What Is Steampunk?
Steampunk has been one of the most stunning cultures that had ever reached to the popular media – it is a fantastic community that impresses due to its particular dedication to details, engineering and design. From gorgeous architectures and vehicles to meticulously crafted clockwork and weapons, Steampunk is one of the most beautifully appealing communities that has reached literature, music, craft shops, and even video games.
The Steampunk genre was created with direct inspiration of the splendor of the Victorian era, both to capture the so-long romanticized Victorian aesthetic, the French Bell Epoque and the Civil War of the United States. It is certainly a merge of elements that make a very appealing façade, but that is not the only of its attractiveness.
The Steampunk narrative, on its core, wants to make a point about the very specific social contexts related to industrialization, extreme poverty, scientific advancement and hate couture. Exactly like the Victorian phenomenon, it is just a way to enhance, romanticize and criticize the positive and negative aspects of that era.
The French Belle Epoque has had its influence, especially in the fashion, ornamental and artistic aspect. The frivolity of the imponent French architecture is also present, as well as the horrors of the American Civil War. This last one has contributed particularly with because of the use of weapons and the looks of the military and militia uniforms.
Even if this genre could usually be set in the past, it also fits the fantasy setting perfectly – as magical aspects such as spells or enchanted objects are often frequented on its writing. In literature and video games, for example, steampunk often refers to dystopian, apocalyptic universes; in reality, it could be set in the past or in the future.
This flexibility is because the feelings of despair, hopelessness and rejection against social injustice are timeless topics, and Steampunk has the advantage of being extremely useful at calling out these societal flaws.
On the other hand, in what speaks of environmental issues, the invention of modern weapons and the mechanization of manual processes, Steampunk had the ability to expand to the Wild West America, considering that these same problematics were also very familiar on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Workers in a Steampunk factory, typical of the industrialization era.
As you can see, the myriad of universes that can be visited in the genre is very wide, which is why most people can find at least one aspect of Steampunk that it is likeable to them.
⦁ Goggles, Corks And Weapons – Most common items
Collectors, jewelers, scientists and inventors are very common characters in the Steampunk collective. The profound detail that is put into objects is part of the aesthetic – and part of making fun of the frivolity of the rich sectors of society.
One example of this is pocket watches – these items have a very intricate and complex design that are coveted by collectors. Oftentimes, these include jewels and very expensive metals. The same happens with keys, which can be found with embedded gems into their designs or prototypes.
Image of a handmade pocket watch from the “Steampunk Movement” store.
Scientists, engineers and inventors are also happily celebrated in the genre. With the advancements of industrialization and the dichotomy between mechanized cities and the beauty and calmness of the countryside, the way these workers and intellectuals live and the products they create are something Steampunk fans truly love.
The weapons created, for instance, are often fantasy upgrades of actual weapons we know (such as revolvers or rifles) with a thick layer of expensive ornaments and exaggerated design.
The outfit that these workers frequent are also something very attractive to look at; it is not uncommon to find golden goggles (like blacksmith goggles), platinum tools or glasses with diamonds, which are also something very wanted by both amateur and professional Cosplayers.
Rifling and riding gloves that are made out of leather are also very popular. The Plague Doctor figure, which doesn’t really need an introduction, has also been continuously cosplayed with an extra Steampunk look.
Prototype of a steampunk gun.
With time, you will learn that it is also very common to show off how far the genre can go; a lot of objects that are not typically depicted as collector items end up being high-end items, as long as the wealthy are the ones that can afford it. The idea to reveal the eccentric behavior of the upper classes is very present in the whole movement, as it was mentioned before, but that doesn’t make the items less attractive. As you can see, the possibilities are just endless. Almost -anything- can have a Steampunk look.
Metallic statue of a steam-powered piranha.
⦁ Ink & Worn Out Pages – Literature
For the avid readers, Jules Verne is the first name that comes to mind when we speak about the steam-punks of literature. He is usually credited as an inspiration, due to the romanticism of science-fiction that is found in his novels.
The Nautilus, for example, is a fictional submarine that is featured in one of his most famous works, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The influence to create this vehicle came directly from the French Navy, as its direct inspiration came from the first mechanical-powered submarine, the Plongeur.
Illustration of the Nautilus, the submarine of Captain Nemo.
Other well-known writers have been known to influence the Steampunk genre. One of them is Mary Shelley, who focused on inventions and the mechanization of health processes. H.G. Wells has also made its contributions, especially with The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Charles Dickens has also been considered a precursor, for his ways of criticizing the social injustices of the Victorian era.
Overall, many authors that are often classified in other genres (mainly science fiction or historical novels) have contributed with its own grain of sand to give birth to the culture.
If you are more of a comic reader, there are options such as the Lady Mechanika series (which we will refer to in point 7 again) by Joe Benitez, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, co-created by Kevin O’Neill and Alan Moore.
