Forum Thread: The Birth of a New Steampunk

The Birth of a New Steampunk

I recently wrote an article about why Steampunk should be defined, and it engendered much discussion. I'm glad it did, because discussion is often the path to both change and understanding. However, I saw a lot of people talking about things that struck me as, if not outright misunderstandings, then at least as thoughts that were outdated.

Sometimes it's easy to forget when talking about Steampunk evolving in the future that Steampunk has already evolved many times over the course of its lengthy life. When it first started in the 1960s, Steampunk was primarily a visual phenomenon.

Image via imgobject.com

Then in the 1970s it began to make the transition into text. Soon, text became the dominant form of the genre.

Another major shift occurred in the 1990s when Steampunk merged the two mediums in graphic novel form. Soon it began gaining popularity again and, by the time that the 2000s happened, Steampunk exploded into every available medium.

The biggest shift of all came around 2005, when Steampunk began appearing in the world of costuming. As I said in my recent essay in Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution, the leap to costuming was what really made Steampunk take off. Though granted, that explosion of popularity couldn't have happened without a cultural climate that was ready for it.

Image via staticflickr.com

Ever since the aforementioned leap to costuming, I think that most people have failed to re-evaluate Steampunk as a phenomenon, and thus are operating under a number of assumptions that are simply no longer true.

In my recent podcast with Justin Stanley, I said that when people first started self-identifying as Steampunk, it was because they wore Steampunk clothes or costumes. It would have been correct at that time to say that someone not wearing Steampunk clothes was not a Steampunk, because Steampunk as an ideology didn't exist. While there were Steampunk communities online, there was no real sense of community, or belonging.

Today, however, that has changed. I believe that it is entirely possible for someone not wearing Steampunk clothing to be considered a Steampunk, in much the same way that Goths don't have to wear black all of the time. Goth was also a state of mind, and an appreciation for the darker things in life. Likewise, Steampunk has become indicative of an appreciation for a variety of things associated with the past, including (but not limited to) long-lasting construction, nicer clothing, self-reliance, unique aesthetics, better manners, individual creativity, and more. While there may be variance among any specific group of Steampunks, these are generally the things that attract people to the subculture and foment the feeling of "belonging" among its members.

The fact that a Steampunk subculture even exists is indicative of the fact that Steampunk has progressed beyond a simple, aesthetically-based fashion and into a more nuanced, multi-leveled culture.

Reevaluation and Definition

Back in the beginning of this post, I mentioned that some people didn't seem to have realized that Steampunk has evolved into a new phenomenon that goes beyond the mere visual, and thus they were worried that belonging to the Steampunk subculture was entirely about looking the part.

In fact, that couldn't be more wrong. Some people participating in Steampunk don't wear costumes at all, such as many photographers, not to mention Dieselpunks and Post-Apocs. And yet they participate in a lot of Steampunk events and contribute to the culture. Are we to tell them that they don't belong, just because they don't look the part?

Of course not.

The community is open to anyone who shares an interest in the things mentioned above, or any of the other myriad, uncatalogable things that bring people to Steampunk. That's why defining the aesthetic won't (or shouldn't) undermine the sense of belonging that people experience in the subculture.

It's possible that Steampunk truly has evolved beyond its roots in a Victorian era aesthetic, and that now Steampunk represents a feeling or an ideology more than anything else, but we won't know unless we talk about it.

Whether you believe in a definition or not, we all need to be open to considering that Steampunk has evolved into something different right under our noses, and that this may not be the same Steampunk it once was.

Photos by TheMovieDB, Locus, Wikipedia, The von Hedwigs, MM, Suzanne Lazear

23 Responses

Nicely written and thank you for putting onto page what we are saying to the public again well done.
With Respect and Honor
Captain Whittaker

You are most welcome, sir! I always hope that my words fall on receptive ears. =)

I was once told that I shouldn't go to a con unless I had a developed "character" well thought-out in my words and costume. Unable to comply, I moved past that into my own appreciation for steampunk, undeterred by others' mandates. Okay, less deterred. By not worrying about whether I belonged to someone else's ideal, I found freedom to appreciate the movement for what it was ... to me personally.

