Steampunk and the aesthetics of such elements

November 2011 Prof. Cassandra Lobiesk

Right, there was certainly no going around this topic, especially since I just came out of The Three Musketeers movie (I enjoyed it, by the way), which also showed its audience a look on the upcoming Sherlock Holmes installation. Both, by the way, are heavily “steampunked.”

So without further ado, the ultimate question: What is steampunk?

Steampunk is a movement. It is an aesthetic. It is the usage of steam-powered technology during a time period of technological enlightenment. It is a vision of the future where giant mechanical elephants roam the earth and where steam-and-hydrogen-inflated balloons soar the skies into the great unknown. It is an expression of conservative dresses in Victorian fashion. It is goggles, fancy hats, parasols, pocket watches, and long, fitting jackets. It is filled with clocks and clockwork, alchemy and chemistry, and scientific artistry. It is where the tinkerer, suffragette, mad scientist, and air pirate band together to form a grand adventure. It is adventure, mystery, and romance.

Steampunk was once a perfect blend of science fiction and fantasy set in a historical time period. Now it is a blend of science fiction and fantasy in any time period, should the amount of steampunk elements become a commonality.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this vast and rather wondrous subculture is the use of metals and earthy colors. I’ve seen old clocks being torn apart in videos and then rearranged to form something new. The clock hands become parts of dresses or jewelleries. Sometimes the clock hand even ticks atop a fashionable top hat. There’s just so much one can do with how to look “steampunk,” and as many people have said, you can’t really get it wrong.

Here are just some of my favorite elements within the steampunk (literary) universe:

Clockwork technology – There’s a fascination about how clocks work regarding this kind of technology. Many steampunk-type stories and games have mechanisms that work solely through the use of a winded-up instrument, that of clocks. Gears, clock hands, springs, tiny dials, and some sort of magnetic motion are common in this type of technology. The best part about this nitty, gritty, detail-work is that the effects are usually quite lovely, if you think about it.

Fashionable hats and corsets – Well, there’s no denying the fact that steampunk fashion is probably the most popular steampunk element that’s been translated and lapped up by mainstream culture. For the most part, the fashion sought to merge Victorian clothing (layered, fitted, and quite conservative) and mechanism of the time period. Corsets gained clockwork elements, gloves and armbands were made to look like prosthetics, and parasols were decked out to gain much more purpose than simple shading. Not to mention the goggles involved!

Flying and time machines – Come on, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine is perhaps the best example of such a steampunk machine. Filled with knobs and switches, and steam power, H. G. Wells’ machine was supposedly able to take the user to any point in time. The flying machine works in a different manner; where the time machine sought to move between time periods, the flying machine idea reaches the skies on a literal level. Both machines are definitely a defiance of physics. Both machines also try to explain their workings in a pseudo-science anyway. The time machine might have created enough steam power to generate a punch in the time vortex. Or the airship might hold in its balloon enough hydrogen steam to raise it several thousand feet above the earth. These are certainly wondrous things!

Characters and societies – What is steampunk without the wonderful cast of characters and secret societies that abound in such an adventure? There are the mad scientists who seek to destroy the world (or seek to help, though in a roundabout sort of way). There are the fashionable yet feisty women who look for fulfillment away from their homes. There are the dashing, debonair adventurers who want nothing more than glory in the skies or under the oceans. And there are pirates. Lots of them in the sky, waiting to swoop in and attack the poor, unsuspecting victims.

Colors and imagery – This usually ties into all of the other steampunk elements. When creating a steampunk-related environment, there is usually a certain set of colors and images used. Metallic, earthy colors usually give steampunk its grungy outlook. This can be found in the clockwork gears, the bronze corsets, and even the silver and gold pocket watches that line many a gentleman’s—or gentlewoman’s—pockets. Of course, this color scheme is not a requirement, but it does give a certain effect regardless.

Once more, the best part about steampunk is that one can never really go wrong with the aesthetic. The littlest touch can make an element a “steampunky” element, even if you’re unaware that you’ve made it so.