Steampunk, Definition and evolution.
Welcome dear reader!
Whether you're a total novice or just a beginner, this article aims to make you discover Steampunk in a few minutes !
How to define this style so unknown and yet so recognizable? Travel in this fascinating Steampunk Universe and discover the growing community that lives this passion to the fullest. Retrofuturism now extends to all Arts and means of expression.
Discover the Steampunk style of clothing for women and men. You'll see the incredible accessories, immediately recognizable, and the DIY that's spreading to personalize it all.
So put some coal in the steam engine because we're going to travel fast!
Definition of Steampunk Style
It is not easy to describe the style easily, so we offer several to satisfy purists to the most permissive.
The inventor of the word is the science fiction author K.W. Jeter. He created it to differentiate his works from other science fiction authors in the late 1980s (in reference to cyberpunk). Thus, the most picky will tell you that before this date (1987), it is not steampunk.
It is a Uchrony which likes the mixture of popular culture of the end of the 19th century and historical realities of the Victorian Period. We are between futuristic imagination, retro aesthetics and industrial revolution.
Steampunk is a concept that comes from literature where technology has never progressed beyond steam engines (Steam). So it has existed for a long time, long before the invention of the word, we can say that Jules Verne or H.G.Wells already resembled Steampunk.
Steampunk is also called Victorian science fiction. Note that the genre focuses on technological aspects, but can include magic and fantasy.
Why the word "punk"?
Steampunk is punk not in its dystopian vision of the world, nor even in its retrofuturistic aspect. It comes from going against conventions, with real values. It's an offbeat and unbridled counter-culture. Its marginal, anti-consumerist thinking gives pride of place to DIY. The Do It Yourself that took off precisely at the creation of the punk movement. The idea is to use the past to better build the future (no future?). It now echoes with the green economy, we recover, recycle and consume less for the common good. So what characterizes a world that is part of the retrofuturist universe?
1) The Steampunk Universe
The natural setting of the genre often takes place at the time when England was an empire. During this period the foundation for technological, scientific and social advancement was laid, with the industrial revolution and colonization as a backdrop.
Many authors are associated with the style long before the term 'Steampunk' was coined. One thus finds Jules Verne but also others such as H.G Wells, Albert Robida or Mary Shelley. And they are numerous to have influenced and structured this movement without name. Just like me, weren't you amazed by Captain Nemo and his Nautilus ... or by the time machine ... or the one to be resurrected by Dr. Frankenstein ?
All this indescribable atmosphere with this outdated but yet so efficient technology, with bolts, gears...steam coming out of everywhere. Metals with their warm colors like copper, brass and steel of course. All this mixed with all the elements of fashion, architecture and myths of the Victorian era.
It's about combining elements from the Victorian era to create something elegant that would explain modern complexity in a simplistic way. It's not just window dressing, but a uchrony with enough logic to support the concept.
But let's come back to classic steampunk, a very thin line between credible and crazy universe makes it jubilant. The genre is clearly fantastic at the sight of incredible machines that can't work in a normal world. From the beginning of the genre we mix for example time travel and Egypt (The Ways of Anubis) or Excalibur (Morlock Night). It is common to add Victorian era myths, such as Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, Dorian Gray, the Invisible Man or Dracula... The fantastic also accompanies the Gothic and enriches the form as well as the content. The true Steampunk style is for me that one, venturing into the unknown and unraveling the mysteries of this late nineteenth century universe.
But all this is more exciting when you bring all this imagination to life!
2) The Steampunk Community
Long called a literary sub-genre, the steampunk culture has become very materialistic. Now objects like googles, top hats and pocket watches are a distinctive sign of the genre. But steampunk is also a philosophy, a lifestyle. The first images of each facebook group, forums or amateur websites dedicated to steampunk illustrations are almost always of the same type.
First we see costumed people, cosplay, where black, brown, beige, white tones dominate the fabrics. Their arrangement immediately evokes another era, other postures. Steampunk is not read, it is lived, it is embodied in bodies, in a way of life, in a will of permanent creativity and in a will to break the codes of our daily life.