That Steampunk "represents a feeling or an ideology" is something I can live with, and a framework within which I can participate (as always, as I damn well please, since I don't know any other way.)

That's ridiculous, and I hope that whoever told you that realizes now how silly it was.

I still believe that Steampunk can be defined, but it may need different definitions for Steampunk the genre, the aesthetic, and the subculture, as they are in many ways distinct phenomena.

@ Camiryn, tell them "poppycock" or talk to the H.A.N.D. ( Hydraulic Audible Noise Dampener). While the having a well thought out character does make interaction more fun, it's never required. Lots of the people at the con don't stay in character any way. I do more American steam punk so it's easier. Also, you see a lot of people in their Steampunk T-Shirts on the fist and last days. So come out and enjoy the world in any fashion you seem fit. And if you happen to see a Joker with large gas powered chickenzooka. Say hi.

......You have a large, gas-powered chickenzooka??

SHOW ME PICTURES OF THIS MAGNIFICENT THING.

It's really a chicken-powered Gazooka. Small but important difference.

Thank you for this thoughtful article! It expresses so much of what I love and how I feel about steampunk. These two paragraphs really say it all:

"The community is open to anyone who shares an interest in the things mentioned above, or any of the other myriad, uncatalogable things that bring people to Steampunk. That's why defining the aesthetic won't (or shouldn't) undermine the sense of belonging that people experience in the subculture.

It's possible that Steampunk truly has evolved beyond its roots in a Victorian era aesthetic, and that now Steampunk represents a feeling or an ideology more than anything else, but we won't know unless we talk about it."

Bravo, sir!

Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it! =D

I really liked you're thoughts and hope some time you're going to visit Portland Oregon. We have a large self labeled Steam Punk population, and are overwhelmingly minded as you are sir.

Thank you for your article.

You're welcome! I'm glad it hit a resonating note for so many people.

Unfortunately, I don't get up to the Northwest very often (if ever), but I'd really love to go to Steamcon!

Here's to hoping that I can make it, sometime. =)

What a thought out, informative and well delivered article. I'm just recently discovering Steampunk and it's really useful to have a guide such as this to help give an introductory overview of all the aspects the movement covers. Thank you

Thank you, Sammy! I'm glad you enjoyed the article!

That's exactly why I write these articles, and it means a lot to me to get feedback from people such as yourself. =)

Thank you for an excellent article. When I first heard the term "Steampunk", I googled it. All I could do was laugh because back in the mid '70's, I had the clothes, pocket watch and several other item. Just 40 years to early.

Glad you liked it, Lisa! Sounds like you were a Steampunk before its time! =)

When I give steampunk 101 panels I always tell people there are 2 rules to steampunk
1: look awesome (by your own standards not some else's)
2: have fun. Because if you're not having fun you're doing it wrong!!

I concur 110%. Steampunk, like all Art and movements, is a living, breathing entity. It is ALIVE.

It evolves, it grows, it changes. At a surprisingly fast rate, at that!

This is why, while I am not opposed to definition, I chuckle. To use the Count's phrase "Write whatever you like! It's obsolete before you finish the sentence."

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable article. Kudos!

Thanks, Savan! I know that you and I don't always see eye-to-eye, but at least we've fostered an attitude of mutual respect. =)

Now that it's been a year since you wrote this article, how has Steampunk evolved in the past year and what advice do you have for anyone trying to get into it now?

I have classified myself as goth in the past and have a huge love of Victorian everything. In fact, my degree is in history and my final paper focused on how Victorianism was showcased at the World's Fair of 1893.

However, the more I research Steampunk, the more I fall in love with it.

Austin Sirkin even though this post is made year ago I'd like to thank you for making this post as it's very well written and gave me a lot of information that I didn't know since im really new to this genre.

This article gave me a whole lot of information from the past that really didn't know until now so thank you sir!

cool :) I like, and finally get it..Who is and who isn't. Its a state of mind. Love the Victorian industrial current.

I like your thought on steampunk. Very well said.

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