It’s difficult to say that any one person ‘invented’ the concept we label steampunk, as it is something which has evolved over a period of many years and been influenced by various different things. What we do know is that K.W. Jeter, a prolific author in the field of speculative science fiction and the writer of books like Morlock Night, wrote a tongue in cheek piece in the 1980s questioning why futuristic sci-fi got it’s very own sub genre – ‘cyberpunk’, yet those like himself who drew on historical inspiration, particularly from the age of the Victorian Industrial Revolution, were label-less. He suggested perhaps the term ’steam-punk’ could be theirs, and it stuck.
Defining steampunk in a few sentences!
Jeter came up with steam-punk because the style of fiction he writes focuses around stories where steam is the driving technological force. It’s hard to believe perhaps that less than 200 years ago steam power was so revolutionary, but it was in Victorian England (1837 – 1901) that, powered by steam, the Industrial Revolution blossomed and changed every aspect of British life. It powered trains, created opportunities for mass production at speed, closed gaps between towns, villages and cities and so much more.
The Victorian influencers
No wonder steam takes on the role of the hero in the novels of Jeter, and his peers, as they drew greatly on the work of Jules Verne and HG Wells – people who actually lived though the Victorian experience. Their classic fantasy epics about time travel, journeys into the earth, and underwater adventures would lay the groundwork for steampunk classics to follow, but there were plenty more less famous stories which followed the same pattern.
Cheap ‘penny’ novels stuffed with outrageous melodramas and unrealistic adventures were produced at speed for the poor to read. A good example is the Jules Verne novel The Steam House, which told the story of British colonists traveling on the back of an oversized elephant powered by – take a guess – steam!! The era was all about change and the growth of technology which may seem pretty basic to us today, but was revolutionary at that time.
Key features of a more mature steampunk
From the original use of the term to describe a specific sub genre of sci-fi literature, it has now expanded to include films, games, art and, perhaps most obviously, fashion. The influence of steampunk can be seen in two main ways. One involves re-fashioning modern inventions as if they had been created by Victorians, which explains why you may come across a dalek on wheels and covered with clocks and periscopes, while the other is all about creating impossible combinations. (Remember the steam-powered elephant?)
The influence of steampunk on clothing and fashion
There’s no one definite look which defines steampunk in fashion, as it draws on a range of influences, but for the men there’s likely to be either military influenced outfits, a safari suit and pith hat ‘explorer’ look, or the tailored trousers, waistcoats, top or bowler hats and long jackets which were typical clothing items for higher class Victorians. Jewelery and accessories like goggles and time pieces depicting that era finish the look off.
Women also weave the old fashioned into the modern by donning long dresses or skirts, often with a bustle and petticoats, hats, gloves, corsets and lots of lace. Flying goggles or distinctly shaped glasses are added, along with parasols, jewellery and even modern items like cell phones – if they have been doctored to look like they existed way back then.
Mainstream steampunk on the high street
True steampunk fashion is much easier to spot at dedicated festivals, when fans gain confidence in numbers and brave the [generally welcoming] streets and pubs. Otherwise most settle for a very watered down look for daily life, shopping from the increasing number of pieces available in mainstream collections, and making do with some minor modifications to them if needed.
Cosplay, Goths, Lolita and aristocrat fashion trends all share some common threads with the steampunk look, and have, in turn, influenced high street fashion more than many will ever realise.
Steampunk has won a place in the hearts of many UK residents because it’s a way of living and dressing that is gutsy but peaceful, playful and confident – without needing to domineer, curious about the future, but not at the expense of lessons learned in the past. With modern versions of steampunk style so easily available in clothing outlets, and more especially through specialist online sellers, it’s never been easier to indulge yourself – and shop for wearable everyday steampunk inspired clothes.