Fellow cosplayers, we need to have a talk. Well, not you and I, specifically, but cosplayers, congoers, and geeks in general. The talk we need to have is about Steampunk and why it kind of sucks.
Let me say, straight off, that I’m talking about Steampunk, abstractly, as a style and a genre, not as a subculture. I make exactly zero judgments about Steampunkers as people, except to admire their dedication and skill, ‘cause gods know that shit is beyond me.
Second, I want to define what I mean when I talk about “Steampunk”. Unfortunately, Steampunk is a lot like porn: You just know it when you see it. For costuming purposes, though, I’ll say that Steampunk is anything that takes its inspiration from distinctly 19th or early 20th century styles, often incorporating references to anachronistic or fictional technology. Obviously, this is a very broad definition; there are a million sub-genres and offshoots that aren’t covered by this, and we could spend days talking about the differences between Victoriana and alt-Modern. You have to admit, though, it’s a better definition than “what happens when Goths discover brown”, however accurate that might be.
As a final caveat and clarification, I will add that I fucking love Steampunk, in all its permutations. To be fair, I love pretty much anything with “punk” appended to it, but Steampunk at its best is the very height of elegance, whimsy, and extreme badassery. On the surface, what’s not to love?
Three things, as it turns out.
Go Big or Go Home
The first and most obvious problem with Steampunk is that it’s really goddamn hard. I realize the same could be said of good cosplay in general, but I think we can all recognize that 19th century style requires a different level of skill. If, in fact, you disagree and are thinking “Pshaw, shadowen! Doing Steampunk is not that hard!” Then you, my friend, are doing it wrong, and you are part of the problem.
See, there’s nothing inherently wrong with difficult styles; they’re fun, challenging, and the work tends to pay off. The real problem is that, as we can all attest, there are a whole lot of lazy-ass cosplayers out there. Of course, half-assing it is part of the game sometimes, but part of good cosplay is knowing when you can cut corners and when you have to put in the blood, sweat, and tears. Like the man said, you cannot just glue some gears on it and call it Steampunk, but that is all too often what happens.
In costuming, the difficulty of a project is directly proportional to both the probability that something will go wrong and how very very wrong it can go. If I had any kind of math skills whatsoever, I’d give you a formula, but basically the fact that Steampunk tends to be really complicated means you’re that much more likely to fail unbelievably hard. This is apparently not a deterrent to many cosplayers, and, as a result, there is an awful lot of bad Steampunk.
Been There, Seen That
A few years ago, if you rolled up to a con in full Victorian dress, you wouldn’t have gotten 10 feet across the con floor before a swarm of geeks with cameras descended on you. Now? You’d best have working gears, pipes that shoot steam, and a three-foot TARDIS hat if you want that kind of attention.
I hate to say it, fellow cosplayers, but Steampunk as we know it is played out and on the verge of becoming passe. It is even - dare I say it? - boring. Not that “I want people to take pictures of me!” is necessarily the guiding star of cosplay, but, for me at least, it’s a consideration. If you’re going to put a lot of work into a costume - as Steampunk requires - it’s nice to have some recognition of your efforts. With Steampunk, unless you’re going really above and beyond, you’re not as likely to get that recognition as you once were.
At this point, we’ve seen it, and we’ve probably seen it done better.
White People Fuckery
Oh, I can hear the protests now. “But, shadowen! Can’t we keep politics out of our cosplay? We just want to put on fancy clothes!” I hear you, fellow cosplayers, and I have some bad news. There’s already politics in your cosplay, the same politics that are in your media and your fandoms. All art is political, and Steampunk in particular has some bad baggage.
The ugly truth of the matter is that the 19th and early 20th centuries were really shitty periods for anyone who wasn’t rich and White. Okay, so that actually describes a large chunk of human history, but the Victorian and early Modern eras were especially bad. British colonialism was at its height. The American westward expansion pressed thousands of workers of Color into extremely dangerous jobs with meager pay. The American Civil War decimated the southern states and left poor workers of all colors even more destitute than usual. The Industrial Revolution provided new and exciting environments in which wealthy factory owners could torment, overwork, and otherwise endanger working-class women and children.
Steampunk romanticizes and glorifies this period, drawing almost exclusively on styles worn by by the upper and upper-middle classes. Even the “industrial” elements so popular in Steampunk costumes - the gears and cranks and whatnot - are typically polished and stylized beyond recognition, presenting an image of the Industrial Revolution that is literally gilded. Standard Steampunk reinforces the myths constructed by rich White people about the Power of American Industry and the Glory of the British Empire, myths which alternately glamorize and ignore both the contributions and exploitation of people of color and working-class people, as well is dismissing the damaging effects of European colonialism.
To reiterate my earlier caveat, I am talking about a problematic trend in Steampunk as a style; I’m not saying that all Steampunkers are bad people and they should feel bad or that nobody with a conscience should ever do Steampunk ever. I’m saying this is a thing about Steampunk that sucks, and we need to acknowledge it.
