If you've been paying attention to popular culture in the past few years, odds are good you've noticed a particular trend that has been gaining momentum. Perhaps it was in movies like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or in video games such as Bioshock, or even on the runway of designers like Versace. There's a new subculture, and it's really gaining steam…...pun definitely intended. We're talking about steampunk, a style that takes an unusual blend of Victorian aesthetics, turn of the century technology, and a dash of science fiction outlandishness to create a beautiful and complex society. But where did all of this start, and what is steampunk comprised of?
To trace the roots of the steampunk genre, we have to follow the paper trail. It all started with books, though there is no one author who can be credited with starting the genre. For more influential work, we can look at H.G. Wells' sci-fi romances, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian adventures, Jules Verne's fantastical voyages, and Mary Shelley's dark epics. While they could not have known it at the time, their writings would help to forge a new subculture decades later. The ability to incorporate adventures with speculative scientific techniques, romantic entanglements, and exciting battles laid the groundwork for modern writers to create similar intrigues.
These new writers, like K.W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and Jim Blaylock, began to write stories that were set in a time where technological advances had taken a different route, and steam was a major source of energy. Their stories kept the look and feel of the Victorian period, but was on a split timeline from reality. The term 'steampunk' was coined by these writers as they tried to find a term for their genre of work, something that would convey he correct feel as far as the style went but also explained a bit of the unusual side of their literature. They settled on steampunk- steam to indicate Victorian, and punk as a nod to the cyberpunk genre forged by Philip K. Dick and other authors. It was the 1980's, and the wave of a new culture was beginning to swell.
It would be another 20 years before steampunk began to gain in both attention and followers, but the time was not spend idle. Many more writers became enamored with the fantastical world that was being created- perhaps because of the beauty of the Victorian clothing and society in this new world, perhaps because of the uniqueness of the thought behind the stories, or perhaps simply because it was new and unexplored- and so the amount of literature out there grew. Where books go, other media soon follows, and soon movies like The Brothers Grimm, Van Helsing, and Wild Wild West began to incorporate some of the elements of these books. This is when the steampunk subculture really began to take off, after people had seen these movies and now had inspiration to draw from. This interest, in turn, fueled a resurgence in the number of books, artists, and shops springing up to cater to this new audience.
There were, however, nods to these genres earlier than that. Before the term 'steampunk' had even been coined, Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, made in 1954, is a strong influence on the look of the technology of the steampunk genre. Similarly, the TV show Wild Wild West from 1965 shows an extensive use of technology that would be right at home in the genre today. So, while the subculture itself is relatively new, there has been quite a history laid down for the people involved to draw from, something that some others do not have the luxury of.
Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the steampunk genre is the unusual way it is so inclusive of other subcultures. When it comes to steampunk, there are many offshoots that are under this umbrella. There are very scientific- leaning groups of people in the steampunk world, whose characters are scientists and doctors. Others are set in a Western world, with influences from old cowboys and saloon girls. Still others draw from the romantic horror ideas, drawing in a darker and more gothic feel. Dieselpunks are a post-apocalyptic offshoot of steampunks, whose world depends on diesel fuel and is more gritty. There are many, many more, if you just look!
Despite all of these variances, the main look of steampunk is influenced by Victorian fashion. It is not uncommon to see women dressed in bustle skirts, corsets, and Victorian button boots, or to see gentlemen in frock coats, harness boots, and elaborate goggles. Many people involved in this subculture will take their outfits to the point that they have a life of their own, often creating a character around this unique style. The names are often quaint and fun, with many a Madam, Countess, Von, and Tinker thrown in there. These names help to separate real life from the time spent in the steampunk world, often allowing the participant to feel more a part of their steampunk world and be free to act as their character would, rather than just dressing up.
There is far more to steampunk than just an outfit. This is an immersive, complex, and fully-formed world to engage with, and many people choose to do so. It isn't just an outfit some people put on; it's a character, a new life. And that's a truly amazing thing to do!
