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Why Steampunk?

By Selena Barker:

The first question that you may be asking is, “What is Steampunk”? Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction set in an alternate reality during the Victorian era. Steampunk incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th century fashion and its steam-powered industry. Steampunk was once a niche subculture that barely had any followers when it began in the 1980’s, but it has finally reached the mainstream. The retro-futuristic philosophy that steampunk espouses now make for some fascinating and amazing-looking worlds. You can now find steampunk as a subgenre in fashion, music, literature, movies, model-making, and gaming.

I stumbled into steampunk in 2011 after being involved in the board-gaming and renaissance faire communities. I was approached by two longtime board-gaming friends, Gary Lange and Lewis Stoneking, who had recently found steampunk and knew that my husband, Randy, and I loved to dress in garb and experiment with cosplaying for different conventions. They wanted us to join them at a convention called Teslacon so that we could run different steampunk-themed board games. This later prompted Gary and myself to start our own steampunk group here named “Iowa Steampunk” (you can find us on Facebook). We travel to many different festivals and conventions throughout the United States. We love this genre so much because it is one of the most inclusive and welcoming societies that we have come across.

The fanbase has grown so much among the masses that many steampunk fans have crossed over into cosplaying and vice versa. Many traditional steampunk personas incorporate Victorian goggles, hats, and steam-powered mechanical arms into their costumes. But the next level of cosplay has created some of the most epic steampunk-inspired costumes around. Some examples that I have had the pleasure of seeing at various steampunk conventions and festivals are a steampunk Princess Leia, Catwoman, Iron Man, and Deadpool.

Princess Leia, one of the pivotal characters of the Star Wars universe, is great for applying some Steampunk style to, and this mash up isn’t your usual damsel in distress. She’s still fighting in some fairly revealing outfits, but with blasters that give great steampunk vibes to her wardrobe. Steampunk weapons are a great addition to any outfit, and most are made by using Nerf guns. You can find many videos online that will teach you how to turn your Nerf gun into a Victorian-inspired weapon from an alternate reality.

A Victorian-era Catwoman toying around with steam-powered industrial machinery is an image that doesn’t stray too far away from the original character. I’ve seen many Catwoman costumes, but this is one of the best that I have seen given the added steampunk touches. What’s better than a weathered leather jacket, oversized goggles, and trademark utility belt?

A friend of mine who is very well known in the steampunk community is writer, artist, and designer Thomas Willeford of Brute Force Studios. He is particularly known for his work appearing on television and for his book Steampunk Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos.

Thomas created the steampunk arm worn by Nathan Fillion in episode 3.4 of the television series Castle (which I highly recommend). So what better person to create Marvel’s resident genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist, Ironman? This is one of the most detailed and intricate Ironman costumes that many of us have ever seen grace our comic-cons. It appears to be modeled after the uniform of a Victorian-era policemen, having a cap and baton at its side. The outfit is filled with rivets and other incredible details, and knowing that Thomas was able to craft this thing from scratch makes it even more amazing.

I was mesmerized when I first saw this fantastic Deadpool cosplay. It was a beautiful example of how the steampunk and comic book universes can blend perfectly. It had the classic Deadpool features such as his many blades and guns combined with an attractive Victorian-style black vest, top hat, and typical features such as goggles and leather holsters—another perfect example of how to combine steampunk and pop culture.

Music is another interesting aspect of steampunk. The music in this genre is difficult to describe, and there is such a diverse sense of what some label as steampunk. As Jean Campbell describes it in her book Steampunk Style Jewelry, “steampunk music is a genre with a loosely defined sound, but can be described as ‘eclectic.’ Common influences include gothic, industrial, synth-pop, dark wave, and new wave, but there are also hints of orchestral, ragtime, cabaret, Indian, gypsy, folk, and traditional klezmer music.” The most important element of steampunk music may be the stage shows, where bands often modify their equipment to resemble Victorian steampunk equivalents, and band members dress in period costumes with steampunk accessories. In addition to the traditional keyboard/guitar/drums trio, musicians often play unusual instruments such as accordions, bagpipes, ukuleles, banjos, cellos, and violins, many from the Victorian era itself.

One of my favorite bands is Steam Powered Giraffe, a musical act that combines robot pantomime, puppetry, ballet, comedy, and projections. The band has its own fictional universe and mythology, with band members portraying robot characters. They are so unique that you would have to watch their online videos yourself to truly grasp their unique self-expression. Another amazing band is Frenchy and the Punk, the husband and wife duo of Samantha Stephenson, aka Frenchy (because she’s originally from France), and Scott Helland, a former punk rocker. Their music is listed as a Euro-American folk punk cabaret, with elements of cabaret, gypsy, and Celtic music. Another recommend group is The Cog is Dead, who play story-driven steampunk songs in a variety of musical styles from various eras. Lead singer John Mondelli founded the band after he found a steampunk-inspired guitar online, fell in love with it, and decided to form his own band. These ensembles helped further this genre of music and take their unique sounds to conventions and festivals across the globe.

Steampunk is a cultural revolution that creates an alternate reality for all who dare to take the red pill, stay in Wonderland, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes. It frees us from our sometimes mundane life and allows us to live in a world—for a day or two—where men are chivalrous gentlemen who treat ladies with respect, and where women can dress in beautiful clothes while standing up for their rights in Suffragette marches. Steampunk gives all of those creative minds a way to invent new devices or create original Victorian science-fiction garb. It really gives every person the opportunity to gather different ideas of what persona they wish to create, whether it be a scientist, mechanic, engineer, airship captain, adventurer, or aristrocrat. These are just some of the reasons to enter the steampunk world; but fair warning, once you immerse yourself in this genre, you will never want to leave.

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1 Comment

Unknown member
Nov 06, 2018

Great write-up, Selena! I know a bit more than I used to and appreciate it all the more. I always love seeing you and Randy all dressed up, along with your friends. Such fun!

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