Friday, January 28, 2011

Steampunk 102: Who is Steampunk?

Yesterday's post gave you a crash course in some common motifs of steampunk fashion. Today's lesson is an introduction to some of the overarching Steampunk styles.

The three main elements of Steampunk style are
1) Science
2) Adventure
3) History

Any given outfit is likely to incorporate more than one of these, but also likely to favor one over the others. For the sake of this lesson, we are going to say that a historical influence (almost always the 19th century, which is what makes the most sense in terms of the actual course of steam technology) applies to all outfits to different degrees, but is not critical in determining the 'personality.' This leaves us with two main categories, with styles that favor either science or adventure (though usually not to the exclusion of the other). Any of these can be interpreted into a male or female costume, so don't mind the example pictures. Also, these should be inspiration and starting points - it is not an exhaustive list, so don't feel limited!

What follows is a random sampling of some of the most commonly seen styles in Steampunk fashion. Which are your favorites? Are you a slave to science, or a daring adventurer? Leave a comment!


The Engineer
This person might tinker with clock-like contraptions, or design monstrous huge engines, or make any sort of mechanical wonder, probably involving steam technology.
Suggested accessories: engine grease, fitted clothes (to keep out of moving parts), goggles!, heavy gloves, heavy aprons, lots of tools

The Mad ScientistJust as much of a scientist as the engineer, but more interested in studying things than in building them.
Suggested accessories: lab coats, lab equipment, a notebook for keeping track of observations, a good maniacal laugh

The Aviator
This person could pilot an airship, or might instead have some kind of personal flying machine. They sure know the ropes - and the gears, and the engines, and the helium sacks, and the pistons, and... you get the idea.
Suggested accessories: aviator goggles, aviator caps, a dashing aviator's scarf, tailored garments for dangling off ladders and rigging while in the air

The Clockwork Person
This person was made (probably by some engineer!), and not born. Imagine steam-powered automatons so complex that they are difficult to distinguish from their biological counterparts.
Suggested accessories: gears, a maker's mark, rivets that look structural, a portion of clothing or skin (use makeup!) that pulls away or is missing to expose complex inner workings with machinery and gears

The Enthusiast
There is no mistaking that this person is a lady or gentleman. But they also like science. Whether this is a well-bred person who dabbles in scientific fields, or wealthy patron of science who funds the expeditions and research of more serious scientists, they should be well dressed and ready to do what they can - FOR SCIENCE!
Suggested accessories: a stunning 19th century outfit plus a pair of goggles, amazing machines you have made or bought


The Airship Pirate
This is a big one. Pirates are bad-ass and adventurous. Airships and zeppelines are astounding feats of engineering with a historical precedent. The idea of a pirate crew aboard an air-travel vehicle is a staple of Steampunk literature. Likewise, the look of an air pirate is a staple in Steampunk fashion.
Suggested accessories: eye patches or steampunk monocles, loose pirate shirts, baggy bloomer-like pants, weapons

The Military Man (or Woman)
Military elements show up in a lot of Steampunk clothing. Sometimes these are complete fantasy, and sometimes these are borrowed from various 19th century armies, but all they time they are stylish and neat.
Suggested accessories: epaulets, pauldrons, armor, piping and military-style trim, shiny buttons, clean-cut jackets, military hats, medals or patches, military-issue weapons

The Explorer
Somebody get this man a pith helmet! The explorer goes adventuring to far off lands, and might incorporate elements of the local dress into his or her wardrobe. On the other hand, I have no problem with the Anglo-centric model of Steampunk, so the explorer in my mind wears khaki and linen, taking his or her cues from 19th century archaeologists and big game hunters.
Suggested accessories: pith helmets, khaki vests or jackets, linen suits, packs and bags, compasses or navigational tools

The Street Urchin
A lot of people get fixated on the "punk" in Steampunk. The word itself is modeled after other terms, like "Cyberpunk," for sub-genres that were rather more punk-y. I see no reason, personally, that Steampunk clothes should be tattered or streaked with soot, UNLESS you are some kind of Steampunk street urchin or chimney sweep! So that is how I think of these people, though I think some of them may just be confused about the meaning of Steampunk.
Suggested accessories: soot, torn or ratty clothing, caps set at a rakish angle, a lower-class British accent

