Steampunk, or Hot Air?

Photo: Robert Wright for The New York Times

I have this friend who just LOVES to create and then assign folks into categories. Granted, she does it for a living but she takes it into her social circle…and it gets on my last working nerve. We humans just love to assign ourselves and others to groups. Which is why this article, on the “new” subculture, Steampunk, is so interesting. Steeped largely in fashion (clothing and re-fashioning technology), Steampunk begs me to wonder if it is alright for clothing to influence reality to the point of making it a lifestyle choice? Or when does it plainly become clever marketing of oneself? Ok, I confess, seeing the James Gang on the front page of the NYTimes website had something to do with it too.

According to the article:

It is also the vision of steampunk, a subculture that is the aesthetic expression of a time-traveling fantasy world, one that embraces music, film, design and now fashion, all inspired by the extravagantly inventive age of dirigibles and steam locomotives, brass diving bells and jar-shaped protosubmarines. First appearing in the late 1980s and early ’90s, steampunk has picked up momentum in recent months, making a transition from what used to be mainly a literary taste to a Web-propagated way of life.

At first glance I love it, it reminds me of Japanese Lolita –which deserves its own post (coming soon). It’s the notion of fantasy vs. reality vs. lifestyle that begs for attention. I love a bespoke gentleman as much as the next girl, but when we define ourselves by a term, do we then restrict our creative sensibility? Some would argue that this IS a lifestyle, and while I support their enthusiasm, lose the vest, boots and brass touches and you are just like me: a person with great taste and an appreciation for Balenciaga, McQueen, Dorian Grey stories and fantasy, who does not feel the need for definition. To me, this is the difference between personal style, and costuming.

The freedom to “don” a different personality everyday puts the fun in fashion, no? But when we start going towards attending conventions (ie. the Medieval Fairs, etc) and the like–that’s when fashion vs. reality can get fuzzy. Steampunk reminds me of when we had “History Day” in school where you had to dress up like your favorite time period. Sure, the Victorian era is beautiful, but I can’t embrace a time when my place would have been serving tea and watching someone’s kids. However, there is an interesting embrace for the future in Steampunk that is innovative in it’s interpretation: brass IPhone holders, custom reworks for computers, etc. Still, it’s “innovation” is a bit lost on me.

And, in keeping with the make-it-yourself ethos of punk, they assemble their own fashions, an adventurous pastiche of neo-Victorian, Edwardian and military style accented with sometimes crudely mechanized accouterments like brass goggles and wings made from pulleys, harnesses and clockwork pendants, to say nothing of the odd ray gun dangling at the hip. Steampunk style is corseted, built on a scaffolding of bustles, crinolines and parasols and high-arced sleeves not unlike those favored by the movement’s designer idols: Nicolas Ghesquiere of Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and, yes, even Ralph Lauren.

Ralphy as a designer idol? Sorry, I think the LoLifes have a stronger hold on him. Aligning this movement with punk is also a little unsettling. Punk had true political, musical and lifestyle bases/choices that have managed to stand on their own though time and don’t necessarily require a uniform (ie. veganism, rebellion, DIY, cooperative economics). You can be in a 3 piece suit and be punk. THAT is a lifestyle. Steampunk is the opposite attract of the Retro Kids. [Sidenote: The Retro Kids need a “retro crackhead” if they really wanna represent the inner-city eighties right. Summer of 88–Crack was it!]

But let’s get down the business of it all. This is America and we need labels and marketing, because someone has to make money off of culture. So aside from the many websites and magazines devoted to Steampunk, the fashion retail extension is continuing to grow into the mainstream:

Mr. James, who performs with his troupe at the Box, the music-hall hideaway on the Lower East Side, has just leased space for a steampunk shop in NoLIta. He plans to offer brass Rubik’s cubes, riding boots, early-20th-century-style motorbikes, handmade leather mailbags and brass or wooden iPhone cases, all under the label TJG Engineering.

I’ll just be happy with my fantasy novels, a pocket watch and a stiff drink. However, I bet the opening will be interesting, I predict a lot of tweed.


I’d love to hear your thoughts, feel free to comment of email me at

Steampunk Moves Between Two Worlds {NYTimes}

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