What Is Steampunk? A Subculture Infiltrating Films, Music, Fashion, More

'I never really imagined [steampunk] would become mainstream,' says musician Voltaire.

“Golden Compass.” “BioShock.” Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Goggles. These things might not seem to have much in common, but they’re fundamental elements of a trend that’s hiding in plain sight.

Like a beacon of light out of the cyberpunk scene, “steampunk” is a sci-fi subculture that offers a fresh, romanticized view on technology by making it retro. Take a look and you’ll see it all around you: In fashion, films, literature, bands, music videos, video games, maybe even in your own wardrobe.

Sci-fi usually connotes something from the future, but not always. The widely acknowledged founding fathers of steampunk, late-19th-century authors Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, took then-modern technology and set it in the steam age. Airships, submarines, typing tools and others objects were reimagined as mechanical devices that were powered by, you guessed it, steam.

(For more on the subculture, check out a Movies Blog post on steampunk films, a Newsroom item from a steampunk newcomer and loads of photos from two steampunk events.)

The term arose during the 1980s, when literature that basically transported cyberpunk tales into the past became popular. The aesthetic gradually spread into other art forms.

The steampunk look reflects the Victorian and early Edwardian eras (roughly 1801-1910 — check out examples on The Frick Collection Web site). Corsets, gowns, frock coats and top hats are accompanied by goggles, ancillary wings, compasses and DIY accessories. Much like the extraordinary world of literature, steampunkers accept that everyday items can perform unconventional tasks. For example, a pocket watch would double as a time machine, or a compass could navigate you through the stars.

Although steampunk is generally based in brown earth tones, the style is very similar to a traditional goth’s black garb. Goth authority and musician Voltaire believes the connection is so close that most goths find it easy to transfer over to steampunk. “Steampunk came along, and all of a sudden, old-school goths find those kinds of aesthetics appealing,” he said.

Like most subcultures these days, the steampunk community grew on the Internet. Jaborwhalky.net co-founders Evelyn Kriete and G.D. Falksen have been monitoring the scene since its inception. Kriete credits the fashion phenomenon to an inventive steampunker, Kit Stolen.

“He invented these hair falls, which almost appear like he’s wearing electronics in his hair,” she said. “There is a famous photo of him taken by Nadya Lev. She posted it to her Web site, and it started to get around. People were like, ‘That looks good. What’s this steampunk thing?’ ”

You can find loads of steampunked-up apparel, tech and home decor online. The more ornate and intricate the creation, the more famous it is. Design sensation Jake von Slatt has given a practical, retro feel to computers, musical instruments and even an iPod. Fallen Angel Fashions & Brute Force Leather‘s Thomas Wileford has concentrated on creating extravagant metallic exoskeletons and atmosphere masks for air travel.

“An arm like this is always custom-made: No two are ever alike, and they start at about $1,299,” Wileford said. “So far, there’s a six-month backup on getting them.”

Handmade retail sites like Etsy.com have also seen a growth from the trend. “Steampunk” is currently one of its top 10 most-searched terms, with 6,560 items posted.

Clothing and jewelry sites are also delving into the look. Retroscope Fashions offers neo-Victorian/ gothic wear, and RockLove Jewelry offers neo-Victorian charms with modern-day sensibility.

And for those concerned about cruelty to animals, companies like Fallen Angel Fashions & Brute Force Leather offer most items leather-free. (It’s the only reason John Norris got into this.)

Popular blogs like the British sites Brass Goggles and Coilhouse offer a place for others to exchange stories, DIY tips and the latest direction of the trend.

And, of course, where would any self-respecting subculture be without its own music? While there’s been much debate on the issue, steampunk-related music usually has orchestral characteristics, à la Rasputina, or it could also have a Tom Waits-esque metallic, gritty sound. A lot of steampunk bands offer amalgamations.

Groups like the aptly named Vernian Process combine Victorian-themed lyrics with old-world instrumentation recreated on synthesizers to create old-world instrumentation while using Victorian-themed lyrics. “I [chose the band's name] because of Jules Verne, father of the genre and the process,” the group’s Joshua A. Pfeiffer said. “Vernian Process is like the process of making steampunk music.”

Another great example is Dr. Steel, a hip-hop steampunker. Draped in a white lab coat, clad with ironworkers’ goggles, he uses technology to promote a message of peace via strict control. Fans are promised a Utopian Playland and sublime entertainment if they become a member of his “Toy Soldiers” fan group.

Abney Park are probably the most visually mainstream band in the genre. With beginnings as a goth act, Abney found their calling as steampunk “airship pirates,” and are happy with the musical vagueness of that designation.

“You can’t really pigeonhole all steampunk as a music genre,” bassist Daniel C. said. “We can do a Victorian [acoustic] music set or we can do our live [electric] set; two completely different sounds, but the focus is considered steampunk.”

Of course, as these bands, fans and subgenres grew and found each other on the Internet over the past few years, it was just a matter of time before a summit took place. “There was the interest among the online community,” Jaborwhalky’s G.D. Falksen said. “What they really needed was someone to just say, ‘Hey, you guys should talk to each other.’ ”

And so it began. Under the guise of a neo-vintage festival, Salon Convention drew a minimal crowd in 2005. Then Dances of Vice came in 2006 and attracted even more, and this year’s Salon Convention sold out.

Now, steampunk is getting its own conventions. The highly anticipated Steamcon is taking place October 23-25 at the Seattle Airport Marriott. California is getting some steamy love as well. Steam Powered starts on Halloween and goes through November 2.

With all this activity, it feels like just a matter of time before this underground scene moves above ground. Voltaire seems to think it’s already happening.

“I never really imagined it would become mainstream,” he said. “But walking down the street the other day, I passed a Levi’s store. They had brown, acid-washed denim jeans [in the window] with a sort of ripped, old-timey shirt and a top hat floating over it. And I thought, ‘By Jove, any second now there’s going to be goggles on everything!’ “