Art sample of the comic book Lady Mechanika.
⦁ The Sound Of The Gramophone – Music
Bands such as Abney Park or the Vernian Process have very clearly stated their likes for the Steampunk genre in several songs and albums. Some of their examples are the song Steampunk Revolution and the album Discovery by the latter. The music that characterizes this aesthetic, however – shows a lot of variety. It merges elements of dark cabaret, hip-hop opera, Carnatic music and obviously, industrial. Progressive rock has also contributed with its elements, such as it can be seen in the album Clockwork Angels by the Canadian band Rush. The electronic/pop piece of dancing by Lindsey Stirling, Roundtable Rival, also has a heavy Western-Steampunk influence.
Photograph on the set of the music video “Roundtable Rival” by Lindsey Stirling (2014). The clothes worn by the violinist and the dancers clearly have Steampunk influence.
You can watch the full video here: Round table Rival - Lindsey Stirling
Other instrumentals can also be associated with the genre, especially because some sounds (like corks and gears running inside a factory) are repetitive in nature and can be very calming to some. You can find Spotify and Youtube artists such as Derek Fiechter have made use of these sounds to create wonderful and soothing instrumentals. One example is his work called Deeplamp Town. And Clockwork, by Philipp Klein, is another good recommendation for these pieces.
It is evident that artists that have not just worked on the genre oftentimes have created at least one or two pieces that one can relate to this narrative, which demonstrates once more the flexibility of this culture, and that everyone can participate on it, in one way or another.
⦁ Joystick Maintenance – Video games
Videogames can be a masterful product that combine different kinds of art: music, visual arts and writing can create an unforgettable experience if they are well planned and executed. One example of this is the Final Fantasy series, where one of the most acclaimed videogame franchises of all time decided to explore the Steampunk vibes while introducing vehicles such as gargantuan airships.
Screenshot of an airship depiction in Final Fantasy, called The Enterprise.
Another advantage that videogames have is that they can adapt any story, in any format they want. That is the case of Alice: Madness Returns, in which they adapt the story of the sweet Alice from Alice in Wonderland by giving it a very dark twist. Alice has to escape from the Wonderland she has fallen into, but this world meets less the characteristics of the “medieval fantasy” that is featured in the original story and it is more of a Victorian dystopia, which is the original essence of steampunk universes.
Screenshot of the game Alice: Madness Returns, where floating structures made out of chains and clockwork machinery are part of the locations you can visit.
Bioshock: Infinite is another well-known game that revolves around Steampunk, though the setting is definitely less Victorian. It revolves more around a lighter version of Steampunk that doesn’t feature horror as a core element, but the influence of the movement is still clearly noticeable.
Screenshot of Bioshock: Infinite, showing the air-city of Columbia from the sky.
Other titles that frequent the genre are Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, an RPG released in 2001, or Dishonored, action-adventure game made by Bethesda Softworks.
In the Castlevania series, both the retro games and the Lords of Shadows series, Dracula’s castle also has a very clear Steampunk look, and almost always features a clockwork-only room that has to be crossed through.
⦁ Fellow Crewmates – Cosplay And Community
Obviously, anything that reaches the geek/nerd culture will inevitably have a famous event that we all know, in which the community will want to meet up and hang out together; the Steampunk aesthetic is no exception.
Weekend at the Asylum is the most well-known event that features Steampunk creators and collectors, and it’s sincerely a spectacle to look at. It’s been celebrated in the city of Lincoln, run by the Victorian Steampunk Society in England, a non-profitable organization, and it happens every year.
Another big event is the Clockwork festival in the United States, which takes place in Columbia, is one of the biggest and most popular Steampunk events of the United States. Craftspeople, cosplayers, and writers also gather to celebrate the love for this peculiar culture.
Steampunk connoisseur at the Weekend at The Asylum festival, dressed as a Plague Doctor.
There are many cosplayers in nerd cultures, but some have certainly reserved their place as the most popular ones.
One example is Chokomokko’s cosplay of the character Lady Mechanika, who is featured in the comic series of the same name. Her brilliant work has been recognized and cheered by readers and non-readers of the comic.
The haute couture and the exaggerated ornaments can be clearly seen in the picture below, as well as the leather pieces and the metallic goggles. Her hairstyle is the typical of a Victorian lady, and she is -obviously- portraying a weapon on a leather gun holster.
Chokomokko’s interpretation of Lady Mechanika.
⦁ So, Do You Think You Like Steampunk Now?
This is just the beginning. If you are truly curious about Steampunk culture now, there is no better way than to start becoming a collector of shiny and extravagant objects.
You can keep them to yourself, offer them as gifts, or even start Cosplaying a character you like! You have a lot of possibilities, and everything is encouraged. You will find that you have a lot of media to consume, games to play, and books to read.