The Spy or Saloon Girl
Let's face it - a lot of women's Steampunk outfits follow the exposed corset formula. I have seen a lot of "Steampunk Saloon Girls," and also a lot of "Generic Steampunk Woman Who Runs Around In Her Underwear," but I didn't think that last title was really up to snuff. So I'm going to call them spies, because for all I know that is the truth, and the exposed undergarments are a ploy to distract us from their adventurous and dangerous spy plans. But really, they are women in underwear. One way or another, that certainly goes in the "adventure" category.
Suggested accessories: spy gadgets, short skirts, really cute underwear including corsets, hoops, bustles, bloomers, chemises, garters, and more


  1. Again, this is really fascinating! It’s interesting what you say (in this post and the philosophy of Steampunk post) about exposed corsets and other undergarments. (You got me to giggle with the line “they are women in underwear. One way or another, that certainly goes in the ‘adventure’ category.” Funny writing!) I’ve been feeling conflicted for a while about corsets, because from one perspective I do like the look of the exposed corset, but from another perspective I don’t like the implications that can be attached to it if it’s done wrong – fetish or Victoria’s Secret or poorly done Renaissance Faire. I hadn’t considered before that if one is thinking about Steampunk costuming from a perspective of historical accuracy, wearing a corset on the outside would look like running around in one’s underwear. Lots of food for thought. I’ve got to say that I still hope to find a way to make the exposed corset look work for me, because I do like the look.

    It seems possible to me that in a society where the more daring or racy members of society were running around in their underwear, that style would trickle down to the rest of the population, the less extreme dressers, who would find ways to use those motifs in more “respectable” ways. (That happens with fashion in our world all the time, after all.) In the picture near the end of the post with the three women (the one that looks like part of a fashion shoot) I think the woman on the left might have found a compromise on at least the hoop skirt part of “underwear worn outside” idea. The outer layer looks like a kind of hoop structure, and yet she doesn’t look particularly racy (at least to me), partly because the skirt under the hoop is so clearly a skirt, not a petticoat, and is so firmly attached to the “hoop.”

    I think if I were to come up with a Steampunk character for myself, she would be either a craftswoman or an explorer. I would try to find some way to include music – maybe I would be a maker of complicated music boxes (this character would wear gears and little working machines as an advertisement for her wares), maybe I would be an adventurous naturalist traveling on an airship – the way Darwin did with the Beagle – who recorded high-altitude bird songs (this character would definitely wear ornamental wings when she was in town sharing her discoveries), maybe a court composer who wrote “Air Music” for the musicians stationed on airships at royal parties (just like Handel wrote Water Music – this character might wear an exposed bustle or a shortened skirt, because she would be climbing around in the airships setting up the music and listening to the sound balance but she’d be in the city so she’d want to be fashionable), maybe a hostess or singer at Steampunk soirees where all the adventurers and mad scientists would come to discuss the latest ideas and listen to the latest cultural offerings.

    As I think about Steampunk, I get more and more intrigued by the idea of incorporating Steampunk elements into modern street clothing – imagining characters is fun, but I think it would be even more fun to wear Steampunk elements while being myself, going about my daily business. Have you seen the recent movie MicMacs? It seems to me to be quite Steampunk-inflected, especially in its interior design (and it’s French, so it’s more fuel for your argument that the French are just naturally Steampunky), and it’s set in the modern day. An interesting alternative to the 19th-century-historical version of Steampunk. Also, it’s just a really fun movie, sort of like a heist movie and a remake of Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You all rolled into one. The film score is kind of Steampunky, too:

  2. Hey Robin! Let me be clear on the corset matter - I bring it up because I think it must be thought about, but I have been known to do it. As long as your reasons are good, I think the corsets-on-the-outside look is really cute. I tread a dangerous line between feminists and fetishists, both of which make me really uncomfortable with their views about corsets. So for me, they are underwear - but they are really pretty and well-constructed underwear, so having a chance to show that off occasionally is nice. I think the idea of highly engineered corsets and skirt-supports is very Steampunk, actually. I also think a lot of people do it for inappropriate reasons, unhealthy reasons, or just because they haven't thought about it. You should be fine, though, so go for it!