What is Steampunk?
by Sylvan Doyle
Steampunk is a creative movement and aesthetic that re-imagines the past and recreates it in a way that ignores the limitations of time. It is a form of retro-futurism that merges the aesthetics, technology and fashion of Victorian England or America’s Wild West and melts it into the technology-soaked modern era.
Steampunk can be seen to be embracing the aesthetic beauty and style of the Victorian era but blending it with a dystopian or post-apocalyptic edge. It exists as a living, breathing representation of science fiction, where different eras can exist at the same time. By combining seemingly disconnected eras and ideas, steampunk represents a total liberation of the creative process. It allows and encourages tinkering, blending and making, whether it be gadgets, trinkets, machines or clothing.
Steampunk clothing has become a form of self-expression and way for people to communicate their love of creativity and classic styles into the uniqueness of a genre with almost limitless scope and no real fixed rules. Steampunk fashion is unique in that it is really a mixture of fashion trends across widely different historical periods. Steampunk clothing embraces the style of characters from the 19th century, explorers, lords, soldiers, countesses and harlots. And to this it adds elements of punk, goth, burlesque, frills and fetishism.
Why the Steam?
The steam in Steampunk refers to the industrial steam powered engines and machines of the 1800’s. The steam engine represents the monumental shifts that the industrial revolution brought to the world. It well as being a machine that perfectly embodied the appeal of both function and form, it has come to be seen as a machine with tangible beauty, from the billowing white steam to gleaming polished brass. A machine with a timeless appeal. The materials in widespread use in machines of the era have also come to be synonymous with steampunk, brass, steel, wood and leather. Incorporated into goggles and gadgets, timepieces and trinkets.
What About the Punk?
The punk aspect of steampunk is not necessarily a dystopian view of the world and is really more closely linked to a reflection of the non-conventional attitudes that the punk movement represented. Punk came to symbolize pushing against the established norms through any means possible. Through music, art, attitude or appearance. It was a complete declaration of individuality.
What’s in a Name?
The term steampunk was first used in 1987 in a letter to a Science Fiction magazine, Locus, from the sci-fi author K.W. Jeter. He was trying to find a terminology to describe his work, Morlock Night, as well as works by fellow authors James Blaylock and Tim Powers. While Jeter may have coined the term, it wasn’t until 1992 however, when William Gibson and Bruce Sterling brought the genre real attention with their alternative history novel, The Difference Engine. Previously known for their contributions to the cyberpunk genre, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling created an 1855 Victorian Britain where great technological and social change occurred after the inventor Charles Babbage successfully creates the first mechanical computer. Powered by steam, his new engine begins to cause the type of technological change and social upheaval that we are today beginning to see through the creation and expansion of the internet into nearly every aspect of our modern lives.
From that point on, steampunk only gained momentum, although there are some films and novels that could easily be considered steampunk while pre-dating The Difference Engine by many decades. In fact, steampunk’s most revered heroes are surely H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Although initially regarded as part of the origin of Science Fiction, if they wrote their famous works The Time Machine or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea they would today be considered steampunk authors.
Over the years, steampunk has evolved into far more than a sub-genre of Science Fiction. It now extends into fashion, design, art and for many, represents an entire lifestyle. With the hugely varied palettes of Science Fiction, Victorian Britain, the Wild West as well as post-apocalyptic films such as Mad Max as inspiration, steampunk fashion or projects encourage people to create items of beauty and elegance out of any number of random ideas, trinkets or accessories. What others may see as junk or scrap parts, steampunk artists embrace and transform into something new and expressive, as either an original creation or the modification of something classic into something more modern.
Steampunk fashion has few real rules or guidelines other than recognizing that steampunk clothing is essentially the real-world incarnation of the clothing described or seen in steampunk literature or media. If in any doubt beyond that central idea, then something else to fall back on is to dress Victorian and let your creativity go from there. People of the Victorian era were the first people to live in an age where steam based technology began to have a widespread effect on society and people’s lives. So that’s why steampunk is so closely linked with that era and why it’s therefore not really possible to have a steampunk outfit that’s “too Victorian”.
Going beyond the general idea that Victorian is steampunk, some items have still become synonymous with steampunk. Wide varieties of steampunk goggles, made from polished brass and sporting intricate patterns on round frames have become a trademark of the genre. Goggles are often found in steampunk clothing or images, to the extent that steampunk goggles are now a recognized trademark of the genre in much the same way that gears or intricate mechanical clocks are. The attraction of goggles to the world of steampunk boils down to their association with science and mechanized travel, as well as their aesthetic look. That certainly doesn’t mean that they need to be added to every steampunk outfit or style because that goes against the purpose of wearing them in the first place - to identify a character type, whether a pilot, a scientist or an adventurer.
Corsets too have become a staple item of steampunk clothing. In steampunk, corsets are embraced as an item of clothing rather than an undergarment. They are a classic illustration of neo-Victorianism, where steel boned corsets in leather or brocade become the conspicuous centerpiece of an outfit rather than being hidden below other less bold layers of clothing.
