Questions From The Audience – July 4th, 2012

“With the increasing popularity of steampunk, there seems to be some backlash from some of the more old-school steampunk enthusiasts, who resent the idea of ‘just paint something sepia and put some gears on it — steampunk!’ If you have any thoughts on that, I’d love to hear them.” — Daniel Swensen

Hold onto your tophats, gentlemen, and clutch your parasols, ladies, because I am afraid I have to shock you all with the revelation that we have all been here before. Seriously.

One of my favorite observations on human nature is that there is no more conservative a person than a rebel the day after winning the revolution. Fandom organizations, based on my own personal observations thus far, tend to bear this out.  The flap about the Justin Bieber video would be a case in point, as pertains to Steampunk.

When someone joins any new “movement” within the broader context of fandom, it seems to be a normal to want to preserve that shining, magical movement of discovery and hang onto it for as long as we can. Behaviourists may call it imprinting. I call it love.

We fall in love with these glorious new worlds filled with people that look like us, have the same interests as us, are as adorkable as us and understand us. We fall in love with them in a childhood way that wants that first glow to never fade, and never change. We found it, it was perfect for us, and we embraced it with all the hope and joy we had available to us.

And then –they– came along. You know the ones. The –newbies-. They figure all they have to do is show up and be part of us. Emulating our look will get them full passage, they say? I think not!

They can’t possibly understand, can they? We’ve all been here for awhile! We’re –experienced– at this! We know best! We have the surety of our memory of that first shining moment we met our new love.


Except for the one detail where we were once that newbie. We might not have even known enough to show up emulating the look we now hold so dear.

I’m actually a good example. My first “steampunk event” was Steamcon II. I had a barely passing understanding of what it was beyond “Victorian Science Fiction … like Jules Verne!”. A friend convinced me to go with her and I went. I threw a horridly undocumentable constume together and showed up.

I recall being utterly gobsmacked at the number and variety of amazing costumes… and even more so smacked by people randomly stopping me to ask about –my– costume. Huh? What? This mess?

It was some time later when I first heard someone make the comment about some piece of costuming or another that “oh, well, they bought that commerically, so it’s not Steampunk“. Another was “well, it’s a beautiful Victorian piece, but it has nothing to do with Steampunk“. In almost contradiction, I heard another person opine “There is more to Steampunk than just decorating clothing with leather fobs and brass gears“.

I think we can all agree that the underlaying concepts behind these statements are correct, but in isolation, they are horridly, horridly wrong. Wait! Before you point that Aether Accellerated Blunderbuss at me, let me explain!

… oh, well, they bought that commerically, so it’s not Steampunk… ” roughly translates to “… I value the Maker Culture aspect of Steampunk very highly… “. If you aren’t familiar with Steampunk, the amazing art-embellished items that are part of the Steampunk aesthetic and several impressive individuals manage to create is jaw-dropping. Everything from clothes, to cars, to computer workstations made to look like calliope pipe organs, to musical instruments and a dreamscape more. I tip my hat to you all that have the skills to do that.

Me, I get my wife to do that stuff. I am –clueless– when it comes to that sort of thing. I tell stories and that’s about the extent of my “Makerness”. My wife is an amazing leather worker and a decent seamstress. Everything else, I’m sorry to say, I have to buy from someone who can make it. I don’t think the fact I have bought “commercial” items changes my interest in Steampunk, beyond perhaps allowing me to look the part a bit more.

… it’s a beautiful Victorian piece, but it has nothing to do with Steampunk… ” roughly translates to “… I like a very clear and over-the-top visual aesthetic for Steampunk… “. Me too, actually. It’s part of what draws me to Steampunk. Sometimes, pretty bling and festooned costumes are exactly what I want. However, most of the time, I’m put in mind of a picture of a bunch of construction workers sitting on a girder during the construction of the Empire State Building. They’re having lunch, 500 or so feet in the air, sitting on this hunk of riveted metal. There isn’t anything about them that screams “Dirty 30’s”. That photo could have been taken any time from 1929 to 1949 to my untrained costuming eyes. However, the wrenches, the hammers, then sooting clearly tells me what trade these men are.

In otherwords, the –job– they do trumps all. Coal miners are another example. What would distinguish a “normal” Victorian era coal-miner from a “Steampunk” coal-miner? His clothes? Or his equipment? Both? In what blend?

That in turn leads into “… there is more to Steampunk than just decorating clothing with leather fobs and brass gears… ” which roughly translates to “… there is more to Steampunk than decoration. The stuff in your costume should have a -reason-… “. I consider this “Steampunk Advanced”.

When you start actually sorting out the “why” of the “wear”, then you’ve gone beyond costuming. You’re into writing. Everything I’m wearing in my costume has a reason for its look, based on the character I am trying to portray. But unless you stop and talk to me at a Con — please do, I love meeting people — all you can do is –see-.

So if I want to be more than just a melange of stolen cultural clothing, I need to do something which clearly marks me visually as part of the Steampunk aesthetic. While some of you might find this shocking, the concensus seems to be leather, gears and brass melded into an upper-middle-class Victorian vision. So if I want to wander off that path, I have to do it in a way that still leaves me visually identifiable as “one of us”.

Each one of the ideals put forward has it’s merits. But in isolation or absolutism, they betray one of the most important pacts that I personally believe that fandom implicitly makes with it’s members: give it your best shot and we’ll accept you. If we start measuring the newcomers and passers-thru by a yardstick based on a year or two or five or ten of our experience and enthusiasm, we lift the bottom of the entry door over the heads of those that might join us and enrich us and collectively give us a better tomorrow.

Steampunk is young, no matter how old you think it is. Steamcon is marking its fourth year this fall. Four. As in, ten less than fourteen. Steamcon claims to be one of the oldest Steampunk conventions out there. We need the new folks as much as they need us.

I also believe that if folks truely feel we are a movement with a message — the usual arguement for elitism — I don’t think it is fair of us or even sane of us to discriminate who hears the message. We want as many and as varied a population to hear about us, know about us and find a resonance with us as we can. That’s how movements begin and sustain themselves. Elitism kills recruiting, which kills the movement, which leaves the elites as rebels without a cause.

Another descriptive phrase that suits those orphaned elites is “out of touch has-been”, at least in my experience.

Let’s keep Steampunk inclusive, open, and willinging to encourage. Lets keep the negativity and the elitism away from it, and be something truly worth calling a movement or a lifestyle.

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