What is Steampunk?
It’s come to my attention lately that many people still don’t seem to really have any idea what exactly Steampunk is. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that it involves gears and leather and stuff, but what is and isn’t Steampunk? Where did it come from, and what does it mean?
I’ll do my best to answer all of those questions for you. As someone who’s studied Steampunk extensively and has been a part of the movement for many years, I feel that I have a unique perspective on all of these things. I know that I’m not the Only Steampunk Authority In The World, but bear with me and maybe we’ll come to some understandings about Steampunk.
So, what is Steampunk?
That’s a hard question to answer, which is why so many people still struggle with it. Part of the problem is that Steampunk means different things to different people, so it naturally defies easy defining or explaining. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t do it!
The term “Steampunk” really applies to a wide variety of people who use the aesthetics or affectations of the past in their costuming and/or daily life. Steampunks are specifically concerned with the aesthetics and affectations of the Victorian era (approximately 1837-1901), but some people expand it earlier or later. Seems straightforward, right? Well, the problems begin to arise when you start to realize that Steampunk isn’t really about the past at all.
Why isn’t Steampunk about the past?
Lots of reasons! First of all, let’s lay to rest the idea that Steampunk is about the Victorian era. Yes, it *sort of* draws on Victorian aesthetics, ideas, and culture, but there are enough differences that a real Victorian would be embarrassed. The fact of the matter is that we, today, have no real conception of what life was like at that time, and no amount of historical films or history books will really give us an understanding of that. Instead, Steampunk draws on what we THINK the Victorian era was like, which is far more of a reflection on how contemporary society has treated history than it is of the actual historical period itself.
The fact is that we just don’t think about the world in the same way as they used to. My favorite example is how we think of H.G. Wells’s time machine as looking vaguely like an airboat, with the big dish in the back and a seat with some levers in front of it. Well, that conception of the time machine is from the 1960’s, after the car became prevalent in society. When Wells designed the time machine, he thought of it not even as a bicycle, but as a tricycle, because that’s what he was riding at the time. He didn’t learn how to ride a bicycle until after the time machine was published.
There are a million other little examples of how the things they thought of would just never occur to us today, thus separating Steampunk from the fiction written during the Victorian era. Instead, most of what Steampunk is REALLY based on are the films created in the 50’s and 60’s that were, in turn, based on those Victorian works. As another example, how many science fiction drawings have you seen from the Victorian era that really showcase how people of the time were envisioning the future? Probably few to none, and those that do exist don’t even always line up with what we think they should look like.
Second, need I bring up the harsh realities of the Victorian era? It was dirty and full of disease, oppression, and outright slavery. Those aspects frequently get swept under the metaphorical rug, even further distancing Steampunk from the real Victorian era.
If Steampunk isn’t about the past, what IS it about?
Well, it’s about the present. Steampunk has experienced such a meteoric rise in popularity due to the fact that it resonates with lots of people, and that’s because it’s sufficiently broad as to allow people to come for lots of different reasons. Let me highlight some of those reasons for you:
1. People are tired of the sleek, minimalist aesthetics that are currently popular, and want things that are intricate and interesting.
2. People dislike the trend of casualness in all aspects of modern culture, and want more formal and rigid rules that dictate social interaction.
3. It’s sad to see people walking around at the mall wearing practically their pajamas and looking like they just rolled out of bed, and people want other people to at least try to look nice.
4. Some people think it’s inappropriate to wear so few clothes out in public, and think that people should wear more modest styles.
5. For the first time in human history, there is no longer a frontier to expand to, and so people find themselves feeling ‘trapped’ by how small the world is and long for a time when the world was bigger.
6. The workings of modern technology are literally incomprehensible to the average person, and the lack of control that it creates makes people want easily-understood machines.
7. Most people no longer make things with their hands, and find that they crave the ability to just make something, and Steampunk gives them that opportunity.
8. Modern clothes are simple and boring, and so people crave more interesting, ornate, complicated clothing.
These are just a few examples of a list that undoubtedly goes on for quite a long time. While all of those examples don’t apply to everyone, at least one of them applies to everyone in Steampunk, if not more than one. Though again, this is just a small sampling of a full list, which I can’t fully anticipate. I do not, after all, speak for all Steampunks.
