Steampunk culture: Full Breakdown

Portrait of a beautiful confident steampunk girl with a gun on a vintage background

Steampunk culture is a subculture that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. The Steampunk style was popularized in the 1980s  and is a subculture with its own literature, music, and fashion

Steampunk culture commonly features steam-powered robots and other retro-futuristic technology. The word steampunk comes from “steam” and “punk”. 

The term was coined by K. W. Jeter in his novel “Morlock Night” (1979). To describe a subgenre of science fiction in which Victorian-era technology is still in use.

The term “steampunk” is often associated with early science fiction works set in an era of transatlantic steam power, such as H. G. Wells’s “The Time Machine”, and Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon.” 

Its earliest known use was in September 1980, when Michael Moorcock referred to the Wulfensteins (essentially an android of some kind).

The steampunk genre blends fantasy and sci-fi with steam-based technology. The culture embraces the spirit of exploration and science while dressing in a reimagined Victorian-punk aesthetic. 

Steampunk Culture Defined

Steampunk Culture

Steampunk culture embraces and celebrates a speculative fiction genre in books, graphic novels, films, music, and art. Many lovers of the fictional landscapes also dress in the Steampunk aesthetic, which blends Victorian vintage with the Wild West and gives it a futuristic twist. 

Steampunk culture can be seen at parties, festivals, meet-ups, and even interior decor. Some “Steamer” enthusiasts incorporate steampunk into their everyday look, while even more will use it for special occasions, dressing up in high Steampunk elegance. 

Origin: When Did Steampunk Genre Start?

The subgenre Steampunk was christened in 1987, but it was gathering steam (sorry) well before then. 

The late 50s is the era where steampunk authors began to emerge. Writers began creating a new genre,  drawing inspiration from the greats such as Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Charlotte Bronte, H.P. Lovecraft, and Oscar Wilde.  

The first Steampunk novel is often credited to the 1959 title Titus Alone by Marvyn Peak, book three of the Gormenghast Trilogy. However, another Steampunk pioneer is Michael Moorcock, with The Warlord of the Airby Michael Moorcock, published in 1971. 

Steampunk Period Is Based On The 19th Century Victorian era.

Portrait of a dreamy attractive steampunk girl looking up on a grunge background

Steampunk is based on the 19th-century Industrial Revolution and the Victorian-era aesthetic. Think of Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens, the steam engine, photography, the typewriter, the sewing machine, and the rifle. 

However, in steampunk, we do not get the invention of electricity as we use it today. Instead,  steam-powered technology is prevalent in a steampunk world. A notable reference is “aether,” a fifth element first hypothesized by the Greeks that is often gaseous. 

In addition, steampunk, sometimes et in the American Wild West (1965 – 1985) still has the Victorian era steampunk aesthetic but also incorporates cowboy and American Wild West looks (think cowboy hat with goggles). There are also Steampunk themes blended into specific subgenres of manga and anime. 

Steampunk Relationship To Science fiction and technology

steampunk distillery prohibition

Steampunk’s relationship to technology is as if the Victorian era slipped into another futuristic alternate reality where the Industrial Revolution was far more advanced but never found electricity. Thus, the analog steam powered technology (generally) is full of cogs and gears that can be fiddled and adjusted.

Once upon a time, people tinkering with their cars or motorcycles in the driveway was a common sight. But now, even mechanics need computer and programming skills, as electronics and chips have taken over. 

In the Steampunk fantasy, technology is accessible, putting the wrench and the screwdriver back into the ordinary person’s hands. In this fictional analog landscape, people can modify and improve their technology, customizing it to their individual needs, even if they are not great inventors or highly skilled craftsmen.

Steampunk Technology Explained

Airship sketch in Steampunk style

Steampunk, as a genre, has many subgenres which impact the technology and inventions encountered in the stories. However, the primary premise is a plastic-free, analog technology that primarily depends on steam power to run. 

