Swagger vs Stereotype

There are certain things that rub me the wrong way when I see people interpreting what they perceive to be circus or carnival inspired style.  The most offensive are attempts that make it obvious no thought was put into the finished product, but they are tagged with terms which I feel should be reserved for things which properly represent them nonetheless.  At this point it is proper to say everything posted in this article is my own opinion and in no way is meant to be taken as offensive.  However, I have always noticed that there is a certain vision that comes to mind when people think of the circus and carnival, which inevitably carries over to fashion.

My credibility comes from the fact that I am someone who has dedicated a large portion of their life not only to studying the above mentioned cultures, but also has experienced them first hand.  While I understand the desire to have fun with one’s wardrobe, after all they are just clothes so they don’t really need to be taken seriously, I am also of the mind that the way one presents themselves speaks volumes above their personality. Society does not judge you on whether you donate to charity or have a kind heart – it scrutinizes every last inch of your outward appearance and then tells you everything that is wrong with it.  In the same vein, the purpose of this guide is to serve as an example of what is stereotypical garb versus reinventing inspiration into personal style.


A fashion article that appeared in an issue of Auxiliary Magazine offered insight to ‘circus punk’, accompanied with a hodgepodge of striped clothing that was wasn’t very appealing and looked quite cheap.  The accessories could be considered kitschy, but even that lends itself to being overdone.  In fact, the only items I even considered wearing were the shoes, though I would certainly find an alternative to the expensive ones suggested.  My main beef with the article was the description of the aesthetic, which I personally define as mixture between the two cultures.  Refined Victorian inspired statement garments can be juxtaposed with rustic DIY pieces to create a truly progressive look that has nothing to do with music.  In fact, I wasn’t even aware that such a  genre existed, because I know circus punks as these funny looking stuffed guys with wild fur that you knock down at the carnival for a prize.

The author says “take Victorian vaudeville, mix with punk rock, throw in lots of stripes and Voila! you have circus punk!”  A novel idea no doubt, except I loathe the notion that stripes must equal circus.  Also, the Victorian era was particular to British history, while vaudeville is a genre native to the United States and Canada.  While the two can certainly be exhibited in one outfit, they are exclusively separate identities.   Not even sure how punk and circus as music influence the style represented in this article, as I see no punk at all and very commonly stereotyped circus items.  “There are no set rules for styling circus punk”, the author continues, “but incorporating striped items into an outfit is one of the most popular ways to achieve a carnival-esque ensemble.”  Contradictions are not things I like to read in style guides, and once again, enough with equating stripes to the circus.  Would also like to point out that circus and carnival are very different cultures that while similar in some aspects, have very different aesthetics.  The suggestions of clothes to style oneself ‘circus punk’ come in the form of marching band uniforms, riding pants and more Victorian wear.  It’s one blurb but it sure managed to be packed with a whole of assumption.

The author is certainly entitled to her opinion, though to me it reeks of a lack in understanding the four distinctive cultures that were mentioned.  Surely everyone has been guilty of passing judgment on someone else’s style, particularly when the individual goes out of their way to put a label on it.  In which case I reserve the right to defend my analysis of the article and say it certainly bears no representation of circus, carnival, punk or vaudeville.


Once and for all, I present evidence that early circus tents never had stripes.  If one is to be more accurate, before there even were tents, circuses were held in enclosed buildings that were nothing short of amazing.  The desire for travel and evolution of the acts moved circus under the protection of a canvas tent held aloft by towering steel poles.  As can be seen in the photo on the right, this canvas was one solid color.  Certainly they would have to be patched over time as wear and tear set in, an example of which can be seen on the HBO series Carnivale, but I feel that’s definitely not the same as being striped.  Modern circuses that stay true to their heritage still use plain canvas tents, but even I have to admit that some opt for the more eye-catching striped variety.

