Monday, February 14, 2011

Fashion Research Essay about steampunk influences.

The following are excerpts from a research project by fashion design students from the University of North Texas, with one Ms. Bonnie McGowan in the lead (assisted by Dayly Waggoner and others), focusing on the influences of the Steampunk Sub-culture on modern changes in fashion both in specialized markets and in the broader fashion world.  It shows good insight and significant research into current and evolving trends that go much deeper than just appearance and touch on many of the deeper motivations that drive the popularity of Steampunk culture as well as fashion today.   As such, I asked for, and received permission to post the entire paper on my personal blog and to submit interesting excerpts from it to Steampunk Magazines. Please note that she mentions that "clockpunk" is a whispered about coming trend, but our professional acting troupe, Kali's Hourglass", already specializes in that look routinely, so the trend is coming fast and already here.

Ramon Fagan, LCSW

Steampunk Culture: Where Innovation and Tradition Collide

Bonnie McGowan, Dayly Waggoner,
Juan Flores, Maria Acosta

University of North Texas

Steampunk Culture: Where Innovation and Tradition Combine

Steampunk originated in the 1990s as a subculture in which fashion combined Victorian and futuristic design. It began as a way to visually bring to life science fiction or "science romance.” The term, Science Romance, originated from authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne in novels about futuristic Victorian and Edwardian societies. The term, steampunk, was coined from K.W. Jetter - a science fiction writer who wrote a letter to a science fiction magazine entitled "Locus" in 1979. He predicted that there would be a backlash against cyberpunk and that more Victorian inspired punk-culture would come to surface. He called it "Steampunk" (Hauldren, 2009). Cyberpunk was mostly a science fiction genre that focused on technology, whereas steampunk broke away from just the technology aspect and incorporated a more romantic, pseudo-Victorian, mechanical style. Steampunk started as a literary sub-genre and molded into a social movement, a lifestyle. These steampunk enthusiasts take modern technology and modern objects and they transform them to Victorian Times. “The result is a world where elegant steam-powered instruments of twisting copper and clockwork gears allow computing, air travel and advanced weaponry to emerge in the 19th century” (Poeter, 2008). 
Steampunks are inspired by sources outside of literature as well. Films such as “The City of Lost Children”, “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”,  “The Prestige,” “Golden Compass,” “Steamboy” and “Wild Wild West” are a few examples of steampunk cinema.“Sucker Punch,” a film that is set to release in 2011, contains Steampunk costumes and steam-controlled atmospheres. This subculture has also become a musical genre that incorporates industrial and darkwave sounds, and musicians such as “Abney Park” or “Dr. Steel” play the part by not only singing about Steampunk realities, but dressing as if they exist within them. When we visited the North Texas Steampunks, we had the pleasure of speaking with Toby Lawhon, who is the lead singer of “Marquis of Vaudeville.” The style of his music is not industrial or darkwave, but glam rock and vaudeville; steampunk music is not bound to a particular sound. Even video games such as as “Bioshock” and “World of Warcraft” inspire Steampunk creativity.  These various forms of entertainment are not only grounds for inspiration, but examples of how this subculture is infiltrating the mainstream.
And this infiltration is influencing the fashion industry. Though steampunk fashion has been around since the 1990s, it has only recently become recognized by fashion entrepreneurs. For example, look at these Steampunk-styled, brass heals Alexander McQueen released for his Spring 2010 collection:

