Steampunks: Always Tinkering With Their Identity

Once upon a time, following a civilized meeting over tea with some lovely young gentlemen, one of my fellow steampunks concluded that “A steampunk is someone who argues about what steampunk is.”

If you’re a geek, there’s a good chance you’re well-acquainted with the fictional world of Victorian steam-powered technology, a studded, brass-hued world that easily mixes dashing adventurers, zeppelin pirates and mustachioed gentlemen into scenes that would make Jules Verne proud. If you’re not a geek, or if you don’t know what steampunk is, well … good luck. Steampunk is an ever-shifting collection of ideas, images, projects and people that has managed to coalesce into a vision of “the past that never was,” a punk take on a stodgy Victorian era that hand-picks the best that the era had to offer in terms of science, behavior and aesthetics.

From experience, I know that there’s more to steampunk than meets the be-goggled eye; I first chanced upon steampunk in fall 2005, after falling in love with a friend’s pair of antique goggles and setting out across the wilds of the Internet in search of a pair for myself. Looking for goggles, I discovered what were then just the seedlings of a burgeoning movement: a handful of Web pages and little else. Today you can enter “steampunk” into Google and end up with almost nine million hits, but in 2005 the pickings were scarce. I scoured the pages that existed for information and resigned myself to making what I could of such an interesting idea.

Come 2007, I sighted a fellow steampunk in San Diego, a rare feat when so few seemed to know what steampunk was. He turned me on to Brass Goggles, a steampunk forum that had recently popped up online, and the stage was set for what seemed to be a burgeoning movement centered around Victorian courtesy and careful attention to dress, a movement that pushed boundaries with a punk sensibility and the Victorian thirst for knowledge, exploration and science.

The movement was so small that it seemed like everyone knew everyone else, and it also seemed that we shared the same values, whether they were about the importance of Do-It-Yourself or a penchant for well-groomed facial hair. I threw my heart and soul into what felt like an incredible cultural shift, however underground and little-known it was at the time.

But steampunk didn’t stay underground for long; summer 2007 saw an amazing influx of people riding into the scene, for better or for worse. Arguments were common on Brass Goggles as members of this new movement attempted to sort out the details of what steampunk was, with some posters more adamant than others. The indecision began to grow wearisome.

Slowly, steampunk morphed into something entirely different; suddenly everyone had a steampunk alias, a made-up zeppelin crew for convention photos and accounts of how to buy everything you needed to be a steampunk from Target. A fan of costuming myself, I enjoyed witnessing the wealth of creativity, but couldn’t help but feel disappointed that what had seemed to be a movement or a lifestyle was now solely a source of weekend fun.

“Where do you wear steampunk clothes?” posters would ask, to which I would reply “The grocery store!”

That is the nature of steampunk, however; I have come to realize that everyone sees something different in it. Whether it’s a source of fun roleplay after a week under the fluorescent lights of an office, or a lifestyle that means getting stared at all day for your top hat, steampunk is a fascinating idea and a good excuse to geek out over something new.

In 2008 I was lucky enough to attend Burning Man as part of the Bomb Bay Tea Company, a small collective of absolutely wonderful steampunk-minded folks who took my mother and me under their wings and worked with us to produce the Bomb Bay Teahouse, a theme camp featuring us as members of a fictional airship crew. Burning Man participants were free to drop by and enjoy the Victorian opulence and tea (amid dust storms, naked people and the like), which they were served by our wholeheartedly steampunk crew. Beyond the beauty of Burning Man itself, it was a true dream to live as a steampunk for a week, inhabiting an otherworld that applauded our aesthetic, appreciated our own mad scientist’s wonderful graywater-evaporating contraption and didn’t mind that my bowler was covered in a thick layer of playa dust.

Today you can find just about anything steampunk on the Internet. From Jake von Slatt’s steampunk guitars to steampunk-themed Etsy stores, it’s obvious that steampunk has caught on with those of us geeky enough to revel in an alias as a renowned sky pirate or those of us cool enough to actually pound out works in a metal shop.

Geeks are pretty good at pouring their passion into something odd but intriguing, and steampunk is no exception. Despite my hope that steampunk still means more than just a costume, costumes are fun— and steampunk can be just for fun, too.