Steampunk is a genre that spans literature, music, theatre, film, art, and fashion.
Its basic tenets are taking the style and technology of the midto- late nineteenth century and combining it with present day themes and technology. This happens in a few different ways, but the most common are through two themes: post-apocalyptic and neo-Victorian or altered history. Please keep in mind that these are starting points. If you are new to the genre, or just steam-curious, not to worry—there is very little that is unacceptable to the steampunk community. For example, with the post-apocalyptic, the stories behind the gadgets, clothes, and art generally run on the premise that the world has failed, and the only thing left are makers like us piecing together society and technology with a return to the sensibilities of fine craftsmanship of the Victorian era. With the altered history track, participants work contemporary technology and sensibilities into Victorian era stories, history, or art … some of which are the impetus for the genre, such as the literary works of Jules Verne and Providence’s own H.P. Lovecraft.
One of the most important portions of this genre is the individualization and imaginative customization represented by the participants. Those who are involved in this science fiction subgenre, myself included, generally have a steampunk persona that they utilize when attending events and mingling with each other at gallery events, conferences, etc. This is not to be confused with cosplay (costumed play), which has gotten a lot of press in recent years with the explosion of comic book-driven films and conventions. Cosplay is taking artwork, usually from two-dimensional popular media such as animation or comics/manga, and creating an exact a replica as possible that is a wearable representation of the character from said fiction. Conversely, persons in steampunk dress are portraying something that is their own creation, their own persona created for themselves, by themselves. To further illustrate the difference between steampunk fashion and cosplay, I turned to local Rhode Island steampunks for their take on the subject.
When I asked Justin Stanley—known as Justinian Stanislaus, a.k.a. Emperor of the Red Fork Empire in the steampunk community-- what first brought him into the genre, he recalled his first experience with
the label. “I attended a convention in Florida called Megacon. I was wearing my blue three-piece suit with turned-up collar and a cravat. The lapel of the suit jacket had pins and on the opposite was a blue
rose. I wore combat boots and gaiters for footwear. On my left arm was a Red Fork Empire armband, and on my right I was holding the large metal fist later to be called the Will of the people. Several people came up to me and complimented my steampunk costume.
”I have heard the term before but not in a costume type of setting. So when I got home, I began to look it up and discovered the genre and what everyone had been doing in the subculture at the time. All the creative costuming, sculpture and various mediums inspired me. I immediately felt drawn to it and did not realize how much I was already looking the part. I enjoyed the goth subculture and its music but never really felt a part of it. This felt like something I could dive head first into and feel more comfortable being involved in. With all of the science fiction elements and anachronistic aesthetics, I felt right at home.”
Kathryn Paterwic, a local fashion designer and the creative force behind Redfield Designs, described to me her introduction to the genre. “For me, I have always done this style of fashion. [It] Is kind of [an] older feeling design. I mean I have heard [the] argument that my designs really are
not steampunk. I found a name for it once: a friend sent me an image on Deviantart that was titled ‘Steampunk.’ ” When I asked Kathryn how she would define steampunk fashion, she responded, “Steampunk and steampunk fashion have a large base, so it is hard to say what it is or is not. Some people would like to define it, and others think that that would limit a genre that is based in creativity and imagination.”
Well put, since steampunk is so individualized, but I probed a bit further by asking which base she found herself gravitating toward: post-apocalyptic, neo-Victorian, or something that is particular to her? She replied, “I am drawn to whatever I want. If you look though my inspiration pages on something like Pinterest, you will find a lot of different things, from super modern, Victorian, 30s, 40s, and 50s; corsets to men’s suits. But when you pull ideas from the ”old” styles you get a "old” looking piece. Steampunk is fashion.” Thinking back to her earlier definition of steampunk, I asked Kathryn for her opinion on whether Steampunk is fashion or cosplay, or both.
“I define cosplay as taking something someone else designed and recreating it to the best of one’s ability,” she said. “Where you design an outfit that is based on your personality.”
It seems to be a genre that most of us stumble into. Steampunks are a very receptive group of people from incredibly diverse backgrounds, ages, careers, and creative specialties. There truly is not a definitive thing to call “the perfect example of steampunk,” or steampunk fashion, for that matter. Some piece together their work from existing pieces, while still others work like Kathryn from scratch as fashion designers. Whatever your persona, there is a character waiting to be created by you. Emperors, airship pirates such as the Pirate Crew of the Dead Rabbit here in Rhode Island, or the genre-famous and Coventry-born Dr. Grymm from Connecticut—all of these people live and breathe their art. That is the key: not that you must be an artist, but that steampunk is approached as an artist with creativity, openness, and passion. Steampunk event organizer Kat Fortner described her entry into the genre as
thus, “I don’t know if anything really attracted me to the ‘steampunk genre.’ It’s something that I have almost always done. I’ve always loved history, sci-fi, literature. Being a reenactor as well as an actor, an artist, a sci-fi nerd, and a voracious reader, it seemed to be the perfect merging of things I loved. It wasn’t until 2007—2008 that I really started to know what steampunk was. [In] 2010 at Templecon in Warwick, Rhode Island, is when that all really started to take shape and I think the genre began to explode.”
Explode it has. From television to film, steampunk fashion is everywhere. It becomes mixed in with costuming for some, but for many other steampunks, this is a daily mode of dress. Like all fashion, it is not for everyone; rather, it’s for anyone. Pick your colors, your story, and most importantly, develop a character that you can grow for years to come. When I find myself at an event, I am Nicodemus Falco. It is a character I developed years ago while writing. I liked the young character so much, I reimagined him as an adult and my fashion was born. Like all steampunks, the persona’s mode of dress evolves, but I am always Nicodemus. I tend toward a more steam-goth look, with several versions of my character, depending upon the event. Unlike any genres I have encountered to date, it is definitely what you make of it!
By Jason Robert LeClair