What is Steampunk?

We invited some of the Steampunk artists at Out of the Box Art Market to share a little bit about the steampunk movement. 

Thomas Willeford by Babs (Event-ography)From a literary perspective, Steampunk first made its appearance in the early 1980s when authors such as William Gibson, James Blaylock and Tim Powers were coming into public recognition. Rather than concentrate on dystopian futures, which was popular at that time, they chose to concentrate on a more raptured and romantic past. These modern writers forged forward with Steampunk as a classification of science fiction where technologies were emerging out of sync with our timeline and societies were struggling to cope.


From a fashion standpoint, Steampunk embraces this sci-fi origin and combines it with a love of history. It is anachronistic so that the individual can gravitate towards the historical items and clothing of his or her choosing. The most prominent is Victorian era styling. The second most prominent is early American Western and the third is Art Nouveau.

Steampunk is an ideological rebellion where in people cannot be pigeon holed into one category. It is a fantasy world, yes, but it is also an incredibly hopeful and historical world.  So rather than concentrating on Victorian oppressive behaviors and early American Western injustices and prejudices, the wearer, rather, chooses to recall the romance of those era as well as the science available in those eras.

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One can be anything in the safety of those guidelines. But they are just guide lines. I can be a Victorian explorer with all of the dirigibles that take me there even if I choose to have an Elizabethan ruff and early Viking gauntlets.

More to the point, it’s not exclusively about the fashions, but also about the science and technology as seen through the early Victorian/American Western eye.  This is where the brass, cogs and steam power comes into play.

I’ve often heard people say that “Steampunk is the world through the Victorian eye” whereupon the world can be romantic, nostalgic, cheeky and interesting.  In all of the hum drum of daily living, I think we can all use a little fantasy…especially one that is safe, creative and totally limitless. I think those who brought about the Steampunk trend yearned for a uniqueness that the 1980s would not allow.  Now? We drone about with technology and forget about how incredibly lucky and fortunate we are to have convenience.

Thereto, I think the more modern Steampunker tends to give absolute reverence to days gone by when we were not so scientifically savvy – and we had to invent to stay current. We had to use our technology and be forward thinking even though it may not have always worked. (As a tangent, I feel this coincides with the modern trend of Zombie Apocalypse obsession.  We all secretly have a fear of being senseless drones, I feel. And it’s apparent to me that the Steampunk revolution is at its most basic thing – a need to discover the self and beyond rather than lose that.)

Subsequently,  if there were to be a “rule” for Steampunk it would be that there must be an illusion of functionality. My mentor, Thomas Willeford (pictured below) has a wonderful book out called “Steampunk: Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos” that covers the trend in much more detail. My favorite quote is that Steampunk is not simply “a cog on a stick”.

steampunk-r-d-podcast-01-thomas-willeford-creating-his-empire.w654Funnily enough, I sometimes am drawn to that. But it’s not to taint the lovely waters of the Steampunk trend. I love watch gears.   I do try to have an illusion of functionality in all of my pieces….but sometimes…I just like to wear a gear on my neck and cherish that moment in time and space and own that.

The work right now reveals to what I have access. My inventions are on a smaller scale than say a steam powered arm or a flying machine.  But, I can solder and shape, sculpt and paint.

Belt Buckle by Erin Rose Designs

Belt Buckle by Erin Rose Designs

I don’t have giant machines – yet.  I can imagine and create.  And that is the essence of what I love most about this genre. I don’t have to be limited in my materials. I can always invent and reinvent and beyond.

About the author
Erin Gallagher has been costuming for over fifteen years and has been working in the theater professionally for 18 years. Erin moved to Chicago in 2007 to design costumes, fashion, and accessories full time. She has had the pleasure of stitching wicked stitches for Chicago Shakespeare Theater and The Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Court Theatre. She is currently the resident costume designer of Moving Dock Theater Company. In addition to the work featured on the website, Erin designs and constructs her own line of handbags, jewelry and wearable art pieces under the name of Erin Rose Design. 
Many thanks to Erin Rose Designs for writing this article and the photos and also to Lady Stainpunk for photos.
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