Understanding The Punk Essence In Neo-Victorianism

Samantha Mall Viksnins
Samantha Mall Viksnins

The nineteenth-century is also known as the age of iron and steam when hulking locomotives and belching factories — harnessing the power of pressurized steam — brought forth an era of unprecedented technological innovation. Steampunk has its roots in a literary genre that channels the science fiction writings of Jules Gabriel Verne, Herbert George Wells, as well as Victorian and Edwardian era Edisonades. The 1868 Edisonade ‘The Steam Man of the Prairies’ by Edward Sylvester Ellis featured a machine: about ten feet in height, measuring to the top of the “stovepipe hat.” The face was made of iron, painted a black colour, with a pair of fearful eves[sic], and a tremendous grinning mouth. The steam chest proper and boiler were where the chest in a human being is generally supposed to be, extending also into a large knapsack arrangement over the shoulders and back. The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running, at which time, the bolt uprightness in the figure showed different from a human being1.

With these dime novels that featured “mad scientists and crackpot inventors” and their fantastical adventures serving as inspiration the “steam” in Steampunk is easily appreciated. The term Steampunk itself was coined in 1987 when science fiction writer Kevin Wayne Jeter sent a copy of a Victorian fantasy novel for review to Locus Magazine, a science fiction publication. Kevin Wayne Jeter requested the novel be forwarded to a specific reviewer and facetiously suggested the phrase Steampunk categorize his literary works, and those of his fellow science fiction writers, set in or otherwise relating to the late Victorian era2.

Thus the term Steampunk was born as innocuously as the brief exchange above, yet this still does not explain the “punk” in Steampunk and its ties to Victoriana. The lexeme itself is a play on Cyberpunk, a science fiction subgenre set in a dystopian future featuring an archetypal marginalized loner standing up to a technologically advanced social order, usually controlled by a mega corporation3. With social anxieties related to the Cold War, Artificial Intelligence — stunningly portrayed in the 1982 film, ‘Tron’ — the Iran hostage crisis (1979 – 1981) and Beirut bombing (1983), and Britain’s Punk scene that highlighted issues of unemployment, class, race, and religion, science fiction served as an ideal platform for social commentary. Steampunk literature, especially the first-wave produced during the 1970s and 1980s by the godfather of Steampunk literature Michael John Moorcock, was “intensely progressive, a blistering critique of Victorian Imperialism, and hugely sympathetic to those peoples subjugated by the British.4” Kevin Wayne Jeter, also known for his Cyberpunk literature, merely drew a link between the ideologies of the two sci-fi subgenres; Steampunk is a mere bon mot “based on the appropriate technology of that era.5

So does this explain the “punk” in Steampunk? When considering the etymology of Steampunk and the1970’s British working class youth subculture centred around an anti-establishment political ideology, music, fashion, and art scene, the answer is a resounding, no! The protagonists in Steampunk literature are usually scientists, academics, military men, members of the House of Lords, blue stockings, and inventors, in other words, members of the middle and upper classes rather than rebels. They often embark on their adventures ”in service of the Empire” and even if they come to question the ideals by which the Empire operates, they may not necessarily turn against it. The working class Punks of the 1970’s, on the other hand, took a decisive stand against “Crown and Country.” However, in the two decades from when Kevin Wayne Jeter “coined” the term Steampunk, to the time it evolved beyond a literary tradition to encompass a philosophy expressed through music, film, art, and fashion, the “punk” in Steampunk has manifested itself within the ethos of the subculture. Another parallel that demonstrates the punk in Steampunk is the egalitarian acceptance of people from all walks of life including class, race and gender.

Much of Evan’s discourse on 1980’s rave culture can easily be modified and adapted to Steampunk. Participants, when not engaging in cosplay, do disappear through their ordinariness. The sepia-toned blouses, shirts, vests, and skirts mixed with other articles of clothing in ivory, burgundy, dark grey, hunter green, and black easily conform to the “straight” styling of everyday life. However, Steampunk style does not just offer resistance during leisure activities but in all aspects of daily life. A ruffle-edged button-up shirt from J.Crew paired with black pants and Victorian-inspired shoes can just as easily be worn at a Steampunk event as the office.

Like its namesake, Punk, Steampunk subculture is rooted in concepts of anti-establishment. The 1970’s Punk culture, influenced by an eclectic mix of glam rock, soul and reggae music, manufactured a unique visual aesthetic. This Punk aesthetic, based in a do-it-yourself philosophy necessitated by economic constraints, “reproduced the entire sartorial history of post-war working-class youth cultures in cut up form, combining elements which had originally belonged to completely different epochs.6” Steampunk makers and tinkerers reject the “perceived uniformity and insipidness of contemporary consumer culture.7” Through a do-it-yourself application of Victorian design principles to modern technology, steampunks bring the techno fantasy element of Steampunk fiction to life, if not in actual working models then certainly in prototype machines.

For those not necessarily drawn to the politics espoused in Steampunk literature or particularly handy with a soldering iron and band-saw, but still eschewing the ubiquitous choices available at the local shopping emporium, fashion is the means through which they give form to their own unique expression. This expression is more than engaging in cosplay — where many individuals with only “a day-pass8” participate dressed in elaborate Victorian costume complete with props such as weapons made from an amalgamation of foam, copper, leather and a liberal application of bronze spray paint — but incorporates do-it-yourself elements or period inspired articles of clothing in their everyday wardrobe. A considerable number of individuals come to the Steampunk community via the fashion, rather than the fiction, avenue. Steampunk author Tota Borregaard, like many steampunks, was surprised to find that there was a term to define her taste in clothing.

Steampunk makers are not unique when it comes to exhibiting the do-it-yourself ethic; Steampunk fashion is just as much about do-it-yourself ingenuity. Many steampunks create their own “steamsona” and some even have multiple “steamsonas.” Steampunks will create a personal history for their steamsonas and elements of these histories are often reflected in their costume choices. As a result, complete costumes cannot simply be purchased but must be, like Punk clothing, pulled together from a variety of clothing and otherwise innocuous objects, often from different eras in history. Diana M. Pho, an author who uses Steampunk for analysis and reform of colonial-era attitudes towards race and class, has created a steamsona that incorporates her cultural heritage. “Ay-leen the Peacemaker,” Diana M. Pho’s steamsona, “has a backstory based on alternative historical Indochina, where China and Japan are superpowers actively competing with Dollarspean nations for control over Southeast Asia, and that is how the area becomes a center for multicultural interaction.9” Even if a steampunk has not created a steamsona the costumes are a study in do-it-yourself resourcefulness and design principles. Consider Carriger’s rather standard Victorian inspired costume, which has been featured in several Steampunk publications. At first glance this is a straightforward look, a corset worn with a bustle skirt, though upon closer examination whimsical elements become evident. Even then the physical examination does not shed much light on the actual process by which the costume was created, and only with an explanation from the maker, Carriger, does the viewer become aware of true Steampunk aesthetics.

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