1 leather luggage case (not quite a suitcase-more like a very large bowling bag made of stiff leather) 
  • 1 wool army side cap 
  • braids, patches, and pins salvaged from the damaged uniform 
  • 1 red armband saying "Port Engineer" in both English and either Korean or Japanese. I'm leaning towards Japanese. 

My grandfather's intentions for joining the Army to participate in the "military action" that was the Korean War are still unclear to me, and he was not a career soldier, so he has no real special ties to the items that he left me other than as memories long gone. He's still alive, and has never inquired about them after he gave them to me. So I felt less qualms than I should when I first considered actually using the items he gave me.

I have worn the trench coat before, but it's so warm with the wool insert that it's really only necessary for the most extreme of temperatures, and I feel somewhat silly wearing it without the insert because it's so baggy on me. The leather bag, meanwhile, is sturdy but has a somewhat rusty zipper, and I don't want to risk damaging it by using it. The rest of the items did not seem to be of much use to me, so they sat in storage for the past five years only as mementos of a brief period of family history.

While looking at some military-inspired steampunk merchandise this week I realized that I already owned at least one of the items- the wool side cap. Then the other items- the braids, pins, and armband- came to mind.

That's when I wondered: I should dare use historical items for fantasy costuming purposes? I could make a steampunk uniform look with the pins and cap, and use the "Port Engineer" armband as an accessory for either a mechanical or a military costume, or both.

I have discussed it with my boyfriend and a roommate so far, and they both seem to think that there is nothing wrong with the idea- that there is always plenty of "Army surplus" items for sale, and they could really be upcycled for my steampunk hobby, putting them to great use after years of sitting, forgotten, in a musty, unkind attic.

But meddling with "old" items- even things that are "only" 60 years old- for the purpose of fantasy costuming could be taken as being disrespectful to my grandfather. It's the same problem that some people have with steampunkers taking apart antiques to make fake "clockwork" contraptions or odd props that never were. Not that I think I would drastically change any of the items I want to use- the pins and armbands would go on top of my costume clothes and the wool cap would be given a steampunk pin.

What do you think I should do? Use the items for a military steampunk look? Or leave the historical items alone?


  1. Antiques may or may not have inherent value. If they belonged to a particularly famous person, then something in poor condition may have some historic value to someone specifically interested in that person. If an item is rare, then it can have historic value in a more general sense. Korean War surplus is is common and has little historic value leaving only it's symbolic value.

    Symbols have no value of their own. We assign them what value they have. If no one in your family places any particular significance to these items then they have no more value than any random surplus purchased in a store.

  2. As someone who studies history i cannot really make up my mind about that: One the one hand historians love to get their hands on things that have been touched and maybe damaged as little as possible, on the other hand I use my great-grandmother's old purse...
    I personally wouldn't wear parts of a real military uniform but that's because I am a pacifist and would feel bad for wearing something that was part of a real war...

  3. You bring up some interesting points in this post and ones that are worth discussing. I think I fall somewhere in the middle of the argument. I certainly wouldn't wear a Purple Heart in a costume, as someone actually had to suffer to be awarded that medal, nor would I wear a medal that was awarded for some heroic service, since I didn't earn it. That said, service bars, unit insignia, parts of the uniform itself, I have no problem with, as they required only that you were there. I wear a Royal Engineers cap badge that I've modified into a pin, and I would be amazed if anyone objected (even if I were in Britain).