A good example is typically the Burning Man festival, which takes place every year in the United States for a whole week. Thousands of participants live in autarky in the middle of the desert. The perfect opportunity to give life to the craziest projects, especially artistic ones, with floats or giant sculptures.
A parade of exhibits to the most incredible costumes. It's actually quite amusing to see how much the visual codes of the festival were inspired by Mad Max, including the famous thunderdome found in Burning Man and Mad Max, before becoming itself a source of inspiration for the latest film released in 2015. In short, this festival is full of retrofuturism.
Beyond the conventions and other events, the community also extends into the virtual world. For example, you can learn how to build your house in a steampunk style in the giant sandbox that is the minecraft game. Many blogs give tips on how to dress steampunk. This inscription in the bodies seems to be at the heart of the evolution of this movement.
What emerges overall from the many amateur cosplay, object, drawing and other digital creations is that, unlike other genres, it is often not a matter of taking a work belonging to a genre as a frame but the genre itself as a whole. Science-fiction fans, if they choose for example to make a cosplay to be presented in a convention, will not usually dress up as a generic science-fiction character, but as a Star Wars character, a star-trek or a stargate character etc... but in the steampunk culture it is much more common not to make a reference.
The vaporist likes to say to himself : there, I created a steampunk character. Of course, there could be a bit of Jules Verne, a bit of Lovecraft or Tesla, you think you're Sherlock Holmes or Dracula in mechanized vampire mode. The mix of more recent works and especially a lot of amateur works for inspiration feed all this, it is a total mash-up, a hybrid form that is not directly influenced by a character, a specific universe. So of course it happens just as it can happen the other way around to disguise oneself as totally imaginary science-fiction characters, but the proportion of this type of creation not clearly referenced in steampunk is enormous.
Five minutes in any convention will show it to you, the more common it is to steampunker (yes I make up words), other universes. As if steampunk is not a genre in which occurrences, outstanding works for example, would come to be inscribed, but rather a pure transposable aesthetic with blurred borders.
A current debate among writers is that growing commercialism has diluted the "punk" aspect. Their argument is that steampunk has been reduced to a romantic backdrop, with its codes such as the famous protective glasses or brass fixtures. Instead of works such as The Difference Machine or Homunculus, where social criticism and dystopia are the focus of attention, steampunk remains only a shiny and sparkling backdrop as can be seen in lighter works such as Soulless or Girl Genius.
Now it's time to move on to the artists and professionals who have also taken over the genre.
3) The Steampunk Art
The retrofuturist universe is extended to all known arts, beyond the literary universe.
Cinema for example has popularized the genre with many Steampunk Movies. At the beginning of the 7th art, Georges Méliès made masterpieces that can now be called steampunk, as well as adaptations of Jules Verne's books a few decades later.
More recently Christopher Nolan's prestige or Jean Pierre Jeunet's films, with the City of Lost Children (among others), have been greatly influenced by style. Hollywood has tried to popularize Steampunk with poor quality films such as Wild Wild Wild West or the league of extraordinary gentlemen (a disaster). More recently was released Mortal Engines (Infernal Machines), an adaptation of the eponymous book that received a mixed reception.
There is also a whole musical universe. The steampunk genre has a huge influence on pop culture with bands claiming to make steampunk music.
Discover Steam Powered Giraffe, a sensational band in the Steampunk style!
There is also a retrofuturist art which knew how to develop thanks to its very visual universe and its very recognizable codes. The style has derived to be mainly a very graphic and scenaristic style and more globally an aesthetic that is transmitted in painting, architecture or sculpture. Discover moreover incredible artists in our article dedicated to Art Steampunk.
The youngest among us have experienced several styles of content that have also taken over the genre:
- Steampunk video games with Final Fantasy 6, Dishonored or Bioshock and other less known but quite ambitious titles.
- The steampunk TV series also know the influence of the retro futuristic style for our greatest pleasure with Penny Dreadful, Warehouse 13, Dr who or more recently Carnival Row.
- The steampunk manga also appreciate the genre, there are countless references to steampunk in the films of the greatest, Hayao Miyazaki not to name him. The most famous work in French comics is Adèle Blanc sec (also adapted in film).
