The Archaeology and Evolution of Steampunk Fashion
It's always difficult to pin point the beginning of a style trend. In archaeology we construct Seriation charts which have popularity curves. Think, for example, if you were to excavate jeans over the past 40 years how the popularity of different pant legs might ebb and flow.
Steampunk fashion is no different, even though it is coupled to the maker movement. In fact, being part of an aesthetic revolution that involves not only books and music but interior design and gadget modification makes steampunk fashion even more difficult to analyze. It clearly has some roots in the short-lived cyberpunk style of the late 80s and early 90s, which combined plastic and metallic accessories with brightly colored block coloring. Cyberpunks incorporated glow sticks, backlight, pvc, and telephone cords to their everyday look. The movie Hackers is a great example.
But there is also a Goth element: steampunk witnesses Goths discovering color, texture, and new avenues of characterization. The Victorian homage remains (along with the stripy stockings). But then there are also some Burner elements to steampunk as well. So what we have ended up with is the following formula.
color + found-objects (a la cyberpunk) + Victoriana lace and frills (a la Goth / homemade fabrics + gadgets (a la Burners) = steampunk
Jodhpurs, meets automated arms, clock jewelry, and yarn hair.
(Gail, courtesy of J. Daniel Sawyer)
As an author who came to steampunk via the aesthetic movement I find it strange how disconnected the fashion seems to be from the literary movement (which started in the early 80s with K. W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock). Both are now evolving. The steampunk aesthetic now includes people who are into dressing only a little bit (a cog necklace, a newsboy cap), and people who are hardcore fashion gurus (full on bustle dresses and head to tow gadgetry) and everything in between. Ralph Lauren put steampunk down the runway in 2008, Target put it into shops a few years later, Sherlock Homes stuck it on the big screen, and Sony made it into video games. There are makers with massive fire-breathing snails, makers with booze-dispensing brass backpacks, and makers who are green-believers who want steampunk to save the planet. The literary side includes steampunk romance, steampunk adventure, steampunk paranormal, steampunk noir, and steampunk dystopia. One of the places these two parallel worlds meet is at steampunk conventions, which are fast becoming one of my favorite venues for fun and inspiration.
Having watched the cyberpunk movement fade away, I'm delighted to see steampunk become ever more inclusive, in as many ways as possible. After all, one of the worst things about the Victorian era was its elitism, snobbery, bigotry, and classicism. I'd like to hope steampunk can leave those bits far behind.
Nevertheless, even being part of this moment as both a DIYer and an author, I remain confused as to it's evolution. How has it managed to cease the imagination of so many? Where do we see steampunk going? And is there enough tea to keep it afloat?
Gail Carriger's latest steampunk novel, Heartless, is in stores now. She is a self-titled fashionista, tea addict, archaeologist, and steampunk author who, when not excavating, lives on a vineyard in Northern California with one cat, three vehicles, and fifty pairs of shoes. Her books include the New York Times Bestselling Parasol Protectorate series, Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, Heartless and Timeless (March 2012), and the Finishing School series (next year from Little, Brown). She also has a manga edition of the first book due out in Spring 2012.
Alexia and Conall
You can listen to a full cast podcast production of the first chapter of her first book, Soulless, at http://www.jdsawyer.net/soulless-final-draft.mp3
If you'd like to read more on her thoughts concerning steampunk fashion and its cultural evolution she has a piece in Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer. Her website includes an extensive page on steampunk. http://www.gailcarriger.com/steampunk.php And she'll be attending TeslaCon this year. http://www.teslacon.com/
Today, Gail is giving away a copy of Heartless (winner'c choice of US edition or UK trade edition) to one lucky winner who tells us about their own personal favourite steampunk fashion, or who comments on Gail's post in some other way. The contest will close at midnight tonight and the winner will be announced tomorrow on this thread.