And just last year, Lady Gaga wore a black, Jean Paul Gaultier dress with a Victorian shape and a lace and brass trinket collar. Steampunk couture has also been replicated by designers such as John Galliano, Robert Cavalli, Ralph Lauren and Hermes. According to the Inside Source, John Galliano's menswear collection for Autumn-Winter 2010-2011 featured “heavy tweed overcoats, Holmesien capes, long-stemmed pipes, deerstalker hats and lace-up combat boots... just on their heels, he trotted out a dandified set of men in skinny three-piece suits with umbrellas and bowler caps—these a nod to the structure and formality of a Victorian age.” (Chen, 2010 p.1). Thanks to the increasing popularity of Steampunk, and its newfound existence in the media, designers are finally catching onto this subculture. They tweak the subculture's outfits and create incredible pieces of art.
            Non-couture steampunk clothing, like steampunk literature and entertainment, re-imagines the Victorian era. In the Steampunk Universe, there are incredible technological innovations powered by steam (this is where the steam in steampunk stems from,) and Victorian clothing is bred with a modern or futuristic touch. Just as the steampunk authors created an alternative history, so do the Steampunks with their attire. Customary, male steampunk clothing usually involves three piece suits, top hats, bowler hats and canes. Women often wear bustles, petticoats, ruffles, corsets and spatterdashes with granny shoes. Many women wear clothing that would have been unacceptable during the late 19th and early 20th century, with rising hem lines, decorative tights and exposed shoulders. Both genders add spice to their batch with accessories such as goggles, parasols, ray guns, pocket watches, spectacles and compasses. They may choose to enhance their dress even further by attaching antique brass jewelery, gears, charms, cogs and badges. Some outfits remain fairly simplistic, with a few gears on a hat, while others are more extravagant and create an elaborate pastiche of several brass and mechanical artifacts. Even though Steampunk attire is generally associated with the Victorian era, there are other eras that connect as well, such as post-apocalyptic. Dieselpunk, a Steampunk derivative that relies on the 1920s-1940s, is also common. Steampunk's clothing is even compared to the progressiveness of cyberpunk and the romanticism of Goth. Evelyn Kriete, who sells advertising space for magazines, explains that “the elaborate mourning dresses, waistcoats, hacking jackets and high-button shoes are goth’s stepchildren, for sure, but the overall look is 'not so much eyeliner and fishnets'” (Ferla, 2008).  Many Steampunks  stray even further from the traditional-victorian look in aviator, western, safari, vaudeville, cabaret, airship pirate and english military outfits. When we observed the North Texas Steampunks, [actually a Steampunk Illumination Society meeting, but most are members of our North Texas Steampunks Facebook Group] we saw nearly all of these trends. An example of non-victorian steampunk-wear found was within the leaders of the North Texas Steampunks. Ramon Del Mar and his wife, Radha Narasimhan's, dressed in an “airship pirate manner,” with pirate hats, goggles, gear-patterned parachute pants and brass coins. Obviously, there are many variations of steampunk dress, but every steampunk looks as if he or she has traveled through time. Steampunks are anachronisms, inspired by the alteration of different time periods. Rather than ponder on possibilities, Steampunks rely on their imaginations to bring to life an antique style of dress. And that's not all that Steampunks value; they also share the desire to create and wear pieces that separate them from the mainstream.
            In the ready-to-wear industry, middle class Americans are subject to buying mass produced clothing made in factories, in which several copies are made of the same garment. Quality takes the backseat to quantity, and thus the clothing industry acts as fast food fashion. Many Steampunks chose to rebel against retail distribution, (hence where the “punk” comes from) through buying or creating one of a kind pieces. Many steampunks purchase their own fabric and make all of their garments and accessories themselves. Many of them coin contraptions or gadgets from broken everyday items or hardware stores. Some assortments include nuts, bolts and screws that are simply glued on to items and painted with gold or brass spray paint. We witnessed many magnificent creations at Crystal's, but our favorite was an inventor's “hydraulically activated neural digitizer” [commonly referred to as simply H.A.N.D.], complete with brass fingers and bendable vials of green liquid [this is a purportedly a hydraulically activated exoskeletal hand the inventor uses to cope with an injury in the lab]. The inventor [Dr. Phineas Maxwell Edison of Kali's Hourglass] choose to invent from scratch, but many steampunks choose not to sew, but recycle instead. They often use pieces found at thrift or vintage stores and modify them to appear more distressed and antique. Ebay and Etsy are particularly popular websites. These