by Lady Charlotte Halloway
If you ask a dozen Steampunks “what is steampunk?”, there is a good chance you will get a dozen different answers, even if only slightly varied. Watching the documentary ‘Vintage Tomorrows’, you will see experienced Steampunk enthusiasts mulling over the question and the various answers that can be given, both in words, and in the expression through fashion. Some Steampunks will be more open minded, while others will believe in very specific limitations. You will hear arguments over colors, accessories, and even whether or not to capitalize the “s” in the name. Believers will be pulled to one polar approach: either accuracy and exclusivity, or creativity and inclusion. Happily, most Steampunks I have met favor the second.
If you want to be a Steampunk ‘purist’ then you may want to reference K.W. Jeters, who coined the term “Steampunk”, when throwing out definitions. In his letter to a science fiction magazine in 1987, he described Steampunk as “Victorian fantasy” and “based on appropriate technology of that era”. For even more accuracy, costumers could read the works by the original Steampunk authors, Jeter, Powers, and Blaylock, and then limit themselves to the things that appear in the books.
There is no doubt the Steampunk culture has deviated and blossomed from the original Steampunk literature and now encompasses a wide range of styles and expressions. It’s one of the things that makes Steampunk so alluring – the possibilities for colors, textiles, and creations. But is there a time when someone could validly claim that “that is not Steampunk”? I like Jeter’s definition which places the look in Victorian times, influenced by the technology of that time period. This gives the maker a scaffold upon which to build a character. For example, if the character was piloting an airship, what accessories would she need? If a character was going to tea, what would he wear? The costumes and the accessories would be inspired by the elements of the era. The punk part comes in when makers are not limited to all of the restrictions of that era. Ladies (and gents) can wear corsets on the outside of the blouse, skirts do not have to cover the ankles, a gentleman is not limited to a top hat, suit and tie, and anyone can add fantastical elements to their accoutrements.
So then, when is something NOT Steampunk? To be honest, I rarely think this is something worth arguing with someone who has spent time and energy creating a look, but to be recognized as Steampunk, it needs to feel as though it was inspired by the Victorian era. Some people will balk at pure Victorian without the punk twist. Or, you may hear that the outfit is not complete without goggles. Perhaps a good question to ask would be: “would this outfit be believable in a Steampunk world and appropriate to the activity in which I am participating?” In other words, would everyone have a mechanical arm, would one need to wear goggles to tea, and could a gentile lady exist in a world alongside an automaton?
Keep in mind that the term “Victorian” refers not only to an aesthetic, but a specific time period, 1837 until 1901. And while Britain had an enormous world presence, they were not the only people or culture in the world at that time. Steampunk costumes may very well be inspired by other countries and cultural attire. It may take a little more research into what the clothing looked like at that time since most of what we have seen has been through the lens of the British. Keep in mind that it is always best to be considerate of other cultures if it is one that does not belong to you. Misappropriation of a culture’s history and fashion can be offensive.
So what if you are at an event and someone has the audacity to wear something that was obviously powered by diesel and not steam? Should you give them the cold shoulder, or worse, whisper “that’s not Steampunk”? This reminds me of the scene in The Land Before Time when Cera snubs Littlefoot with “three horns never play with long necks!” Granted, they are two separate species, but both are dinosaurs. Perhaps they are not following the ‘rules of Steampunk’, but is it necessary to point this out? Perhaps, you think, they are new to Steampunk and not really sure what it means. Should you feel the need to educate, wouldn’t it be better to say, “I’ve always been intrigued by Dieselpunk, could you tell me how you made this”? There is no reason why Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Cyberpunk, etc. cannot play together well. And always, be gracious when a sibling punk comes to a Steampunk event. The only thing worse than an aesthetic snafu is someone who is thoughtless and shames someone else about something that, after all, is really just fantasy.