Steampunk: What it is.

Posted on Friday, June 11th, 2010 at 11:13 pm

I’d like to preface this post by reconfirming for those who don’t get it that this is purely my opinion. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I do like to think I’m pretty seasoned on the topic of aesthetics.

For some time now I’ve been interested in age, deterioration and the loss of knowledge when a generation passes away. You can see hints of it in my work right from almost the beginning.

This was from my second shoot ever back in 2005. I wanted the model to look like an old fashioned doll.

Obviously as someone useful with their hands, I yearn for a time when beautiful handcrafted things are cherished over $600 iPads and similar modern “must-haves”.  Anyhow, eventually I encountered the idea of Steampunk on the internet. People like Kit Stolen and Magdalene Veen seemed knowledgeable and interesting and dressed in a way that reflected that, however since those early days (early days for me, not the genre) I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the whole scene. Every man and their dog on Etsy is flogging tchotchkes and assorted crap with a few brass cogs hot glue gunned on in an effort to capitalize on the “next big thing”. Dorky teenagers scour thrift stores for middle aged women’s waistcoats from the early 90′s they can attach a pocket watch to and sales of welding goggles and gold spray paint are through the roof.

So what is Steampunk? As somebody on the livejournal community Steamfashion once replied, “It’s anything you want it to be!”

…but it isn’t and it can’t be.

When you say a genre can be anything, you water down the core of what that genre is. A cog or gear MUST be functional or at least appear to be. You can’t just glue a cog on a corset with no relationship to anything else. That would be like me nailing a piece of bread to the wall of my kitchen. Sure, it’s in the general area of food preparation, but it SERVES NO PURPOSE, aesthetic or otherwise.

A lot of people also say that bright colours are not out of the question for Steampunk aficionados. While I haven’t completely nutted out exactly why that doesn’t fly with me, I’ll say this. Most Steampunk characters/personas/whatever you want to call it are usually based on a few core archetypes. They’re usually either an eccentric botanist, a mad scientist, a bloody airship captain or some kind of Aviatrix…

...like this one I photographed.

Now I don’t have a problem with archetypes, because I believe one of the commandments of Steampunk is a love of and respect for knowledge, especially of Science. As you can see though, the palette I’ve used in the photograph above is what I usually refer to as Sulfurous.  Which serves to restate my opening comments about age and deterioration. I typically use the same colours when I shoot this kind of work, – verdigris, sulfur, coppers, bronzes and brass etc to reinforce the feeling of the transience of a time period. After all, rust never sleeps and copper always oxidizes.

Further to that, if we take a look at each of those archetypes, they were working roles often fulfilled by people who really didn’t care or have the means to care about fashion. Their clothes were practical, functional and possibly covered in the grime inevitable to their occupations. From my research on textiles in the Victorian era, only the well to do really had access to the brighter colours for fancy gowns and dresses, while the working class often work darker colours for practical and economic reasons.

Steampunk in it’s current incarnation is an embarrassment. Instead of any depth of vision, what most people perceive as Steampunk is a kind of superficial Cosplay clusterfuck which is why I am hesitant to keep associating myself with it.

I don’t even know anymore what category I fall into but I know when people see a lot of my work, they call it Steampunk. I’ve even been interviewed at length on the subject. I feel very strongly about the aesthetics of Steampunk (I guess you picked up on that). I believe people are turning to genres like Steampunk in reaction and as a rejection of our shiny modern world. But I had such high hopes for what it could be…More than old watch parts and people with made up names that sound like they were taken from an Oscar Wilde play, speaking like complete gits.

It’s grating, contrived and cringe-inducing.

It IS possible to love Steampunk without stooping to this childish bullshit. Learn about Botany if that’s your thing! Build your own Dirigible. By all means, fool about with Chemistry (The Legal Department have asked me to retract that suggestion). Learning is awesome and you should never stop, not till the day you die but this play acting has to and if you just like dressing up in crazy Victorian inspired costumes, DO IT RIGHT for goodness sakes! Learn about what made Victorian clothing look the way it did. Learn about what kind of fabric they had access to back then, learn about why the shrug you bought from Forever 21 is never going to look right!

Steampunk is not just about replicating the past, but to fuck with the paradigm you have to understand the foundation…then you can shake it.

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Responses (4)

  1. RIUM+ says:

    That last photo… wow. o.o I’m scared to ask how you found it.

  2. Natalie says:

    I don’t know nothing about steampunk but I liked this post. :D

  3. Mmmm. Jake Von Slat has made many *useful* aesthetic items, and that is the sort of steampunk I like. It’s not that goggles and cogs are steampunk, it’s that they are part of a wider more useful kit that *does* things. This is the reason why I never put coggs on any of my corsets, unless they do something they are a non sequitur.

  4. Jessica says:

    God Bless You, Kate, you just put into words why I’ve been trying to distance myself from Steampunk and the local ‘steampunk’ crowd recently- I can only take the creepy-terrible fake British accents, live action role-playing being forced on me, and the god-awful clothing for so long. I just want to hang out and have good conversations and drink tea and/or bourbon, not listen to people describe in great detail fake ‘exploits’ hunting steam-dragons, and then give me the stink-eye and say I’m not Steampunk enough because I don’t have any cogs or gears OR GOGGLES on my person.

    Being a Dragon*Con goer though I can’t escape this stuff. Alcohol, please save me from crappy Steampunks this year!

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