Well then, certainly something had to influence this idea.  Perhaps it was the costumes?  They are ostentatious, brilliantly hued and usually have an insane amount of sparkle – after all, the whole point is to draw attention from the crowd towards whatever act is happening at the moment.  One cannot expect to do this in blue jeans and a T-shirt, but even costuming has standards so that it retains that air of fantasy and doesn’t slip in the realm of tacky.  However, those worn by trapeze artists and other aerialists were form-fitting to show off their physique while performing tricks that required flexibility of the body, where as animal tamers have been shown wearing leather boots and looser garments  for easier mobility.  Of course we all know the ringmaster had a flashy costume and the parade of beauties were not without their own charming frocks.  Circus thrived on its lavish presentation even though it may have suffered financially, and I often wonder what happened to this pride.  It seems to have been replaced with competition to be as ‘tacky’ and ‘trashy’ as possible, which could be charming in small doses or paired with the right situation, but those are certainly not words that I want people constantly associating with my image.

With a decent sense of security, I can say that the one place I have found stripes among any kind of circus wardrobe are within images of clowns.  Their depictions often display a number of emboldened patterns on their humorously sized clothes, which also includes polka dots, diamonds and plaid.  Each type of clown has its own specific type of dress, and the inclusion of stripes seems to be something that just happened, perhaps in recycling an old prison uniform.  A pattern can be used on any number of objects, and I do not understand where this knee-jerk reaction came from associating stripes with circus.  If one wants to look like a clown [and I am sorry, but often times striped fashion achieves just that, but not in a good way], that is their decision.  Stripes are also related to goth, burlesque, raver, cyber, steam punk and other scenes, so using circus or carnival as a buzzword to describe an outfit, piece of clothing or even an accessory simply because it has stripes comes across as pretty unenlightened.


It might sound like a ridiculous concept, but the idea of swagger goes hand-in-hand with having confidence [not cockiness] and is something many desire though few actually master.  Presentation encompasses everything about a person, especially when they want to fill the role of a particular characterization.  The brilliant film noir Freaks comes to mind at this moment, because many of the sideshow performers did not have elaborate costuming, and those who did certainly held an undeniable position of power among the others.  This hierarchy of sorts is  a topic that I have expressed my feelings on in the past, so it comes as no surprise that I continue to maintain this position.

Taking everything that I have written in past articles plus the information presented here, there comes the question of how exactly does one execute a circus inspired style utilizing stripes, but not in a conventional way.  This stunning vintage 1930s tweed jacket features a woven texture and has a contrasting plaid detail on the lining of the sleeve cuffs.  It also happens to have been made by an Italian immigrant who worked as a tailor in Philadelphia, and it is always a nice bonus to have a bit of history to things one owns.  Pair it with a 1950s black wool circle skirt that has simple decorations and this vibrant red halter neck top from Vivien of Holloway to channel the classic pinup vibe.  Finish with red leather Mary Jane’s that have a slight heel, because platforms and spikes are ridiculously mainstream and have no place here.

While it may seem that wearing Cuban heel stockings with such a long skirt would be a waste, sometimes one can feel beautiful without having to put everything on display.  Toss in a black vintage quilted clutch with a golden tassel, fasten up this vintage 1980s blue leather wasp waist belt and you will almost be ready to hit the town.  Personally, I feel no outfit is absolutely complete without accessories and each component must be delicately selected so that they do not take over.  A good hat always does the trick, particularly when the design is simple and allows for a well-executed hairstyle to speak for itself, while Citrine gemstone dangle earrings, an art deco double strand faux golden pearl necklace and a set of thick textured gold bracelets with contrasting metal circle details add the right amount of sparkling glamour.

It is not for me to dictate what others can or cannot wear, nor are there really any definitive rights or wrongs when it comes to fashion.  However, I believe there is sufficient evidence that has been offered which determines what is or is not correct when putting a label on a look.

Photo credit: 1 – macamour.com, 3 – camelphotos.com, 4 – calliegrayson.blogspot.com

6 – weirdrealm.com


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