Saturday, 7 August 2010

Steampunk: What the Mercenary Means

A lot of debate surrounds the genre of Steampunk as people try to pin down the elusive beast and I won't pretend that I'm can offer any answers to the bigger question of What is Steampunk? But since the Costume Mercenary does use the word in her product descriptions and allegedly works in the genre, I should spill some internet ink over what I mean.

Firstly, yes, I do it in part because I think it will help me sell costumes. I am Costume Mercenary; it's in the name.

The rest of the really long and thread-splitting ramble is under the cut.

A Definition

Firstly, Steampunk as a genre means two things for me:

  • Victorian techonological fantasy, also termed Victorian Science Fiction. 
  • An umbrella term for technological fantasy based on a historical era. Also known as "retro futurism" (a term I don't personally like but I won't go into that). I think of it as using historically-inspired technology as the "magic" of the setting.

The two meanings overlap and whilst various people decry the latter, I maintain that it is how the term is frequently used. It's inconvenient that the specific and the broad have the same term, but people will happily talk about "Roman steampunk", "dieselpunk", or "clockpunk" as subgenres of steampunk.* I won't belabour the point, but I feel it is somewhat futile to deny that the word steampunk has been hijacked (perhaps simply due to its popularity and despite not being the first) as the umbrella term for all sorts of *punk.

Steampunk Fashion

Definitions of steampunk frequently circle the description of this alternative history setting (see above) and problem with steampunk fashion consequently is that it can be used to describes both a garment that exists in a steampunk setting and a garment that is created with the steampunk aesthetic in mind.

The aesthetic cues are taken from the setting and certain perceptions of the setting. The most obvious being a fascination with machinery that results in cogs or cog-shapes being used decoratively. That Victorian fashion is often perceived through the lens of sepia photographs means browns and beiges features heavily in colour palette of the aesthetic. Things can possess the aesthetic without actually being a steampunk setting (see ongoing debate on Firefly or Warhammer 40k and whether or not it's steampunk) and that in and of itself opens a whole can of worms.

The problem with the setting-based approach, which is how a lot of people think about steampunk fashion (in terms of characters and personas) is that a Cultural Aretefact is not in itself a setting. Whilst an article of clothing or an item could be greatly evocative of a setting, in most cases, it does not define a setting. Therein perhaps lies the greatest paradox of steampunk fashion, which is that the setting is not the sum of what we wear.

Sometimes we speak as though all steampunk fashion works within the same setting. I do feel the urge to say "depends on your setting" to questions of costume advice on steamfashion. Perhaps gentleperson adventurer exist in a setting where malaria is problem and therefore you would not want to have lots of exposed skin in your outfit. Equally, you could be in a setting where that isn't a problem at all. Neither of these options are inherently more or less steampunk than the other.

For the most part, this generic steampunk setting we all create objects in works. Just as there is a generic fantasy setting (mostly medaissance, with elves and orcs and wizards) and there is a general "elven aesthetic" shared across many fantasy settings. It is in this generic fantasy setting that a lot of generic elven artwork is drawn, for example.

Peeling Apart the Layers

An article of clothing can be steampunk in different ways (which can overlap):

1) That the garment would not look out of place in a generic steampunk setting but isn't in and of itself obviously "steampunk."

A lot of the of steampunk fashion is in the accessories and the gadgetry. A waistcoat taken out of context is just a waistcoat. Admittedly, certain colours and textures are more evocative of steampunk (harking back to design elements in that "aesthetic") but really in most cases a shirt is just a shirt.

The Designer and I have a not-entirely-serious litmus test that goes along the lines of "If it looks steampunk if you're wearing goggles with it..."

2) That the garment is itself evocative of a steampunk setting independent of its accessories

This is more difficult and frequently done by the addition of cogs and buckles to a garment. Or equally we can be dealing with a lab coat purpose built for a mad steampunk scientist or a dress with little clockwork rigging that lower or hitch up the skirt. GURPS Steamtech described a fashionable bustle dress that has an inbuilt ventilation system and collapsible bustle.

3) That the garment would fit in a certain sort of steampunk setting.

The divergence could be small or large. What constitutes a divergence does sometimes depend on the individual. It could be that the garment in question is a gorget for a vampire hunter, therefore presupposing a steampunk setting which has vampires. It's still not necessarily a specific setting, but there are certain suppositions which are not necessarily self evident to people to dealing with the generic steampunk setting.

Equally, we could talking about a costume that works in a universe where there was a lot more cultural fashion exchange between the Japanese Industrialists and the West, such as you have a kimono-bustle-dresses, for example.

4) That the garment is suitable for one specific, usually established, steampunk setting.

The theme that unites the above is the assumption that steampunk settings have a recognisable shared aesthetic and sometimes it's all that matters, but as we work through the details of costume an character how something fits into setting gets thrown into the fore. What sort of vampires exist in your steampunk world setting determines how a hunter would fight them and consequently how his costume would look like.

What I Mean

I confess to often use a rather broad definition of steampunk when tagging things on this blog, usually closer to the first than the second definition. These are garments you can use in creating a steampunk outfit rather than in and of themselves evocative of it (hence also a string of other tags).

When it comes to actually using it in product descriptions, however, I adopt a somewhat tighter standard. The garments actually called "Steampunk Blah" are garments I feel are well suited to and can easily function in the generic steampunk setting. I'd also like to think (though you may disagree) they are within the steampunk  aesthetic and employ design elements from it.

Though equally, with the correct accessories, the Steampunk Coat can work as a coat of a dungeonpunk alchemist and things aren't always quite as easy to place.

Most of time, I design individual garments, not outfits and certainly not characters. There words are there in part to guide what sort of setting and aesthetic the garment may be suited to when it's in your hands.

But more on accessories and how they can completely change the outfit another day.



*Incidentally, looking over definitions of steampunk and dieselpunk, there's quite a bit of unclaimed history between the two. There's almost twenty years between the death of Queen Victoria and the 1920s. And I'm not sure anyone's grabbed the Enlightenment or the twelfth century renaissance yet.

The "Twelfth Century Renaissance" is one of those controversial terms. People like the renaissance so despite the problems of the term academically speaking, we still use it to sell books and attract students. It may well be "okay" to like something that's different, but liking something alone gets lonely.

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