two places sell one of a kind handmade items, thus allowing Steampunks to find more unique pieces without paying a fortune. If you search for “steampunk” on ebay or etsy, thousands of items will pop up with the tag. In the past, these two databases were the only places available for Steampunk items online, but this has changed. There are now several websites dedicated to Steampunk-wear, such as Clockwork Couture and Steampunk Emporium. According to the NY Times, “ has begun offering its cream and umber petticoats, an Air Pirate ruched tunic and Time Machine bloomers at boutiques. Abney Park is selling swallowtail tuxedos, antiqued flight helmets and airship pirate T-shirts, like those it wears on stage, at and at concerts across the country” (Ferla, 2008). Now, even Steampunk musicians are using their image as a marketing tool to sell their Steampunk clothing! Before the internet, Steampunk was widely unknown, but the internet has been the perfect breeding ground for Steampunk forums, stores and inspiration.
            Another unique aspect of Steampunk culture is its formality. In keeping to the established activities of former eras, Steampunks often participate in more aristocratic activities, such as tea parties and time-traveling balls. While visiting Crystal's Pizza, we discovered that these steampunks dress up for every event that they have, even if it is at a restaurant. Since most people only dress up for weddings and funerals, steampunk events are a good excuse to look fabulous. Deborah Castellano, an organizer of  neo-Victorian conventions claims that these events “[offer] an element of glamour that some of us would otherwise never experience.” (Rowe, 2008) Most Steampunks are unable to dress in their desired attire at their day jobs, so adorning themselves in exciting attire means more than dressing up and having fun. It is a time to masquerade in an exciting and fantastical world, where individuality and extravagance are celebrated. Their former lives are forgotten and they transform into different characters from a separate galaxy. Many Steampunks have character names for their Steampunk persona, and dance and drink as professors, inventors and magicians. These unconventional clothing choices symbolize their freedom from society's hold.
            As Steampunk fashion evolves and more people become interested in the culture, one thing will be certain: even more by-products of steampunk will emerge, and more time periods and eras will use Steampunk inspiration. Science fiction writers will create more alternative histories for later and earlier time periods than ever before. Although the retro-fusion aspect of Steampunk does not normally extend beyond the 1940s, there are a few mini-trends that will emerge as more prevalent forms of steampunk. Though there is little to no information on most of these trends, we can still forecast certain qualities based on what different time periods entail. “Atompunk” is a (barely mentioned ) trend taking place between 1945-1965 during “The Processing Period.” During this time, the atomic bomb was dropped, there was panic about communism and the Vietnam War began  (Sterling, 2008). Therefore, we will see gas masks, protective wear and 1940s-1960s militant uniforms, with soviet union uniforms thrown in the mix. The steampunks will adorn themselves with brass medallions, gears and gadgets, and wear rayguns rather than the typical guns of the mid 20th century,  so that the steampunk theme is still easily recognizable.
            Another whispered trend that will soon shine in the Steampunk World is Clockpunk. This seeding trend takes place during the Renaissance, and it relies on clockwork rather than steam power.  And Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo are be the clockpunk gods (Hannaford, 2007). So far, this mini-trend has stuck to technological advancements rather than fashion, but this will change over time. We should expect to see Renaissance clothing along with antique map designs, gears, miniature telescopes and Steampunk trademarks throughout.
Reference Sheet

-        Chen, S. (2010, February). Trend Alert: Steampunk. Retrieved from
-        Ferla, R. (2008, May). Steampunk Moves Between 2 Worlds. Retrieved from
-        Hannaford, K. (2008, July). Pub Guru: What is Steampunk, and can it iron my trousers?    Retrieved from
-        Hauldren, P. (2009, December). SpecFic 101: What is
Retrieved from
-        Rowe, A. (2008, September). What Is Steampunk? A Subculture Infiltrating Films, Music, Fashion, More. Retrieved from
-        Poeter, D. (2008, July). Steampunk’s Subculture Revealed. Retrieved from
-        Sterling, B. (2008, December). Here comes “Atompunk.” And it's Dutch. So there. Retrieved f      rom

(editor's note:  Kali's Hourglass Performance Art Troupe is already primarily "Clockpunk")



  1. Endlessly enjoyed reading this post. I just made myself a SteamPunk inspired outfit to go to Alexander McQueen memoriam. Would love to hear your opinion.

    I've noticed that strange air of respect from people, especially when they guessed it's SteamPunk.

    Great writing.


    1. Sorry I didn't see this earlier. Send me photos. :)