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What The Fuck Is 'Steampunk'?

by Dan Swinhoe
29 August 2011 8 Comments

From sci-fi sub-genre to dedicated lifestyle, Steampunk has stepped out of the realms of H.G. Wells novels, to establish itself as one of the weirdest underground cultures around. But what the fuck is it?

Bored of bling or maybe skinny jeans and fringes just aren’t your thing and you’re looking for something new? The step right up for a new niche that’s been growing steadily over the Internet and is now spilling out into mainstream culture.

It’s called Steampunk. Mixing gothic Victorian dress sense with a penchant for shiny brass components (cogwheels, pipes, goggles) it’s probably the most retro fashion style outside medieval reenactment. Some of the more clever members of the group have called it retro-futurism or neo-victorianism, but basically its Victorian Goth with sci-fi leanings and if you’re aware of cyber punk it’s the same idea taken to the opposite extreme. Think Victorian society gentleman trying to invent a time machine on scrapheap challenge, and getting the parts stuck all over themselves.

The general themes of Steampunk are pretty simple. A love of airships and Tesla coils is a must, as is dressing up. An enthusiasm for DIY projects and making everything as archiac as possible is also helpful, as a general liking of history during the 19th century. Not for the lazy or the uneducated I’m afraid.

Think Victorian society gentleman trying to invent a time machine on scrapheap challenge, and getting the parts stuck all over themselves.

The very beginnings of Steampunk lie in Victorian authors such as Jules Verne (author of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea  and Journey to the Centre of the Earth) and H.G. Wells (The Time Machine and War of the Worlds), who imagined the technology of today using what they had at the time, which was mostly brass, wood, some old loo rolls and a healthy dose of imagination. Modern Steampunk has its roots in 70s graphic novels such as Bryan Talbot’s The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, but it wasn’t until the coming of the Internet that things really got going.

Pockets of Steampunkers became communities and soon started mushrooming. Today there’s conventions, books, films, parties, bands and everything else you can imagine, even erotic novels (Steamypunk, anyone?)

So for a Steampunk crash course, here’s a quick rundown of this bizarre world…

Fashion

There isn’t alot in the way of rules for dress code, as long as it fits the style it’s fair game. Aristocracy, peasant, pilot, nurse, soldier, sailor and anything else really. Customising with little details is popular too, especially goggles. But a word of warning from personal experience; don’t go to a Steampunk party in jeans and and trainers, you will stick out, and you will feel stupid.

DIY

A big part of the fun is sharing (and showing off) home made creations online. If it exists, there’s probably a Steampunked version of it. Computers, jewellery, guitars, even motorbikes and snowboards. There’s a million websites dedicated to it and a quick image search on Google will show you how much spare time some people actually have.

Music

For a scene with such a strong visual aspect it’s a surprise how there’s no fixed music style. As long as the lyrics are suitably Victorian based and they fit the image pretty much anything goes. There’s proper punk (The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing), Bhangra (Sunday Driver), Industrial (Abney Park) and even comedy rappers with beef (Professor Elemental and Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer).

Books

Reading material is important too (if you haven’t cottoned on yet, it’s all a bit middle class). There’s plenty in the way of fiction and graphic novels full of adventures in rusty backdrops, and more being published all the time. Cherie Priests Clockwork Century Novels are very popular and weaves all the cogs and goggles in subtly and Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan is meant to be the best Steampunk fiction has to offer.

And like so many other genres, Steampunk is getting its first big screen adaptation. JJ Abrams (Director of Lost and Super 8) has bought the rights to Boilerplate, a Steampunk graphic novel that follows the life of a Victorian robot who happens to be at most of the big events of the 1800s. Think Forest Gump meets Short Cicuit’s Johnny 5.

Community

There’s not a lot of action for Steampunks outside of London aside from the odd gig, and events in the capital are sporadic, so when they do pop up it’s usually full speed ahead on the partying. Though, events are becoming more and more frequent and bigger all the time. There’s big parties (White Mischief have regular bashes), conventions (Steamcon in America is into its third year), even exhibitions and galleries.

But, it’s the Internet where Steampunk is most active and you can find everything you could need and want to know in a few minutes. News, forums, DIY workshops, fashion boutiques, fanzines and more. The communities may be tight but are friendly.

So whatever you’re into, there’s a good chance you can attach cogwheels and brass goggles to it.

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Swampthing 1:27 pm, 29-Aug-2011

Abney Park as "industrial"? Since when?

Gyles 3:07 pm, 29-Aug-2011

Great summary. Full steam ahead to Lincoln for 'The Asylum' in 2 weeks - the largest steampunk festival in Europe. http://steampunk.synthasite.com/

Varkko 7:10 pm, 29-Aug-2011

I used to have a computer game on the Amiga 500 called Chaos Engine which positively reeked Steampunk, though i didn't know that at the time. The fashion looks wonderful, but i dont think id make it out of my street alive if i tried to dress that way.

Tess Elliott 4:14 am, 30-Aug-2011

Steampunk is a lot more than brass cogs stuck on things. The era of Jules Verne, and later H. G. Wells was an era where science was exciting, but even the instruments were beautiful. Imagine the visual nightmare of a costume made of cheap, crappy tshirts & jeans with Smartphones and ipads stuck to the outside. You might be able to do some interesting things, but the ensemble itself couldn't be uglier. Sometimes people want retro because it was beautiful--a long gone world of tailored, handmade clothing and tools that had utility but also amazing beauty. It speaks to the romantic in us, aside from being something a little different, and it is a homage to all things handmade in a plastic world. I love what it offers by inspiring people to make things and let out their artistic side.

Th'Elf 6:32 am, 30-Aug-2011

Abney Park is not 'industrial'. They got their start in goth, and they're more... world music. As far as steampunk music goes they're rather electro-rockish. Nice little summation article, though.

S Wesley Steam 6:59 pm, 30-Aug-2011

Abney Park is no where close to industrial. They have unique and wonderful sound. Steampunk is big on DIY and big on individuality. Many 'new' steampunks get started with 'slap a gear' on it costuming, but there is so much more to it than that. When ever possible, steampunk items should be fully functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. http://www.swesleysteam.com/2011/08/02/what-is-steampunk/

Beefy'sLovechild 8:20 am, 5-Sep-2011

Steampunk resides in Anime, the past the present the future of 'Steampunk' is rooted firmly there. All the tossers and wannabes who attempt cosplay and leave comments about Wells and Verne....get a life! Watch Anime and learn something...

Mr Taxi Man friend of Sir Corinthian Mumphord, Epicurean Time Explorer and abomination Hunter 4:56 pm, 10-Sep-2011

The women are hot, a sort of cross between burlesque and hot geeky chick, My mates a raving feckin' loonie tho and has a miele hoover on his back that doubles as a brain emulsifier which obviously worked on him. He has a nice tickly large moustache though *giggles*

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