By Alison K Lanier
When trying to define the emerging genre of Steampunk, the one thing Steampunk sellers, writers and inventors seem able to agree on is that the genre is difficult to define. It isn’t simple to put a comprehensive label on a style that markets toy ray guns that mimic Victorian pistols or one that covers Volkswagen Beetles in filigree.
Steampunk, in basic terms, is a subgenre of science fiction that has its roots alongside Cyberpunk in the 1980s. But Steampunk has spawned new life in recent years, cultivating a youth following with a vocal online presence. This online presence has transformed into an online marketplace, whose unique community and motif rejects minimalism in favor of elaborateness and craftsmanship.
What is Steampunk?
Steampunk is an intersection between 19th-century technology and futuristic gadgetry, breeding a fantastical blend of past and future. It’s the use of Victorian-era technology that mimics modern devices or it is the addition of Victorian technology to everyday objects to create an older, yet still, futuristic look. It’s an aesthetic seen in film and books, in video games like the popular “BioShock” series and in television shows like SyFy’s “Warehouse 13.”
Using Victorian technology as a basis, Steampunk creates a goggled, top-hatted and corseted vision of futuristic tech with a life all its own. The genre fosters a brand of geeky, adventurous, and optimist clothing and accessories whose market—excuse the pun—has been picking up steam. Steampunk’s philosophy is all about Victorian ideas: ingenuity, resourcefulness and an optimistic yearning for the future.
The genre is a return to an earlier brand of science fiction which captures a future as Victorian visionaries might have imagined it. As a historical genre, though, Steampunk does have a resilient habit of shuffling unpleasant tropes—poverty, pollution and sickness—under the rug. As a philosophy, a literary genre and an aesthetic, Steampunk has a love affair with the coal-blackened, back alley Victorian city. As young-adult author Caitlin Kittredge describes, “It’s sort of Victorian-industrial, but with more whimsy and fewer orphans.”
What Steampunk Looks Like
Steampunk’s gadgets, clothing and jewelry sprawl across the internet. From Amazon to specialized sites like Steampunk Emporium, shoppers can order products from green-goggled costumes to intricate pocket watches to vintage bicycles. This aperture market does not literally try to replicate the technology of the H.G. Wellian, turn-of-the-century city. Rather, the gadgets and accessories capture an ambiance of elegant, old-time glamour with a techy streak. Imagine a conglomeration of brass, pipes, gears, engravings, wood and techy details. The design runs the spectrum from the glossy and polished to the rusty and grungy. All things clockwork, antique and retro-futuristic are in.
Steampunk gadgetry markets a design aesthetic that is laden with bulky, visible gears and oversized decorations. It has a retro-technology bend that makes the products, like a heavy flip-face pocket watch with unwieldy, elaborate gears and decorations under the face, appear cumbersome and, more to the point, outdated. Despite the design’s focus on technology, the items are far more ornamental than functional.
Where Does Steampunk Fit Into A Market of Miniaturized-Tech?
Steampunk flies in the face of wafer-thin, nano-sized technology. For young consumers, the next big thing will probably be smaller than the iPhone, laptop or game system that came before it. While technology, especially youthful technology, is becoming eternally tinier, sleeker and sexier, Steampunk has successfully carved out its own niche market among young consumers. It can be called reactionary, harkening back to an imagined past when tech was more about living on the verge of a fantastical future than the modern 3G to 4G rat race.
Steampunk’s market is removed from the great technological slim-down in Best Buy or Apple stores. It has a comfortable niche in dozens of specialized websites. Dedicated retail sites like Clockwork Couture sell everything from two-piece Victorian traveling suits for $319.95 to “Egyptian Revival” airship pilot pins for $149.95. Aviator goggles and mechanical jewelry are marketed alongside Harry Potter and Doctor Who merchandise, associating styles with popular, youthful fan bases.
Other sites celebrate the individual craftsmanship of their members. Inventors and designers upload images of their creations for sale or feedback. One major hub is Steampunk Lab, where “inventers of a curious sort” upload images of clothing, computers, books, art, goggles and other creations. The hundreds of creations on this site are not necessarily for sale, although some are posted with links to the inventor’s studio or store. The main purpose of the site is commentary, feedback and instruction. One inventor, Jade Falcon, created and posted a Steampunk artisan apron featuring decorative gears. Instead of putting the item up for sale, though, she, like many designers, included a link to the artistic group, Wyldfire Studios, which features instructions to recreate the item. Unlike more purely retail sites like Clockwork Couture, prices and sales aren’t prominent parts of social sites such as Steampunk Lab. Rather, the products are a focus for input, appreciation and enthusiasm.
What Keeps Steampunk Steaming Along?
While Steampunk is not exclusively a youth movement, Steampunk as a fad owes its current energy to the drive of this extraordinary web presence. That web presence is built from sites which advertise on teen-oriented, alternative platforms like Tumblr. Reacting against minimalist tech, these teen inventors and consumers pluck themselves out of time. Giving their tech an old-time air of elegance, they create a market powered by personal ingenuity and fanciful creativity.
These one-of-a-kind products fuel an online marketplace that defies monolith corporations’ popularized, simplified designs. Steampunk’s products are crafted in the spirit of originality and initiative, to build a sense of community by sharing creations and inspirations. The elaborateness and impracticality of most of the items imply that the time and energy put into their creation came from love, not from the need for a faster smartphone browser. And really, Steampunk creations are made just for the fun of it.