However, all of the items on the list have the same thing in common: they’re all reactions to something going on in modern society or culture. In that way, you can consider Steampunk a counterculture. People are drawn to Steampunk because it supplies them with something that would otherwise be missing from their lives.
If Steampunk is about the present, then why does it look Victorian?
Here’s the first point of this article where we enter the realm of speculation. Bearing in mind for a minute that it DOESN’T really look Victorian, I think that the popularity of Steampunk isn’t actually intrinsically related to the Victorian era at all, but instead is drawn to that time because of a confluence of traits. Remember that all of the examples listed above for why people become involved in Steampunk would all still exist even if Steampunk didn’t. So what this says to me is that the Steampunk movement arose because it was time for it to do so. Remember also that Steampunk has existed for a very, very long time, during which it languished in obscurity until around 2005.
I think the reason why Steampunk is so popular right now is because it’s a so-called ‘perfect storm’. That is, it meets all of the criteria listed above, as well as a few not listed. For example, the Victorian era is long enough ago so as to no longer be problematic for most people, but long enough ago as to be exotic. But none of those are inherently Victorian, it’s just that the Victorian era hits all of those points.
Where did Steampunk come from?
Steampunk, as I said, is based on the Victorian era in the same way that Hollywood movies can be based on a true story. That is, hardly at all. So since there’s such a big difference between Victorian Science Fiction and Steampunk, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t the same thing. Not only that, but the things that modern Steampunks are reacting to are in many ways the opposite of the things that Victorian writers were reacting to, thus separating Steampunk from Victorian Science Fiction ideologically as well as aesthetically. There is one thread that ties those two times together, and that’s massive technologically-based societal change, but that alone isn’t enough to account for the huge variety of reasons why people come to Steampunk.
So if Steampunk isn’t the same thing as Victorian Science Fiction, what IS it?
I usually cite “The Wild, Wild West” TV show (1965) as the start of modern Steampunk, as it was the first example of the blend of the past and the future. Also that year was “The Great Race” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”. Either way, it started around then as purely an aesthetic, and evolved into a genre somewhere around the 1970’s. You can read about all this on Wikipedia, so I won’t go into too much detail on this point.
What’s important to note is that the genre and the movement/subculture/counterculture of Steampunk are inherently different phenomena, and often don’t even interact. Many of the makers I know don’t read Steampunk books (as opposed to Victorian Science Fiction, which they may read), and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone dressed as a character from a Steampunk book. However, I’ll explain what makes them different.
The short answer is that books provide context, and costumes don’t. That is, when you go to read a book, it’s more than just a ‘look’. It has a full story that takes place in a fleshed-out world featuring characters with goals and personalities.
Costuming doesn’t have any of that, it’s just pure aesthetic. So the people making the costumes have to fill in the rest for themselves. However, a problem quickly arises; that is, in a book, the characters can interact with each other due to the provided context, or setting. In real life, there’s no generically Steampunk setting. By which I mean that Steampunk isn’t like Star Wars, for example, in that the Star Wars universe has specific rules and events and people. But with Steampunk, one person’s Steampunk world could be post-apocalyptic, whereas another’s could be in the past. There’s not necessarily any common ground between people’s outfits or characters, which means that Steampunks are forced to interact in the real world.
That’s why the genre and movement are different, and why the movement is even more specifically about the real world than the books are.
But is my outfit Steampunk? I want to make sure my outfit is Steampunk!
Who cares? Whether your outfit is exactly Steampunk or not is of absolutely no importance to anyone except you. Steampunk is more than just an aesthetic, as I’ve said, it’s a counterculture. But whether you’re wearing an ACTUAL Steampunk outfit or not, you can still participate in the counterculture, and I have yet to see anyone get ejected from a Steampunk event because someone’s outfit was Dieselpunk instead, or Neo-Victorian, or even anime-inspired. The point is to participate in the community and to make things happen. Support the people who put on events or make Steampunk clothes or props, and show the world that you want something more than what you’ve been given.
Is X, Y, or Z Steampunk?
Maybe. Probably not. The word ‘Steampunk’ necessarily needs to apply to a specific set of things or else it loses all meaning. If we start saying that everything with a pair of goggles in it is Steampunk, then why are we even bothering? Use your best judgment, and try not to see Steampunk in everything. Beyond that, just go out and make a difference.
Photo by Taryn Truese, caption by Michael Salerno. Model is G.D. Falksen, mechanical arm by Thomas Willeford.
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