And now, let's move on to the aesthetics of movement in everyday life.
The Steampunk Style
On the clothes initially, one can distinguish several influences like Victorian England on which the kind feeds itself. Moreover, the gothic also takes as a starting point the inspiration of this period and mixes rather well with the steampunk. Other trends like rock and punk are sometimes relevant, as in the post-apocalyptic steampunk.
This has been in fashion since the 2000s with Kit Stollen, who likes to define himself as an anachronist. The "punk" for him in Steampunk represents the individuality of the creator through his representation of art. Like craftsmanship, combining beauty and functionality, fashion must be wearable according to him. He has popularized steampunk elements in our everyday clothes, accessories such as necklaces or glasses with steampunk influence are better integrated.
Of course you will always be off-beat and scrutinized if you wear a top hat for a job interview, but you must dare to cultivate your differences. Kit Stollen's message is to stop conformism, it oppresses us and prevents us from revealing ourselves.
1) Steampunk Style for Women
Everybody has in mind the Victorian corsets and dresses, skirts and all those old-fashioned clothes that find a new freshness by mixing industrial or fantastic elements.
The article on Cosplay Steampunk for women could guide you on the best ways to make your retrofuturist look, even in everyday life.
In terms of accessories: Steampunk Jewelry also takes its source in vintage with the metallic colors of the style such as silver, gold, bronze, copper or brass.
But beware! Women are independent and strong in this universe. Modernity allows to wear anachronistic clothes like pants and even leggings. It is in a way the great force of the movement, each one brings a part of oneself to it.
2) Steampunk Style for Men
The most popular image is that of the nobleman with his top hat and googles incorporated. The costumes of Victorian influence again, but not only those of the aristocrats. The police of Scotland Yard and the army of his majesty have costumes very appreciated for their spectacular effects. You can consult the men's clothing guide, you will be surprised to find ideas for your future outfits.
3) Cosplay Steampunk and homemade (DIY)
These fictional universes provide a framework, a space, in short a sandbox which is the most basic definition of the game. It is this link between games, passions, fictions, imaginary worlds, as a framework for the expression of individual and collective identity that pushes people to participate. To take part in what is happening and thus to be part of a collective or a community is jubilant.
But it is also by appropriating objects and building one's individuality which takes extremely numerous forms in the case of steampunk. Participatory activities abound in particular, this genre has taken all its momentum and dimension through the plastic and visual arts even more than in fan-fictions and podcasts.
There are a lot of visual or manufactured elements that make the steampunk cultural movement. This is to my knowledge the only example where when you type the name of a literary genre on amazon the first results are all objects and not books. On all amateur illustration sites, on facebook groups, or on twitter, the simple fact of typing the keyword steampunk offers us a profusion of works of incredible richness.
I can only encourage you to spend some time if you like these aesthetics as much as we do. Everything goes through it but we find, of course, as with cyberpunk, a great presence of urban landscapes, from the machine to the objects, still objects.
One of the great impacts of the style was this unbridled creation of objects. People reappropriate old things left in attics or flea markets to restore them or adapt them to the steampunk style. The old models that used brass, wood, copper, mechanics and engravings are restored. The opinion on old/recycled products has changed, or how to combine the steamers (vaporists in French) and the ecologists. Simple things like a coffee table, a giant clock, a penholder to complex products like watches or clocks become works of art. Even crazier, we are also adapting our current technology to its Steampunk version. The copper smartphone with its gears, lacks more than steam... and why not the mechanical USB key.
Moreover in this culture, the costumes are always completed with various accessories: cane with copper and silver knob, retro glasses ... the famous googles and other jetpack. They pay homage to the first super heroes or to films like Joe Johnson's Rocketeer; a little unknown gem signed Disney, which unfortunately made a flop at the time like all the steampunk films or almost all the steampunk films.
Then decoration blogs talk a lot about custom objects. Electric guitars, books (every steampunk fan likes old books in leather bound covers), computers, jewelry, cars, game consoles (not the minitel, it's already steampunk) and a whole bunch of other everyday objects. These images of objects transformed or created by the fans make the happiness of image sharing or illustration sites. In particular tumblr, facebook, and even more the social network pinterest whose principle, pinning images on a digital wall on a theme is perfectly adapted to this type of collection where everyone can exchange the most beautiful visuals.