Thus, inventions often have an antique, retro feel, with their abundance of brass and copper components, often full of cogs and gears. Therefore, robots and mechanical inventions heavily depend on clockwork technology

In a world without plastic, glass, leather, and wood are standard materials in Steampunk technology despite using metals such as copper, brass, steel, and iron. The gadgets are also routinely dotted with rivets. 

Steampunk Inspired Gadgets and Contraptions

Many steampunk contraptions and gadgets are anything mechanical you can conceive, but they don’t run on electricity. Popular sights in fiction include:

  • Automatons
  • Cyborgs
  • Rayguns
  • Steam-powered coffeemaker
  • Pocket watches and compasses with additions
  • Hot water, internal heating, and ovens 
  • Steam-powered musical instruments

Fantasy Steampunk Vehicles

Steampunk style futuristic car

As the steam train was a Victorian-era invention, many Steampunk vehicles resemble them, regardless if there is a track. One of the primary benefits of steam-powered transportation was getting horse poo off the streets. 

However, unlike real steam trains, in some cases, Steampunk vehicles provided cleaner air. While coal-dominated stories have to be content with smog, others rely on clean-burning gases (both real and fictional) that provide a world less polluted than our own. 

Generally, Steampunk vehicles move at a slower pace than today’s inventions. Think blimps rather than a Concord jet. Nonetheless, they were faster than using your own two feet. 

Steampunk Motorcycle

Steam-punk bike

Steampunk motorcycles often avoid using steam and run-off gas, such as hydrogen or the mythical aether. Instead, these machines will usually have tubes and clockwork components.

Steampunk motorcycles are sometimes like modern ones, where all the equipment and fuel are kept on the bike. However, some stories feature the fuel canister being carried on the rider’s back, as if they are scuba divers stuck on land.

However, hydrogen motorcycles are not entirely fictional; James May took an ENV Hydrogen Fuel Cell for a test drive in 2009. It wasn’t the most powerful ride, but it was quiet.

Then Kawasaki announced plans to make one in 2020 and revealed a motor prototype in 2021. By September 2022, Kawasaki’s hydrogen power was back in the news, announcing it was teaming up with Toyota to develop hydrogen power further. 

However, modern hydrogen power has the advantage of electrical components, which doesn’t exist in Steampunk realms. Thus, fantasy inventions will always be bulkier and heavier unless a magical touch is involved. 

Steampunk Carriages

Steampunk style steam powered carriage with luggage on top

Cars are not a common feature of Steampunk worlds since the Victorians didn’t have them. Instead, there are horseless carriages and wagons. 

These fictional contraptions often resemble a cross between a technologically advanced carriage and an old-fashioned car. But some resemble a train that can ride on roads instead of tracks. 

Electrical headlights are improbable; thus, lamps running off oil or gas provide the necessary nighttime illumination. 

Steampunk Aircrafts

Airship painted in steampunk style in the sky over a city

Steampunk aircraft do not typically resemble anything like modern-day planes. Instead, they take the form of:

  • Airships (like a sailing ship stuck in the air)
  • Balloon
  • Blimps
  • Dirigibles
  • Zeppelins

Steampunk Submarines

The submarine is one of the first Steampunk vehicles, thanks to Jules Verne’s Nautilus. Verne’s luxurious submarine, complete with a library, ran off sodium/mercury batteries, the former being extracted from the sea. 

Thus, while submarines were not a concept created by Verne, the luxury and tech were fantastical. 

What Does Steampunk Style Mean?

Portrait of a beautiful confident steampunk girl with a gun on a vintage background

Steampunk style is vintage Victorian, with chiffon lace and leather. Sleeves are long and puffy, as are the skirts, complete with petticoats. 

Popular accessories and Steampunk attire include bowler hats, waistcoats, goggles, glasses, pocket watches, cameos, and compasses. People often carried a cane or a long umbrella, often as genteel ways to conceal weapons for personal security. 

In homes and buildings, copper pipes are often exposed, showing the inner workings of heating and power systems. 

Why Do They Call It Steampunk?

