Steampunk is a burgeoning subculture that has begun to infiltrate many aspects of youth culture, including fashion, accessories, modern technology, entertainment, and even reading habits. Influenced by the 1800’s Victorian era and the industrial revolution as an advent of a time when steam engines were the symbol of modernity, there are many different concepts of what steampunk actually is, but why it’s coming to the forefront from its long-hidden cult status is a statement of how our society is changing and where influences are taking things next.
One of the common threads among steampunkers is the growing backlash to today’s modern technology, i.e., iPhones with no discernable gadgetry, and the desire for more craftsmanship and artistry in every day design. Combined with the DIY aesthetics of youth culture today, mixing and matching old eras and constructing new guidelines, plus influences from Japanese manga such as Fullmetal Alchemist, and musicians ranging from Bat for Lashes to Ladytron to The Unextraordinary Gentlemen, steampunk influences are seeping into many different facets of lifestyle. For example, the Wave Gotik Treffen festival held in Leipzig, Germany earlier this month was in part, a gathering of the steampunker tribes to compare fashion tips. Blogs such as brassgoggles.co.uk keeps daily tabs on all things steampunk, and crafty websites are popping up such as steampunkworkshop.com where the anonymous “von Slatt” creates step-by-step instructions for transforming your plain-jane modern laptop computer into an individual art masterpiece using old typewriter keys, a marble bass, and brass cradle for your screen.
Steampunkshop.com computer by Von Slatt.
Kyle Robinson, a.k.a. Thetrus, is a toymaker from Eugene, OR and his Steampunk Game Boy that makes 8-bit sounds.
Steampunk has stemmed into design in many other ways such as paintings depicting versions of what steampunk means with flying castles, time machines, and aircrafts. Steampunk accessories, especially watches are a hot item in Japan, which look more like assemblages than time pieces, made with antique watch faces, brass, old leather, and metallics. Even Burning Man, the circus-like technology dance festival held each year in the Nevada desert included a steampunk tree house (literally steaming) made of metal with rooms with secret areas, drawers and fanciful adornments.
Steampunk belt and bag that I shot at last summer’s Anime Expo in Los Angeles.
In fashion, steampunk includes a variety of styles that have a Gothic/Lolita quality to them, but are inspired more from Dandyism and the Victorian era, mixed with machines, clocks, and brass accessories. For example, the iconic steampunk piece is a pair of brass goggles (mad scientist/motorbike version). Other elements include corsets, leather straps and holsters, striped stockings, mad scientist hair teases, and metallic adornments—usually old vintage finds such as brass and copper clocks. Leather belts with a variety of loops (for the steampunk mechanic fix-it-yourself tools), dress overalls, and leather motorcycle jackets all fit into the steampunk style.
What’s interesting about steampunk fashion and accessories however, is that it’s one of the few subcultures that are not necessarily based on music. For example, unlike the sister-styles of J-Rock, based on the fashion aesthetics of Visual Kei bands, steampunk steams from a literary point of view, such as H.G. Wells or Jules Verne’s “Voyages Extraordinaire” which taps into the potential of science, blimps as air travel, adventure in a Brit, Wild West sort of way. Think Robert Downey Jr.’s version of ‘Sherlock Homes.’
According to Mich Fisher from Clockwork Couture, “To me, [steampunk] is like science is art. It’s taking science and technology and adding imagination and creativity and sort of spinning it into something completely different.”
It’s this rebellious need for something different, often achieved by looking to the past that is so attractive about steampunk to youth culture. It’s also a rebellion of sorts to technology as it is today—disposable, non-ending upgrades, and lack of craftsmanship (thus making it less of a keepsake) found during an earlier time. As author Paul Di Filippo says “We have museums dedicated to preserving steam engines and mechanical watches. It’s hard to image a future museum preserving every example of Blackberry.”
Di Filippo, who was one of the first authors to use the word steampunk in a book title, as in “The Steampunk Trilogy,” puts the technology influences of the steampunk movement into perspective. “The iPhone might be sleek and well-designed within its mode, but there’s no way it can compete in luxe qualities with some Victorian’s equivalent. Steampunk embodies both handicraft and mass-production elements in a rich visual vocabulary totally lacking in today’s plastic, cheap-jack gadgets.”
Magpie Killjoy, the former editor of Steampunk magazine has a similar take on the evolution of design and why steampunk is on the rise. She says that technology is “homogenous” today and that the reliance on mass production and fossil fuels has been part of the steamrolling defiance behind the growing steampunk movement. If you look at when technology was first redefining the world, the magic, artistry, and hope of a different way of living was electrifying. For many reason, including the sorry state of the economy, disposable nature of technology, and other trends, many people are seeking a new sense of excitement yet again.
“A lot of people are unconsciously drawn to this time period,” explains Magpie, “because there was marvel and wonder to be found in machines. You can see this in the level of ornamentation that Victorian technology was endowed with—each individual clock and cannon as a work of art unto its own. There was a time when machines were new and they could go any direction.”
Steampunk comics with female heroines are growing in popularity.
The direction of steampunk today is in many ways, the next step from Goth and punk influences, mixed with fascination of retro eras, craftivism, DIY aesthetics, artistry, and science. But the reasoning behind the movement makes this subculture unlike any other trend, simply because it’s more of a lifestyle—a way of thinking, drawing, creating, designing, and inspiring passion and meaning into a whole new way of living. It is these things that will keep steampunk growing strong.