It even seems that stores like Steampunk Store are developing to display and sell Steampunk Decoration. There is also the reign of DIY, or "do it yourself", a kind of cooperation in learning that forges a very, very strong sense of community. Each little customization element, each costume is not only the subject of a series of images, but also of detailed tutorials, explanatory videos, photographs that show the intermediate stages of creation.
On the specialized forums there are some pretty cool conversations about how to age a leather jacket, how to transform a commercial electric train into a majestic representation of the Victorian imagination, how to make a zeppelin model, how to draw a steampunk robot, how to equip a steampunk pirate etc etc... There is no lack of questions and answers either, each one is giving his advice, his expertise according to his skills.
Steampunk is now a teeming universe, deployed in many media and especially transmitted by the creativity of its fans. It influences all styles, so what's the next step?
Which Evolution for the Steampunk Style ?
This genre therefore works particularly well because the period in which it is anchored is a true founding era. From the historical point of view but also from the point of view of popular fiction, its birth is a perfect response to the contemporary period. With steampunk we play more and more with what the public knows about fiction and its codes and therefore where innovative speeches meet with great success.
The 80's, which saw the birth of steampunk, are a period where we try to re-enchant the world not by utopias but by
recycling, the future as revealed by the previous generation. This is what some call postmodernity, a concept that remains debatable despite everything. The direct leap from 1880 to 1980 to the specifics of each of these moments, they make the genesis of this genre. All this makes steampunk a very exciting and rich genre to analyze, it has become for some, a culture and a real way of life.
Especially when it is coupled with the internet and digital tools that allow you to cut, mix, de-contextualize everything. We can think for example of individuals who replay scenes of star wars on youtube, who write Harry Potter fan-fictions or who dress up as manga heroes at conventions.
Besides, when we think of Steampunk, we don't immediately think of a work, as could be the case for another genre, nor of a specific current, but of the overall aesthetic of the genre. I imagine zeppelins, copper submarines, heroes wearing colonial hats. There is no precise universe, no founding work, no films that immediately come to mind. Steampunk didn't have its star wars, didn't have its lord of the rings... no work that is not only revered by fans, but also immediately suggests the themes and aesthetics of a genre to a wider audience. So it's a disadvantage to describe the genre to outsiders, but again, it also gives a lot of creative freedom.
I know who the founders of the genre are, I've read their books, if I concentrate I can cite a few films of the genre, like Steamboy or Wild Wild Wild West for example... but I don't have a very situational and dense repertoire of imaginary references. If I think fantasy, very quickly I can imagine dwarves, hobbits, elves, I will dive into the bestiary of dungeons & dragons (forgetting the adapted film). I will also think about the geography of Middle-earth or in the humour of Terry Pratchett. When I think science fiction, I already hear the sounds of lightsabers and see the sprawling city of Blade Runner. In the case of steampunk, it's less the case, I don't see one work in particular, it's the genre that is a universe unto itself.
This lack of a universe of references other than the historical period on which it is based, and the fictions of that period, make it a very particular genre, and this is far from being a handicap. Fans of the genre can move away from the canons of respect for a work even more easily than others.
This also partly explains the participatory fever that animates these enthusiasts, when the genre is the world (and vice versa), and is not represented by a few central works, it makes it more fragile. It is necessary to constantly give it body, consistency, life and illustrate it in order to then circulate the imaginary that comes from it. What in the end becomes its strength, then maybe one day a work will change the game, while waiting for the genre and its playful evolutions remain exciting and to be savored.
And now, you will be persuaded like me that most people appreciate the trend, used in so many works, without knowing steampunk. Since then the style has attracted a lot of people for various reasons. Some are simply attracted by the Victorian era, others by the industrial, the vintage, or the imaginary so powerful of steampunk.
Thank you all for reading this paving stone, share, visit the store if you are looking for steampunk objects. I hope you want to know more. For my part I give you an appointment for a future article ... see you soon vaporist!