Sunday, June 15, 2008

Steampunks: Not as Cool as I Might Have Hoped, But Could be Worse, I Guess

So, perhaps a few months ago, I first heard the term "steampunk"- I think on a street style website, used by someone wearing striped tights, and then I started hearing it a lot, and then there was an article about it in The New York Times and Gaby and Simone got invited to a steampunk party even though obviously they were way too cool to go, so I guess it's officially a thing, or whatever. Steampunk seems to encompass an aesthetic sense of clothing, art, music, and, uh, video games and graphic novels all based on a time when steam engines were cutting-edge technology, and machines were made up of lots of winding gears. Clothes-wise, it seems to be some kind of mashup of Victoriana, cyperpunk, goth, and lots of buckles, gears, leather and brown.

At first I was interested in the idea, because I find industrial revolution-era London really fascinating, and have read a million books about cholera epidemics and Victorian prostitutes and Art Nouveau romanticism and whatnot. Also, I obviously have a great appreciation for clothing and aesthetics from that era, and my favorite movie is City of Lost Children, which I guess they take a lot from, style-wise. In fact, maybe I can finally publish my young adult fantasy novel under the guise that it is "steampunk," as it mostly takes place in an underground water city with lots of brass instruments and old machines and whatnot (ohmygod I am so steampunk and I didn't even know!)

But- part of what seems pretty crappy about steampunk is:

1) The computer factor. Seriously, it seems like a large amount of steampunkers are truly goth-leaning gamers who create online video animations of steampunk characters, or play them in those scary multi-player online role playing games/anime related things. Yet this is pretty much the antithesis of Victorian aesthetics, not to mention the antithesis of production in those times, which is supposed to be a large part of steampunk. I'm not saying everyone should start using waterwheels or something, but that, artisically, there is a marked difference between art created on a computer and art created with actual, traditional materials, and if you truly are devoted to this look, you should not be creating anything on a computer, because it automatically looks crappy and modern and digital, and ruins any sense of history, craft, or personal touch.

2) Shitty (and sexist!) graphic novels like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen/everything similar. God, I hate that crap.

3) Gluing gears and stuff to various crap. A large part of steampunk appears to be fake-aging and gluing brass knobs onto your iPhone or whatever to make it look like an antique diving helmut. I know collage and clustering was a large part of Victorian decor, but there's just something so sad about creating a little shell for a modern plastic gadget in order to turn it into an old-looking accessory, espeically when said gadget is just going to fall apart like every other piece of technological junk made in the past ten years. At least just buy real Victorian stuff (which is actully available, you know) and use that for display. Ditto buying a polyester waistcoat at Wet Seal. Part of what makes old stuff so much better is that it truly is of finer quality and higher quality material. Spray painting a plastic neon squirt gun as a means of reclaiming the past? No on that! Antique diving helmuts didn't have brass studs on them because some pimply-faced teen who jerks off to anime porn thought it looked cool with his goggles, but because they actually held stuff together.

4) The prevalance of goggles. With everything. What the fuck is up with goggles and certain subcultures? It looks dumb to randomly wear goggles, okay? Even if they're faux-antique, they're still goggles.

5) Corsets. Again, what is it with nerdy subcultures and their association with corsets? Like moths to a flame. Corsets can be worn done right, but most people just put on just a corset (not something actually done in the past) like it's a tank top or something. I know people think it's a classy way to show off their boobs, but those people are wrong. It's a trashy way to show your boobs, and is so not historically accurate.

6) This "official Steampunk band" Abney Park, which features a bunch of dorks and some half naked girls gyrating to some terrible goth-type music. Unique! Also, not only are the three guys in this band wearing goggles in this photo, but their logo is a skull with goggles on it. Just as i'twas in the golden age!

I suppose if everyone could pull it off as well as the girl above in green who actually is wearing a corset in a unique way (as opposed to the corseted, goggled, top-hatted, Tim Burtonesque example at the top of this post), steampunk would be a little more attractive. But there doesn't seem to be enough thought put into it, and there are just too many gears stuck to stuff for no reason. If you're going to commit yourself to such a dramatic aesthetic, you should put time, energy and thought into what makes it unique and beautiful instead of just hopping on the brass-knob encrusted bandwagon.


Julia said...

wow. this is a much more detailed description than i could have ever hoped for. perhaps i can run a parallel steampunk commentary on the actual godforsaken music that goes along with this scene, which you touched on in this post. nice work!

Celia Pleete said...

Your blog is bloody freakin' brilliant. I'm linking you, toots.

M said...

thanks, celia pleete. you have some really awesome pictures on your blog. i like that 70's pod room!

julia, i'm not sure if the music that goes along with this scene is listenable.

Alex said...

I wasn't aware that steampunk was popular with anyone but I guess it makes sense that the goths of Thursday morning are the steampunks of Saturday night. I'm still reeling from cyberpunk's unceremonious death at the hands of sci-fi authors who didn't really understand networking technology but wanted to slang the flavor of the month along with everyone else. I don't think I can love another prefixpunx trend this decade.

There's a DVD of three short animes called Memories and the last one, entitled Cannon Fodder, is what I regard to be a pretty excellent portrayal of the steampunk aesthetic. It's worth renting.

M said...

my problem is that i like the backgrounds on anime but kind of loathe the way people are drawn.

hey, didn't cyberpunk kind of keel over sometime around when hackers was released? I mean, not that hackers isn't a great movie.

hacking in general seems to be nearing an end.

Ms. X said...

i'm pretty sure steampunkness was what i hated about The Golden Compass (the movie).

blog blog blog!

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Anonymous said...

I like the idea because I like the era, 'City of Lost Children', and 'Howl's Moving Castle', but it looks pretty lame when people take it too seriously. Guitar Hero? C'mon.
I think I would do it for a costume party, then put it to rest. I do, however, adore corsets and Victorian antiques on their own.
Also, you are correct that the mixing of aesthetics looks absolutely ridiculous. If someone is going to wear goggles, please for the love of undersea divers, let them look like they just fixed a moped. That's what goggles are for- riding little scooters so dust doesn't attack you.
But, if you are going to go full Victorian, you would not be riding a moped. Pick one, damn you!

Also, do you like Miyazaki anime (speaking of 'Howls Moving Castle')? His girls are usually skinny, but Princess Mononoke is way better for young girls than Princess Cinderella. I wish I had played wolf-girl instead of disney princess when I was a kid. And even witch Kiki went off on her own at 13.

Anonymous said...


Yes- Suicide Girls through a gold-spraypainted, tricket-superglued, lame, lame, sexist...funnel.

Also, notice how only the skinny girls get picture comments.

M. L. Rambaud said...

I love steampunk and really wish I could afford to dress that way, but I completely agree with EVERYTHING you said.

Also: Abney Park is self-proclaimed and make some of us want to scream "I am NOT witht the band."