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What Is Steampunk?

Steampunk is a subculture that combines elements of Victorian-era fashion and technology with science fiction and fantasy. It's a genre that has gained much popularity over the last thirty years or so, and has become a modern cultural phenomenon with a dedicated following world-wide. Inspirations for the Steampunk aesthetic can be traced back to the industrial revolution of the 19th century, when steam power was used to drive machinery and power transportation. This era was marked by the rise of factories and the mass production of goods, as well as the development of new
technologies like the steam engine, the telegraph, and the sewing machine. The works of Victorian writers such as HG Wells and Jules Verne, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle provide a rich seam of inspiration to Steampunks today.


A Short History of Steampunk

The Steampunk movement began to take shape in the 1980s and 1990s, when a small group of contemporary science fiction writers began incorporating elements of Victorian-era technology into their work. The name ‘Steampunk’ was first coined in April 1987 in the literary magazine, Locus (Issue 315) in an exchange of letters in which the writer K W Jeter is discussing the need for a name for the type of fiction that he (Jeter) and fellow authors, Tim Powers and James Blaylock were writing at that time. When William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published ‘The Difference Engine’ in 1990, the ideas and conventions of Steampunk began to take coherent form. This new aesthetic was soon reflected in the film and television industries, with films like "The City of Lost Children" and "Wild Wild West", amongst others, featuring Steampunk inspired designs.

Today, the Steampunk movement has spread around the world, with dedicated communities throughout Europe as well as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. Steampunk Events, like the annual ‘Asylum’ held in the UK each August have become popular destinations for enthusiasts to gather, socialise and show off their most amazing, creative styles. Devotees travel from far and wide to celebrate their shared love of all things Steampunk.

The Steampunk ‘Look'

The Steampunk aesthetic is characterised by a blend of old-fashioned Victorian fashion and retrofuturistic technology. It's a mechanical world of clockwork, gears, and steam power. Brass, copper, and iron are the dominant metals, whilst leather and natural fibres are the dominant fabrics. The Steampunk look is often accessorised with goggles, top hats, canes, umbrellas, or even outlandish ‘rayguns' as well as other Victorian-era accoutrements. Cross-over looks between different genres are plentiful, with Star Wars and Pirates themes often seen.

Steampunk enthusiasts often create their own costumes and accessories, incorporating elements of punk rock, fashion, anachronistic technology, and DIY culture into their Steampunk looks. Corsets are ‘de rigeur’ - but importantly, they are a matter of choice, not an enforced societal expectation of the feminine form. For many Steampunks, it is not costumes but simply clothes they are wearing. Much inspiration for Steampunk has its roots in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, where Victorian-era fashion and technology are deeply ingrained in the national consciousness. The British Steampunk scene is often marked by elaborate costumes and accessories, and a fascination with the history and technology of the Victorian era.  European Steampunk strongly favours the 'maker culture' roots of Steampunk, with Artisans, Engineers, and Inventors well represented.

In the United States, the Steampunk movement has taken on a more DIY, punk rock aesthetic. It often features elements from the old West and other iconic Americana. The American Steampunk scene is also marked by a love of Victorian-era science fiction and literature, particularly the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

However, more and more we see Steampunks drawing inspiration from outside of colonial era Victorian Britain, Europe, or America. This broader cultural palette gives new and ever brighter, bolder colour and flavour to the Steampunk scene.

In conclusion, Steampunk is a fascinating subculture with a rich history and a dedicated following. Its blend of old-fashioned Victorian fashion, anachronistic alternative history and futuristic technology has captured the imagination of people around the world, and its influence can be seen in everything from movies and television shows to fashion and art. Whether you're a fan of Victorian-era history or science fiction and fantasy, there's something in the Steampunk aesthetic for everyone to enjoy.

CmDr Gearwood
June 2023

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