What Is Steampunk? A Classic Tale of Victorian Era’s Influence and Quirkiness

what is steampunk

Ever wondered why some people prefer to dress as if they have just stepped out of a Jules Verne novel? They sport goggles, brass details and, quite usually, top hats, which allows them to make a fine impression on any passer-by who decides to take one good look at them.

This sort of clothing is what we refer to as steampunk clothing.

Yes, steampunk is still quite popular, even in the 21st century. However, most people fail to realize what it actually is. Some of them would even think that the person mentioned above is just a bit odd-looking; sort of like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.

Yet steampunk has a fascinating history you ought to know about. In the following lines, we’ll guide you through this wondrous subgenre of science fiction and answer one of the most burning questions modern people have: what is steampunk?

Origins of steampunk: novels and social issues

In the very core of the definition of steampunk lies the ability to combine the old with the new. That’s why most avid steampunk aficionados look a bit different than, let’s say, business professionals.

Steampunk originated a long time ago, back when steam-powered machines were all the rage. The 19th century was the breeding ground for scientific romances, often embellished with social issues that needed a resolution in the future.

Some of the perfect representatives of this subgenre include Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. Their books were the first ones to include some of the steampunk’s quirkiness: the strange clothes, the mixing of new technology with the old, and the anticipation of what the future might bring.

But the term came much later on

Now, the story of how the term came about is a rather interesting one. Even though we can find steampunk in the 19th-century literature masterpieces, we cannot say that we knew it under that same term. After all, steam-powered machines were actually a regular thing then. That sort of literature was not really futuristic; at least not like the literature we can come across today.

So nobody actually called it “steampunk” back then. However, in the 1980s, the movement was starting to gain a bit more popularity. With that came an obvious predicament: we had to call it somehow.

The person who coined the term “steampunk” was actually a science fiction writer K.W. Jeter. By creating a new term for the type of literature the above-mentioned writers used to conjure, his main aim was to separate it from cyberpunk; sort of like a tongue-in-cheek remark that actually led to the creation of another, now quite popular, term.

So what is it about steampunk that is actually mocking cyberpunk in a way? Well, cyberpunk is sort of like punk on steroids. Japan is the first association for it; high rise buildings, high technology, robots, and people who have lost their ability to feel most of the emotions that are primarily human.

In contrast, steampunk combines the high tech with old Victorian aspects. So those who think of themselves as steampunkers actually look like wild cowboys with access to all sorts of gadgets.

They combine Victorian clothing (dresses, top hats, leather boots, and basically everything brown they have) with gadgets that are far beyond anything the Victorian era could have come up with. In essence, steampunk is what our world would look like had we kept some of the values nurtured in the Victorian era, and especially the clothes.

Steampunk’s influence on how people dress

As mentioned, most steampunkers draw their outfit inspiration from Victorian ladies and gentlemen. So, if we were to dress as a steampunker for one day, these would be the items that would have to find their place in our wardrobe, one way or another:

  • Corsets
  • Long dresses, possibly with frills
  • Suit jackets, embellished with all sorts of chains from various materials
  • Sunglasses (the small, rounded glasses John Lennon loved)
  • Hats and fascinators
  • Goggles

Recycling and old-fashioned materials

One of the most interesting things about steampunk is that it’s almost a predecessor of modern-day recycling.

Most people associate steampunk with old-fashioned materials. These include brass and copper, as well as wood and glass.

Now, these are all materials that can be used over and over again for DIY projects; a great way to recycle things we no longer use. And that’s exactly what steampunkers do. They use these materials to decorate their homes and their outfits, as well as to add a bit of that old-fashioned flair to their lifestyle.

Essentially, we can get a retro kind of feel from steampunk. But there’s an important ingredient there: the futuristic aspect of it.

Steampunk is not supposed to look old by any means. It’s not supposed to look plain Victorian either. It’s actually a surprising mix of both the old, steam-related items and futuristic looking gadgets and accessories.

What is steampunk in today’s pop culture?

One of the best-known representatives of steampunk in pop culture is definitely The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Set in a Victorian Age alternate universe, it combines the best of both worlds: high-class Victorian-like clothing and futuristic weapons.

Another great example would be anything from the lens of Tim Burton. Edward Scissorhands, as well as Alice in Wonderland are classic representations of the steampunk subgenre. With their understated colors, use of leather, plenty of strange-looking gadgets and futuristic plotlines, it’s no wonder steampunk enjoys popularity even today.

Final thoughts

It’s in human nature to always look back and wonder what the world would have been like if this or that hadn’t happened. Steampunk offers us one alternate universe where we can indulge ourselves in this fantasy. We can embrace the olden ways without having to stop using all the wonders the technological revolution has given us.

But to answer the question “what is steampunk,” one needs to delve a bit further into the matter. In the end, steampunk is more than cosplay but less than reality. It’s what we make of it that is its real definition.

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