What is Steampunk? [THE No.1 Guide]

What is steampunk? If you haven’t heard of it before, then you might want to check out our article on the history of Steampunk. It is an oxymoron in every sense of the word, it is retro and futuristic, it is dark and colorful,  it really is unlike any other culture in history, which is what makes it so fascinating and magical. Read on to find out more about the amazing world of steampunk.

Where Does the Term ‘Steampunk’ Come From

The term ‘Steampunk’ was first recorded as being used in 1987 when American writer Kevin Jeter (K.W. Jetter) sent a letter to Locus Magazine to describe a series of novels, including Morlock Night that he was co-authoring with James Blaylock and Tim Powers.

The stories were all set in the Victorian period in a retro-futuristic alternative reality. This was at the time that cyberpunk was popular in science fiction, K.W. Jetter was being satirical by combining the ‘punk’ with ‘steam’ to create this genre.

“Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks”, perhaps…”-K.W. Jeter[1]

Since this time the term has stuck and steampunk was born.

What Are the Key Elements in Steampunk?

Steampunk is a subculture that combines elements from 19th century science fiction with modern technology. The term was used in 1894 by Jules Verne, who wrote a book called Journey to the Center of the Earth. In his novel, he described a fictional time period where steam power had replaced fossil fuels.

Today, steampunk has become a fashion trend and a way of life. People dress in clothes inspired by Victorian era inventions such as trains, airships, and even submarines.

They also decorate their homes with items like lamps, clocks, and furniture in appreciation of this genre.

What Are Steampunk Enthusiasts Called?

People who follow the steampunk culture, whether full or part time are sometimes called ‘Steamers’ or ‘Steampunks’. 

So we know some of its origins, but when does the Steampunk era exist?

What is the Central Theme of Steampunk?

Unsurprisingly, the central theme of Steampunk, is that steam powers everything. In this world, steam has taken over from possible fuels (gas and oils are a thing of the past) and electricity has never been heard of.

This theme is what places the aesthetic firmly in Victorian times, during the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, during which steam was king.

It is this time setting that gives Steampunk its retro look.

In steampunk, steam powered cars can be seen on the street and steam powered airships can be seen in the air.

The technology seen is futuristic but is also retro in that they are all mechanical (not digital). Despite this technology being futuristic for the period, it was still made to look retro.

Between What Years is the Steampunk Aesthetic Set?

The steampunk aesthetic is set during the Industrial Revolution between the dates of 1760 to 1840. This covers the dates of the Industrial Revolution both in the UK and in the US.

Was Steampunk Ahead of Its Time?

To quote Douglas Fetherling, “Steampunk is a genre that imagines how different the past might have been had the future come earlier.” I.e. steampunk is the juxtaposition of modern technology (for the time), combined with a retro look and feel.

Why Are Gears So Iconic in Steampunk?

Gears are iconic in steampunk due to steam being the primary fuel source, so gears can often be seen worn on both men and women as practical and fashion accessories. They are normally brass in color.

This is as they may require them at any time to repair a broken item.

What is the ‘Punk’ in Steampunk?

The “punk” in steampunk is a reference to cyberpunk, because when steampunk first evolved it was comprised essentially of cyberpunk (that is, dystopian high tech sci-fi) stories set during the Victorian period.

The term punk has developed into a term meaning an outsider, or a ruffian.

In reality, the ‘punk’ means nothing other than ‘alternative’ and does not have any deep and meaningful meaning, as interesting as that would be.

So, Is Stempunk Sci-Fi?

This is a hotly debated topic in the steampunk community. For me, it is a beautiful combination of sci-fi meets fantasy, meets historical fiction, all played out in harmony.

Does Steampunk Have Magic?

This can be a really contentious issue within the steampunk community. Some would argue that steampunk literature can mesh the mechanical of steampunk with the mystique of magic. Others would argue that ‘traditional’ steampunk does not involve magic.

In reality, steampunk is an alternative reality, so anything is possible.