So what will you need to know if you want to be involved in this unique world? Well, start by reading and watching movies. In order to understand this subculture, the books and films will help you to fully grasp the ideas and concept that drive the fashion. This research will also help you to find where you want to take your look- if you enjoy gothic romance, chances are you wouldn't want to be as involved with a Western style; instead, you'd fit in better (and feel more comfortable) with the goth horror style. You should spend some time looking at pictures of other people involved in steampunk online- it can give you some ideas and will sometimes introduce you to ideas you didn't know were out there! So definitely take some time to look into the history of the culture- we promise it will help you to really get a good grasp on what you want to look like.
Once you have determined where you fit within the steampunk world, reach out to other people already involved in that scene. The people in the steampunk subculture are almost always amazingly friendly, and are usually happy to answer questions for you. If you see someone wearing an amazing outfit, ask where they got it. Find out what they watch, and what their favorite books are. You'll make friends quickly, whether they're just down the street or on the other side of the world- that's the benefit of living in the digital age. When you connect with people who are into what you like, you're creating a support system for your character, and gaining a group of people who can help you find anything you need.
Once you do that, you're ready to find your outfits. It used to be the case that many people involved with steampunk had to make their own clothing, but now there's a huge number of amazing artisans that you can buy goods from online (though if you're so inclined, you can certainly still make your own!). If you want a beautiful hand tooled leather harness, a unique modified (modded) steampunk gun, a handmade steampunk corset with buckles and clasps, you can find it all online now. There are also steampunk conventions you can attend in full regalia, giving you the chance to meet even more people and shop from local artisans who specialize in pieces like leather masks, steampunk accessories, and Victorian hats.
When you embark on the journey of joining the steampunk world, you'll probably feel overwhelmed when it comes time to start shopping. You'll want to buy everything at once, and I can't blame you- so many things are just amazingly intricate and well thought out that you just want it all! Try to restrain yourself, though, and start by shopping for basic pieces. You'll want to have a good set of pieces that are versatile and interchangeable between outfits when you start out, rather than buying just one big dress that will only give you one look. For women, I recommend a few Victorian blouses, a good steel-boned corset (which is great for back support and creating a gorgeous figure), a pair of steampunk leggings or bloomers, and at least one bustle or convertible skirt (convertible skirts usually have drawstrings that allow you to wear a skirt in several ways, such as short, long, hitched up in the front or just on one side, etc.). For gentlemen, you'll need a few pairs of Victorian trousers, some steampunk shirts, and at least one Victorian coat. These staple pieces mean you can get a good number of outfits from just a few articles of clothing by swapping things around.
Next, you'll need the right accessories. Steampunk is made in the details, so be sure to invest in quality pieces that really speak to you. Steampunk boots are a must for both genders, and will fit with pretty much any genre you go with. Victorian gloves and hats are also very appropriate, as no proper gent or lady would go out without them. Look for unique jewelry, such as clockwork necklaces, unusual cameos, and antique bracelets, as these can define your look further. Men, unique cufflinks- such as those with clockwork accents- would not be out of place; nor would items like cravats or Victorian waistcoats. More elaborate pieces, like wide belts and crossbody harnesses, are also good options, if they fit with your vision of your character. Whatever you buy (or make!), be sure to stay true to yourself and your aesthetic- this is what will set your character apart from all of the others.
As your character evolves, feel free to add special pieces that tell their story. If you're an explorer, add pieces like compasses or maps to show that. Scientists can carry a belt of test tubes, and engineers can incorporate goggles, wrenches, and the like to create their look. Remember that your character can have a life of their own- their story can change, and their look can grow and change. Have fun with it!
Another aspect to grow your steampunk persona is through gaming. Whether you prefer online gaming or old-fashioned, Dungeons and Dragons style tabletop gaming, you can find an outlet to help you connect to your character that way, and to have adventures with other people. Even if you can't find people in your immediate area to game with, don't worry- the digital age can help with that as well. Find people who want to game, and connect usuing Skype, Twitch, or some other video communication platform! Look for games like Guns of icarus, Black Gold, and City of Steam: Arkadia if you prefer online gaming, and try SteamCraft, Tephra, Space 1889, or Verne for tabletop games. Again, this helps you to connect, both with other people and your other self!
We hope this primer course in steampunk has encouraged you to read a few books and check out this amazing, beautiful, and intricate world for yourself. It's a rewarding and involved subculture that is constantly changing and incorporates the aesthetic of many other groups in with their own, giving many different people a place to fit in. There's a place for you, too- you just have to find it!