“Steampunk is…a joyous fantasy of the past, allowing us to revel in a nostalgia for what never was. It is a literary playground for adventure, spectacle, drama, escapism and exploration. But most of all it is fun!” -George Mann
I have long been fascinated with steampunk culture. So imagine my surprise while sitting at a table with six other people of varying ages and backgrounds, none of which had even heard the term “steampunk,” much less knew what it was. I was even more surprised that I could not, at the time, come up with adequate words to describe the complex and unique cultural movement. After some time and consideration, here is what I have come up with regarding the basis of steampunk culture, what you may have already seen that is considered steampunk, and how to get involved.
So I think we better start with the basics. Steampunk, originating as a sub-genre of science fiction, has become a full-on subculture in the nerd world. Heavily influenced by the Industrial Era and steam-powered technology, it is a kind of retro-futurism that has nothing to do with the Jetsons. Babbage’s Analytical Engine, designed in the early 1800s as a theorized, but not put into practice, precursor to the computer, is often incorporated into steampunk works and is an inspiration for advanced technology powered by steam. 19th century retro-futurism is distinct because it is not their future as we have witnessed it, but their future as 19th century people might have imagined it. Therefore, the style of the era is heavily incorporated into steampunk architecture, art and fashion.
Most of the movement is inspired by the 19th century, including the fashion. Corsets and top hats are common, but are often commonly mixed with gears and brass for a technological touch. Long skirts for girls are the norm, and full double breasted suits for the men. Steampunk can be modernized, featuring “slutified” versions of the outfits for women and more casual alternatives for the men. Goggles on your top hat and mechanizations with brass and gears on an arm, leg, or your face are also common additions to separate you from a period dresser. These technological additions are most often completely fictional and serve no true purpose other than a unique appearance.
Cult animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender is a unique case of the steampunk culture. The original series showed a fictional nation known as The Fire Nation, with some steampunk technology. Later, in the next generation series, currently airing, Legend of Korra, the story takes place in Republic City, a city where all nations have come together and formed a futuristic outpost. Technology has massively moved forward, due to the end of The Hundred Year War, and Republic City is the evidence of that. Featuring early cars, planes and factories galore, Republic City is a heavily Steampunk environment, with an Asian twist.
Popular web series The Guild features a season taking place at a gaming convention. One character, Clara, if fascinated by a steampunk booth and is determined to be accepted into the culture. Joss Whedon’s sister-in-law Maurissa Tancheroen is the guest star playing a snobby steampunk queen. Check out the clip below:
Steampunk is a lot more common than you think! Many popular authors feature steampunk technology and 19th century retro-futurism in their works. Everyone has heard of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, whether or not you have read their works, The Time Machine and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Some modern authors are considered steampunk as well, such as Philip Pullman. The fictional world is often an alternate 19th century, with advanced steam-powered technology, or a future world where steam-power has reemerged as the only practical technology. Popular role playing games, such as MMORPG World of Warcraft and classic nerd game Dungeons and Dragons, incorporate steampunk elements for certain characters and cultures within their fictional worlds. Howl’s Moving Castle, a popular anime film by Miyazaki, features steampunk technology, including the titular steam-powered walking house shown below.
Love a good Con? SalonCon is a recently invented Steampunk Convention that has taken place a few times with no annual date, yet. Not to mention the most popular of cons, San Diego Comic Con, where the Saturday of the yearly July convention is often known as Steampunk Day, culminating in some pretty crazy group photos. If you feel like you want to take on a fashion element from the culture, check out Clockwork Couture online or stop by Pasadena, California’s store Gold Bug for some really interesting steampunk art collections and other paraphernalia.