What is Steampunk Fashion?

Steampunk fashion is synonymous with the fashion that could be seen in the English Victorian era. In steampunk terms, steampunk fashion is a subgenre in its own right.

The fashion also takes influence from Belle Époque (aka La Belle Époque). This is the term given to a period of French and European history, usually dated to between 1871–80.

Finally, these genres were combined with the Civil War era from the United States, which spanned from 1861 to 1865.   Inspiration can also be seen to have been taken from colonial explorers, soldiers of the times, as well as the glamour of lords and countesses, as well as risque elements being taken from the glamours outfits of burlesque.  

These fashions have been combined and modernized by adding features such as the gears that are so synonymous with steampunk.   Interestingly, steampunk fashion showed its greatest period of growth during the 1980s and 1990s.

Men and Women’s Steampunk Fashion Checklist

  • Long Coats
  • Top Hats
  • Steampunk Goggles
  • Steampunk Watch
  • Corsets (for women)
  • Steampunk Goggles
  • Steampunk Watch

Over the years there are more and more outlets selling steampunk clothing, however, a lot of steampunk outfits can be cobbled together from items found at thrift stores. This is in keeping with the DIY ethos of steampunk that revolts against the commercialization and mass production which is ongoing in the world.

Steampunk, though its fashion plays tribute to handcrafted artistry, the beauty of the artisan, and embracing the antique

What are Steampunk Colors?

Brown is the color that seems to be most closely associated with steampunk. This would be correct to an extent.

All shades of brown can be seen throughout steampunk clothing and imagery, combined with the brassy gold colors that are associated with the mechanical elements such as the gears worn and accessories.

Then there is the colonial side of the fashion, which associates itself more with neutral canvas, khaki, and tan colors.

However, flashes of bright colors can also be seen in both male and female clothing.

Is Steampunk Literature a Thing?

In short, yes, steampunk is a literary genre in its own right.

Here is a list of books that are commonly agreed to depict the Steampunk genre, either in part or in their entirety. These are in no particular order of preference.

Steampunk In the Theatre

Here is a list of movies that are commonly agreed to depict the Steampunk genre, either in part or in their entirety.

check out this article for our list of the 25+ Best Steampunk Movies of all time.

Steampunk In Video Games

The steampunk aesthetic can also be seen in a number of video games.

  • Space: 1889
  • BioShock Infinite
  • Sunless Sea
  • Professor Layton And The Unwound Future
  • Dishonored  

Steampunk Festivals

There are a number of festivals, conventions, and fairs held internationally for dedicated enthusiasts. At these, you will see a showcase of all sorts of steampunk fashions, gadgets, and even vehicles.

If you are interested in learning about steampunk, attending one of these is a must. You will meet so many amazing people who live and breathe steampunk.

They will all have a slightly different take on the aesthetic, but from experience, they will be happy to discuss their thoughts with you as well as listen to your ideas on what steampunk should and should not be.

Finally, Is Steampunk Dead?

Steampunk has always been a bit of a niche genre. But now, steampunk seems to be everywhere. From movies to TV shows, books to video games, steampunk is becoming more mainstream. What does this mean for the future of steampunk?

There are several reasons why steampunk is growing in popularity. First, steampunk is often associated with the Victorian era, which is considered a time of great innovation and technological advancement.

Second, steampunk is a fascinating blend of old and new technologies. Third, steampunk is a fun way to explore alternate history.

And finally, steampunk is a great way to bring back some lost art forms.

Are you interested in learning about other aesthetics? Check out our round up article which is a whistle stop tour of some of the main punk aesthetics, you may find a new interest.

So, In Summary: What is Steampunk?

Hopefully, we’ve given you a good flavor of what steampunk is (and isn’t). For those of you who are still unsure, it’s a fictional retrofuturistic time in history where the Victorian Era meets the future and the world is run on steam. Electricity and digitization have never happened. It is a time of hope where inventions are plenty.

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