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What Is Steampunk

December 29, 2019

Steampunk might have got a life of its own and a fanbase of steamers who live it as a lifestyle everyday, but the word is still obscure in its meaning to most of the mainstream audience. What is Steampunk exactly? Science fiction? Retro Victorian reminiscents? Cyberpunk? 

It is all these elements creatively transfused together to create something unique and truly ingenious. This post is dedicated to give you the essence of Steampunk as well as take you down to its origins.

What is Steampunk?

Steampunk is a retro-futuristic genre where an alternate reality is imagined having steam power as the main source of energy. To say, imagine how different our present would be, had the 19th century technological focus been steam instead of electricity. Take all the gadgets you own and picture them powered by steam; your cellphones, television sets, transport vehicles and everything else. 

“Steampunk is a genre that imagines how different the past might have been had the future come earlier.”

-Douglas Fetherling

This explanation by Douglas Fetherling fittingly describes the spirit of steampunk. Whether you think of Steampunk as an alternate reality or a reimagination of the past, it is an amalgamation of Victorian era with the wildest futuristic fantasies. 

Steampunk started as a literary and audiovisual subgenre of science fantasy but grew into a lifestyle and found its place in fashion, music, culture, architectural style and art. Most people have witnessed steampunk in their lives but are not aware enough to recognize it. The most distinctive feature of Steampunk is the anachronistic technologies and retrofuturistic inventions that people of 1800s might have envisaged, we are talking along the lines of Nautilius, the visionary submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But as this timeless French piece by Jules Verne was itself written in the 19th century it is considered science fiction instead of Steampunk. But you get the gist, right?

Think “Back to The Future”  trilogy or “Sherlock Holmes” movies. Other mainstream references to Steampunk culture includes “Punked” episode of primetime ABC television series “Castle.”

How did this word came into existence? 

Before I straight come to the origin of the word, I think it is imperative to mention some of the earliest creative minds who are revered in the Steampunk culture: Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. 

These 19th century authors’ illustrious novels feature some of the first Steampunk works. Although these writers are considered as science fiction and fantasy novelists instead of Steampunk creatives, but their work became an inspiration for the upcoming Steampunk culture. Their fictional futuristic machines are still considered to be quintessence Steampunk. 

Now coming to the original question, who coined the term “Steampunk”? The credit goes to American writer Kevin Jeter. The whole thing started as a joke in a letter that he sent to Locus Magazine in 1987. Kevin Jetter used the term “Steampunk” to define his current work with his disciples Tim Powers and James Blaylock. His Victorian fiction writing had “punk” though less compared to “Cyberpunk” and this word Steampunk was a straight satire to that. 

As time passed this hybrid genre took the backdrops of the American Wild West, French Belle Epoque, an alternate reality and post-apocalyptic world in addition to the Victorian Britain. Nowadays, diluted forms of Steampunk are present with its edge softened and romantically fantasized Victorian settings. 

Steampunk differs from Neo-Victorian in its technological aspect. It has technology and aesthetics of 19th century at its heart. With the absence of one, the other can’t be considered steampunk on its own. This infusion of Industrial Age technology, art and creativity created an alternative Industrial Revolution imagery. 

Some popular references to Steampunk 

The oblivious masses might not understand the literal meaning of Steampunk but they are quite familiar with what it depicts. 

Popular movies, comics, animes and games have introduced the imagery and aesthetics of steampunk to public without them actually knowing the hybrid genre it belongs to. The most well-known games are Bioshock Infinite (2012) and Dishonored (2013). These games feature characters in leather suits and gears with Steampunk machinery and arms. Bioshock Infinite is not just one of the popular steampunk games but also an all-over major hit. The game is set in the early 1900s in a floating city completely out of its time. The game showcases steam powered machinery like airships and automaton i.e computers in an engaging storyline, which might be partly the reason for its success. 

Steampunk has found a large fanbase and depiction in animes. With Fullmetal Alchemist reaching a world wide audience, steampunk fashion became one of the favourite amongst cosplay artists and manga/anime fanatics. 

Steampunk has not missed on Big Screen also, with a bag full of top-grossing and popular movies, this genre has sure seen its light of the day. With movies like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was based on the comic series by the same name, steampunk artistry and imagination has been presented amusingly to people. The movie has the backdrop of a fictional 19th century Britain, with popular literature characters of that time like Captain Nemo, Dr. Hyde and the Invisible Man grouped together to form an “elite league” to save Britain from anachronistic dangers. 

Another popular steampunk cinematic work is the trilogy of Sherlock Holmes, featuring Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes, the most widely known fictional detective, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is portrayed in an alternate retro-futuristic world of mysticism and wild technological achievements. The trilogy was very well received. It was seen as one of the best portrayals and interpretations of Sherlock Holmes. 

Drifting away from Victorian Steampunk movies, we have the The Wild Wild West, as the best illustration of Steampunk writing set in 1870s American Wild West. The story arc follows the adventures of two secret agents in Far West who try to defeat their nemesis using the anachronic inventions and machinery. 

More about Steampunk Culture and Fashion

So what does Steampunk fashion look like? Well, for first it is lots of mechanical parts mixed with 19th century clothing styles. Think clogs, gears and corsets. To give an idea, imagine 19th century clothes with added “punk” of skulls, gears and metallic cogs. 

For men, it might look like top hats and long coats, with added steampunk accessories like Pocket watch, steampunk cane, monocle, rings and shoes. 

Whereas for women, it’s usually, but not limited to, corsets, antique victorian skirts, skull crystal pendant sets, and other jewellery. Women also have the option of adding the steampunk element to their outfit with goggles, bags, boots, lace appliqué chokers, watches and other accessories. 

Steampunk designs have found their way into Wedding Dresses too. Check out our Blog: 

to get an inspiration from. 

To get more information about what Steampunk is and follow this uber-cool, out-of-time culture, check out some other blogs on our website. 

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