The Steampunk Trend


I would never have imagined the huge, shapeless, moping black t-shirt gloomily crumpled up next to me in biology would have ever garbed herself in anything approaching an attractive frock. Crowned by a mop of blackened hair that obscured every part of her face save her “midnight despair” lipstick and a single tattooed eyebrow, she didn’t say much, mired in an swirling miasma of torment inspired by rumors of a Siouxsie and the Banshees breakup.

Such aversion to aesthetics seemed to be the primary tenet of every high school goth community back when I was a nipper, whose unique brand of coolness was, apparently, refusing to embrace joy in any form. Asked why they dressed so sullenly, the party answer was “I’m expressing my individuality.” (Which leads us neatly into “irony”. Most goths will inform you, every chance they get, that irony is one of the mainstays of their rubric, let me end this now: no it isn’t. And while we’re on the subject, muddy waters don’t appear deep: they appear muddy.)

So when Steampunk came along and influenced a paradigm shift in the goth clothing community, I looked on with keen interest. As a fan of the speculative fiction subgenre, I was startled to see ranks upon ranks of our beloved melancholics sway towards these pseudo-Victorian fashions.
At the start, I didn’t see the attraction for a goth perspective. The primary tenet of Steampunk, in my mind, is hope. Not sulking self-reflection. The idea that steam-powered technology would develop so wonderfully in the absence of electronics is a result of ingenuity, invention, and artifice, not dancing alone like a drugged-up weirdo to The Cure. Mention the word “engineering” to a Fields of the Nephilim fan and he’ll glaze over quicker than a wet arctic windshield.

Admittedly, most Steampunk fiction is set in a dystopian society, which obviously validates the goth anti-establishment stance. (Show me a goth who loves the antithetical utopia of Star Trek, and I’ll show you someone who’s been disowned twice.) So that attraction is fairly obvious. Plus it ties in nicely with the vampire theme that goths have always veered towards; it’s largely the same pseudo-historical period.

So now it seems it’s not just the goths. Everyone is getting in on the dress-up, especially since the broad acceptance of fantasy movies and books heralded by Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Now it’s fine to Steampunk up and hit the streets. With a vivacity matching that of Renaissance faire-goers America over, the internet has propagated the movement surprisingly quickly. Its popularity, according to Jake von Slatt, the proprietor of the Steampunk Workshop (basically a shop that refinishes your technological gadgets and other household objects to look nice and Steampunky), is due to it being “essentially the intersection of technology and romance.”

As our world has become more technologically dependent, we’re once more moving towards the eye-pleasing rather than the grotesque; a return to the formality and ritual of tea parties and extravagant balls, of manners and stiff upper lips. Steampunk fashion’s burgeoning popularity can be attributed to it providing a graceful, gentrified and creative alternative to the scruffy, blank-eyed rubes of other youth subcultures.

So what is the Steampunk look? It’s really quite hard to pin down, because it is such a broad concept. It straddles literature from Jules Verne and H.G. Welles to the outer space of Flash Gordon and the inner space of H.P. Lovecraft. The hit 1999 comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and the subsequent widely-panned but moderately successful 2003 Sean Connery movie) are considered paragons of the movement’s style, with their exotic machinery, fanciful clothing, and elegant, well, everything. Even the latest Sherlock Holmes movies have been buffed with a Steampunk upgrade.

Perhaps the most fascinating of fashion accoutrements are the mechanical additions and augmentations. From fancifully engineered goggles to entire clockwork prosthetic limbs and even sets of steam-driven wings can be seen stalking the streets whenever an occasion requires folks to dress out of the norm. The sheer number of Steampunk outfits appearing at Halloween gatherings is testament to its mainstream approval.

Is it silly? Oh yeah. Does it look cool? Strangely so. Is it fun? Mightily. And the only irony in Steampunk is, thankfully, made of actual iron.

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