Steampunk dresses and skirts tend to be highly influenced by the Victorian era silhouettes, bustled skirts, bell skirts, trumpet skirts and petticoats. But tending to be worn in a sexier more risqué fashion than would ever have been dared in the Victorian era. Steampunk hats incorporate many styles including top hats, bowler hats and the deerstalker hat made famous by Sidney Paget’s illustrations of Sherlock Holmes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels. Other items of headgear including flight helmets, pith helmets, military hats, and bandanas are also chosen.
To those can be added waistcoats, boots and other military-inspired garments. Polished brass steampunk jewelry consisting of rings, broaches and necklaces or accessories as eccentric as gas masks or as aristocratic as pocket watches are also increasingly common in steampunk circles. The brass steampunk watch or other classic timepieces are common too. Steampunk clothing can also be accented with period or technological accessories, including anything that cleverly or aesthetically adds something to an outfit, from a parasol to a ray gun.
Steampunk Art and Design
Visually, today’s steampunk movement owes much of its aesthetic and design elements to the early 1950’s and 60’s film adaptations of the classic novels The Time Machine and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This is especially the case with the design of 20,000 Leagues’ submarine, the Nautilus, its interior as well as the costume design of its submariners.
In 1994, the Arts et Métiers Paris Metro station was redesigned in steampunk style by the Belgian artist Francois Schuiten in honor of Jules Verne’s contribution to science fiction and steampunk. The station was re-imagined as a submarine, sheathed in brass, complete with portholes and huge cogs hanging from the ceiling.
In 2009, the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, UK hosted the first major exhibition of steampunk art objects. The exhibition was curated by the New York artist and designer, Art Donovan, who along with eighteen other artists from around the world showcased a mix of fantastical machines, beautiful and strange contraptions and electro-futuristic light sculptures. It became the most highly attended exhibition in the museum’s history and attracted more than 80,000 visitors.
Today, the steampunk movement is represented across most cultural and artistic mediums, from films, novels, comics, games, websites, art and sculptures. Morlock Night by K.W.Jeter, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers and Homunculus by James Blaylock were soon joined by other now classic steampunk novels from Jeter and Blaylock, Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy and Lord Kelvin’s Machine.
Classic steampunk films include the 1994 Japanese animated film Steamboy, set in an alternate nineteenth century Europe, the 1995 French film The City of Lost Children and the more recent films The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing.
Comic books in the genre include Gotham by Gaslight a DC comic book that reimagines Batman as a Victorian-age vigilante, and Vertigo Comics’ Sebastian O, which tells the adventures of an assassin living in London.
There are also several computer and role-playing games set in steampunk inspired worlds.
Syberia is a computer game set on an alternative earth that contains elements of both art nouveau and steampunk fiction. The world of Syberia is filled with gadgets and machines powered by springs and wind-up gears and contains many steampunk gadgets and puzzles. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, is a computer role-playing game that takes place in the fantasy world of Arcanum, that is in the process of an industrial revolution where magic and technology become two opposing forces. Space 1889 is another role-playing game where players control and battle steam driven spaceships. Other popular computer games that incorporated elements of the steampunk aesthetic include the highly successful MYST and its successor, Riven.
Some well-known artists and makers in the movement include Datamancer, who creates stunning modern technological devices such and computers and keyboards made not from plastic and steel but instead from brass and oak. Jake Von Slatt is another well-known steampunk maker, who crafts various projects and showcases them on the SteampunkWorkshop website. There are also many European based production companies such as La Machine, that focus on the world of steampunk. La Machine, a French production company is most famous for La Princesse, a giant 50-foot mechanical spider, that cost more than $3 million to build and which was first showcased in Liverpool, UK as part of the 2008 European Capital of Culture. Upon its unveiling, the mechanical spider went on to stun the huge crowd that had gathered to see it by walking right through the middle of the crowd and into the heart of the city’s shopping district.
In both fiction and art, steampunk continues to make lasting impressions. The unique combination of nostalgia for an aesthetically beautiful and highly romanticized era and the incorporation of technology and amazing inventions is a mix with a rare capacity to capture the imagination.
The Future of Steampunk
There is always some debate amongst those who relate to the steampunk movement as to what steampunk does and doesn’t encompass. For some, the lines between steampunk and the goth, fantasy and horror sub cultures is too blurred, while for others they embrace the hybrid nature of a genre that at its core is all about anachronism and the blending of ideas.
As long as people continue to be drawn to the retro-futuristic inventions and imagined possibilities of our technological future in much the same way that people in the 19th century may have envisioned their changing futures, steampunk will retain its engaging and gritty aesthetic.
The reason that we are drawn to both technology and the romantic ideals of the Victorian era is that we naturally come to equate technological change with the anticipation of new and greater possibilities. In their influential look at steampunk in the work Like Clockwork: Steampunk Pasts, Presents, and Futures, Rachel Bowser and Brian Croxall put it that "the tinkering and tinker-able technologies within steampunk invite us to roll up our sleeves and get to work re-shaping our contemporary world.”