Last week we talked about defining Steampunk. The goal was to try to offer an easy to use explanation to give to those asking just what it is we do. The result? Well, I hope people came away with a bit more understanding about why simple answers do and don’t work, and a general idea of what to tell your friends and family when they do ask. For those involved with the subculture it becomes a bit broader and more inclusive when you’re trying to find examples of Steampunk.
So if we’ve really only a general description then how do we know if something is or isn’t Steampunk? To paraphrase the famous quote, ‘I may not be able to define Steampunk, but I know it when I see it,’
When you’re Starting Out it’s a bit easier to get an idea of what can make something Steampunk. After all a glance through the internet shows the basic tenets of what fits into the profile. A hat of some sort, usually a top hat or bowler, a vest if you’re a man or corset if you’re a woman, trousers for men and of course a skirt or dress for the ladies for completing the general look. Accessories are the real eye catcher in most cases with painted weapons, lots of pouches, and bits and bobs going a long way in helping to complete the ensemble.
The most popular of pictures one finds definitely point to the technofantasy, the retrofuturism, and neo-Victorian parts of Mike Perschon’s aesthetic definition. Weapons and gadgets that do things normal science cannot, outfits that borrow some from modern sensibilities, and a nod to the garb and general dressing style of the Victorian age. The fact that we talked about the visuals as one of the leading indicators of what makes something Steampunk also lends credence to the idea of our subculture as an aesthetic rather than a genre.
So can someone slap some gears on something and call it Steampunk? They can, though depending on the level of attention they’ve given it people might not agree with them.
Well known website Regretsy has an entire section dedicated to pointing out the false labeling of Steampunk on some items sold via the online store Etsy. Often used as a tag to try to get more viewers to a given product, a lot of what you find will cause many Steampunks to blink and wonder what they were thinking. Stuff includes a thong leotard of crushed velvet, an “Indian” loin cloth with circuit boards stapled to it, and more bits of overpriced octopus jewelry than you can shake a parasol at.
So how does one go about saying that something is Steampunk? Once again it goes back to Mike Perschon and author Cherie Priest. When you’re looking to create an outfit or build a prop that fits along Steampunk lines keep the three points in mind: Technofantasy, Retrofuturism, and Neo-Victorian.
A lot of Steampunk Science is based on actual science, but it also draws from the concept of Science! with a capital S. This sort of science is more fantastical, capable of doing things that really aren’t possible in our modern world or even with more advanced science in the future. Many of these props draw from a variety of sources including pop-culture, speculative fiction from the Victorian era, and even old scientific theories. There is nothing that cannot be accomplished in Steampunk thanks to the power of Aether.
Some props actually do work as intended and are capable of doing some pretty incredible things. The explanation given for them might be more over the top than the truth, however. Baby electric eels aren’t actually necessary when you have a good hand powered electrical generator to send a shock through people.
One thing I tell people when explaining Steampunk is that we are not historical re-enactors. While we borrow heavily from old styles of clothing and fashion to build our outfits, we don’t necessarily gun for perfect copies. Most of the time a piece of clothing will try to elicit the feel and the look of its 19th century counterpart rather than actually be made of the same material and in the same manner. Modern articles of clothing have also become common sights at Steampunk events including: combat boots, cargo pants, short skirts, and thankfully modern materials. Denim, as another example, has been used to make trousers for a century and a half now even if the design and cut of jeans aren’t something that’d be recognized back then. Not everything needs to be wool.
This refers to the time period usually associated with Steampunk. Generally people will pull from influences ranging from as early as the late 18th century all the way through to World War 2. While the late 19th and turn of the 20th century is considered the prime zone for Steampunk, there’s still quite a bit of flexibility as some things did not change much. Men’s fashion is a good example. Because many of our sensibilities have, however, that doesn’t mean Steampunk has to stick to everything that was believed back then, and looking at a crowd at a Steampunk event proves this.
So does it have to fit all three of these targets? Remember also Priest talking about Steampunk in levels and not just as a yes or no answer. Something can certainly share two of these ideas and still fall under the category of Steampunk. Burning Man constructions, for instance, might be missing some of the Neo-Victorian bent but work perfectly under the idea of technofantasy with spurting fire everywhere, and retrofuturism within the design. The creator may not necessarily call it Stemapunk, but it could very well still have the flavor for it.
The same goes for other ideas such as Nerfpunk. A concept sprung from the idea of adapting clothing to match the color of Nerf guns rather than painting the toys to match Steampunk. It still fits very well into the theme of Steampunk while being witty and clever. The idea of someone walking down the street in bright yellow and blue trousers, for instance, would be considered absurd in London around 1890. It’d be liable to flat out get you in trouble doing so down the streets of Tombstone around the same time.
So in the end what does Steampunk look like? Much like finding a universal definition, it depends. There are commonly held themes that are consistent in most people’s depictions. Styles of fashion that are predominant and colors that are more used than others. That doesn’t mean that we’re restricted to only Victorian Era fashion or speculative fiction of the time. It also doesn’t mean you should go hog wild and run from these themes, but if you wanted to dress in all pink and show up as a more realistically proportioned Steampunk Barbie? Then go right ahead.
In the end what we do is about having fun, and if you’re not having fun, why are you doing it?