Steampunk was named in 1987 during a decade saturated with punk rock and cyberpunk. Thus, writer K.W. Jeter coined the term, giving the nod to the steam technology featured in the fictional worlds and the funky (punk) twist on Victorian style.   

Do People Dress In Steampunk?

steampuk community festival

Steampunk is still around, and people still dress in steampunk fashion for special occasions, festivals, and meet-ups. 

Steampunk enthusiasts and die-hards often go by the term Steamers. Some will incorporate the aesthetic into their everyday casual and office wear. 

In 2007, the Steampunk aesthetic began crossing into mainstream culture and mingling with the goths, hitting a peak in 2017. But by 2019, cultural observers, such as John Brownlee, were noticing a transition from steampunk to cyberpunk, blaming the iPhone for steampunk’s demise.  

But then the pandemic hit; the world was locked up, and nostalgia hit our hearts and dreams. Thus, by 2022 Steampunk was back on the rise and even invading interior design

It’s predicted that the look will never disappear. Still, like goths and all things vintage, it will be a subculture that lingers, popping up in mainstream attire in cycles. 

Taking Part In The Steampunk Subculture

young boy in steampunk outfit

Taking part in the Steampunk subculture can be as simple as dressing up for festivals to those who join a society where they can share their enthusiasm for the culture more frequently. Steampunk enthusiasts can also decorate their homes and incorporate Steampunk aesthetics into their everyday lives. 

Steampunk is also found in music, books, TV, movies, theater, and art. 

Steampunk Cosplay

Dressing up in Steampunk gear is one of the most satisfying parts of the culture. While some Steamers incorporate the culture into their everyday look, many people feel more comfortable cosplay at steampunk conventions, festivals, or society meet-ups. 

Steampunk Outfits

The Victorian area heavily influences steampunk outfits:

  • Top hats
  • Waistcoats
  • Pocket watches
  • Leather
  • Lace
  • Corsets
  • Aprons
  • Velvet
  • Spats
  • Petticoats
  • Sturdy leather boots, preferably long with buckles, straps, and lace-up hooks
  • Aviator or driving goggles
  • Specs (tiny, round ones)

However, modern technology like cellphones can also be part of the look, provided they have been modified to have a Steampunk flair. Adding gears to anything will add to the look, from decorating your phone to replacing the buttons on your shirt. 

For those embracing a post-apocalyptic Steampunk aesthetic, gas masks and ragged clothing are often used. 

Steampunk Meet-Ups And Conventions

Steampunk meet-ups and conventions are an excellent way to enjoy Steampunk culture. These happen worldwide, although they are most popular in the United Kingdom and the United States. 

Popular events and Steampunk calendars and directories include:

Iconic Examples Of Steampunk

Steampunk is featured in many famous movies and books. Some iconic examples include:

Steampunk Music Artists

Steampunk musical artists do exist. Check out the following for an array of sounds:

Steampunk In Popular Culture

Steampunk has slipped into our pop culture from movies, books, fashion, music, and decor. Even our monsters, such as the Cthulhu, originate in steampunk. 

Classic characters like Sherlock Holmes are given a Steampunk makeover, as in the 2009 film. K.W. Jeter also gave Merlin a historical Steampunk reboot in Morlock Night

The steampunk aesthetic is also reimagining our everyday modern objects, such as:

Summary:

Steampunk culture celebrates a fantasy world where advanced technology is still hands-on and accessible. The vintage Victorian aesthetic is elegant, but a hard edge is full of gadgets with intriguing cogs and gears. 

While not all of the inventions of the Steampunk genre can cross over from the land of fiction to our modern world, steam technology is real; just look at our first trains. Thus, some ideas, such as a hydrogen-powered motorcycle, may soon become a reality. 

Round Up

Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction that has inspired a culture found in movies, books, music, and aesthetics. Steampunk’s cultural core is a hands-on technology that is accessible yet imaginative. 

So find yourself a bowler hat, a waist coast, and a pocket watch and reignite your spirit of adventure and curiosity. 

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