BUT THERE’S HOPE
All of this suck is definitely discouraging, but take heart, fellow cosplayers, because Steampunk isn’t quite dead yet. Don’t believe me? Here’s three reasons Steampunk doesn’t have to suck.
Like I said before, what we tend to think of as “standard” Steampunk focuses on a very narrow slice of of Victorian and Modern society. By expanding your view to include other cultures, classes, and countries, you introduce a whole new realm of possibility for Steampunking.
Take Asia, for instance. There was all kinds of cool shit going on in East Asia in the late 19th century, including a massive increase in trade with Europe (due in part to the aforementioned colonial fuckery) which created some amazing fashion fusions. Want some inspiration on this end? Check out the series premiere of Nickelodeon’s “The Legend of Korra”, which is set in A Place That is Not Asia has a cool 1920s-with-airships-and-magic vibe.
And what about the American West? This has gotten a little bit of attention, to different effects, in Steampunk media like Wild, Wild West (the series and the movie), Cherie Priest’s alt-history books starting with Boneshaker, and Warren Ellis’s alt-future graphic novel Ignition City. Cosplay is behind the curve on this one, though, and there’s a lot of unexplored territory (appropriate metaphor is appropriate), especially if you take into account styles from the Civil War and the major influence of Latin culture in the south west.
If you’re looking for a specific Steampunk text to pull from and want a more global perspective, check out Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, in which The Great War involves genetically engineered creatures and steam-powered everything. Seriously, folks, where are my Midshipman Sharpe cosplayers? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, do yourself a favor and look it up. You’ll thank me.
For more resources and inspiration on how to expand your Steampunking, have a look at the Multiculturalism for Steampunk page on Facebook, which has pretty pretty pictures. The best source of ideas, though, is history. A little research beyond the limits of Sherlock Holmes and your high school history book will open up a wealth of possibilities for cosplay.
Big Shiny Playground
Y’know what I saw at Dragon*Con last year? Nerf Steampunkers. True story. It was a group of folks all decked out in Victorian style, but everything was in those amazing neon Nerf colors, and they had Steampunk-ified Nerf and foam weapons. Fellow cosplayers, it was beautiful, and it underscores the fact that there’s a lot of room to play around with Steampunk.
As fans, we know that genre boundaries are a lot like rules for pirates and traffic lanes in China: mostly just guidelines. Steampunk versions of characters are a matter of course in the cosplay world, and we love it! This is a great way to really give your creative muscles a stretch and turn out a truly unique costume. We’ve all seen the Steampunk X-Men, and Doctor Who get’s Steampunked like nobody’s business. Steampunk Star Wars and Star Trek, though, seem to be confined mostly to concept art and prop making. And what about mecha anime? Or cartoons, in general? Basically, if you can think of it, you can Steampunk it.
As evidenced by the the Nerf Steampunkers, the boundary transversal goes both ways. Not only can you Steampunk anything, you can also take Steampunk in whatever direction you want. How about Rave Steampunk? Or Post-Apocalyptic Steampunk? Or Surrealist Steampunk? Okay, maybe surrealism is a bad idea (or is it? What would that even look like?), but you get my point.
Like any other costume, you have to hit those high points, and the rest is just play.
I Reject Your History and Substitute One With Robots
On the one hand, Steampunk glamorizes and whitewashes an era of the (relatively) recent past that is already romanticized and misrepresented in popular media. On the other hand, Steampunk affords us an opportunity to take a look at that past, decide it’s not what we want, and change it.
If speculative fiction lets us imagine a better future, Steampunk gives us room to write a better history, one with clockwork automatons and air pirates and steam-powered everything. It lets us dig into the unexplored perspectives of our culture and tell stories that didn’t happen but could have and should have, stories you’ll never see in a stuffy period drama. Steampunk reminds us that historical “fact” is just another cannon to be re-written, just another sandbox to play in.
So you’re thinking, “But, shadowen, what does this have to do with pretty clothes?” The answer, fellow cosplayers, is everything.
When we put together an outfit or a costume, we’re choosing a story to tell, be it one somebody else invented, something we made up, or a chapter in our own personal narrative. Clothes tell stories as personal and complex as any book, and Steampunk gives us another language to write in.
Like any genre - or any language, for that matter - Steampunk has its own set of problems and limitations, some of which make cosplay especially difficult, but it also has unique potential and possibilities. A costume that tells an interesting story will be interesting. Period. A costume that tells a half-assed, derivative, ignorant story... well, it’s not going to make anyone happy. I can’t tell you how to create costumes that are stunning and complicated and original or how to avoid the trappings of Racist Fuckery, but I can offer you this small piece of advice for Steampunking and for cosplay in general.
Choose your stories wisely, fellow cosplayers, and try not to suck.