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Steampunk and Victorian

Ladies and gentlemen,

I believe most of you are familiar with the fine (and often intertwined) line between steampunk and period Victorian. However, I thought it would be fun to examine a few pictures that help demonstrate just how narrow this distinction can be. Given that the key distinction between steampunk and the historical steam age is merely the level of technology achieved, things on the fashion front can become very confused (even in our modern age of portable technology, not everyone carries around modern gadgets; when considering technology that is distinctly greater in bulk, such as steam engines or analogue computers, this problem becomes even more pronounced).
So, with no further ado, let's move on to everyone's favorite part: the pretty pictures.

Regards, etc.,
-G. D. Falksen

To begin with, we have Kit Stølen, known to many of you as anachronaut. Kit was one of the very first icons of steampunk fashion (he may well have been "the first," but that is a discussion for another day), and he inspired many early followers of the steampunk trend. The smashing picture above is by Nadya Lev.

The above is taken from the French film Vidocq, a very impressive piece that I highly recommend (although the English dub on the DVD leaves something to be desired). Note the two figures in the background, who are very clearly 19th century MIBs.

Wild Wild West, with an image from the original TV show and the film remake placed side by side. Clearly, the clothes worn in each case are indistinguishable from period Victorian; it is the advanced technology and spy-fi themes in each that marks the distinction.

The cover of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, one of the most stunning displays of steampunk art and fiction (complete with steam powered cranes building a cross-Channel bridge). Again, while the technology in League is indisputably steampunk, this has little effect on the actual clothing of the characters (and why should it?); instead, the styles of the age are preserved alongside the wonders of the future.

A scene from Around the World in 80 Days, which similarly displays period clothing in a steampunk story.

And as a special note, one might consider The Prestige. Though a period film (with supernatural components), certain explorations into technology have led it to be examined as a "steampunk film" ....

... which, given that it includes the character of Nikola Tesla (the patron saint of mad scientists), is not an unreasonable assertion.

This does beg the question, how does one make a steampunk outfit without running the risk of being "only Victorian." Well, as one can clearly see, a person could do far worse than dressing period to be on the safe side. The addition of technological goodies or the reimagining of 20th century archetypes through a Victorian lens (whether MIB, secret agent, computer hacker, or pulp mad scientist, etc.) are all ways of clearly distinguishing the outfit from the "purely Victorian," but this distinction is generally unnecessary.

To summarize, saying that a steampunk outfit is "too Victorian" is much like saying tea has too much water in it.

On a related note, it is important to also remember that the use of the term "punk" in steampunk is a reference to cyberpunk, not to punk rock or the subculture that developed along with it. It is a silly and confusing point, but this is what comes of coining terms as tongue-in-cheek jokes without considering the possible misinterpretations that may result.

EDIT: As several of you have correctly noted, my intent here is to defend those individuals who have created (and continue to create) wonderfully steampunk outfits that, due to their lack or subtle use of gadgetry are mistakenly criticized as being "too Victorian." As you can see from the images above, most of the "too Victorian" outfits are in good company with the clothes featured in steampunk stories and movies. Does this mean that all steampunk outfits must be "period Victorian"? Certainly not, and I have never suggested such a thing (although given that steampunk is inspired by the technology of the steam age, anyone who is ever in doubt about what to do for a steampunk outfit should feel confident in using period references as their starting point).

If you are not in the habit of criticizing steampunk outfits as being "too Victorian," then please regard this post as nothing more than a collection of very attractive steampunk outfits. However, if you do, from time to time, complain about the strong presence of Victorian imagery in steampunk fashion, or if you are somewhat hostile toward steampunk outfits that have a very strong period aspect to them, please read this post and reflect upon the very strong place of period Victorian (and Edwardian, of course) in the steampunk genre.


( 43 comments — Leave a comment )
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Oct. 14th, 2008 05:29 pm (UTC)
absolutely! Thank you!
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 14th, 2008 11:17 am (UTC)
I think that all he is doing is defending the right to wear period correct Victorian clothing with little or no gadgets in the steampunk world. One could have a steampunk character who does not wear goggles or wear a dizzying selection of brass accessories. Now, I agree it's fun to modify it (I do), but I also agree that a regular old Victorian correct outfit is just as valid as long as there is some type of character to go along with it.
Oct. 14th, 2008 03:44 pm (UTC)
Oct. 14th, 2008 01:29 pm (UTC)
I hate to be pedantic, but the "original punks" were 19th century prostitutes.
The word is a lot older than even the punk movement of the 20th century, let alone steam or cyber punk.

Not saying I agree or disagree with you (have to run to work and can't give your comment the attention it deserves at the moment,) but I wanted to make a quick clarification.
Oct. 14th, 2008 05:31 pm (UTC)
"I hate to be pedantic, but the "original punks" were 19th century prostitutes."

Actually, if I recall correctly, they were young boys used for sex back in the crusades...
Oct. 14th, 2008 05:40 pm (UTC)
I see I have been out pedanted! Well done!

The 19th century was the first mention of them I've ever found (my medieval history is lacking a bit) so I assumed that's when they started. My thanks for the info!
Oct. 14th, 2008 06:43 pm (UTC)
By which definition, we can still see the subverting of "normal" and "accepted" society that I think steampunk has a strong element of. You hardly ever run into characters that are perfectly propreitess and entirely non-scandalous in steampunk--they just wouldn't be interesting! Even the "noble" personas we create for ourselves have their quirks or secret lives--wouldn't it be a bit boring otherwise?

So, in fact, one can incoporate the 19th c. meaning of the term. ;)
Oct. 14th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
Oh, very much so. I just get annoyed when people assume that the term and it's style of misbehaving is a 20th century creation.

Misbehaving is a lot older than that. ;)
Oct. 14th, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC)
Misbehaving is a lot older than that.

husly, one could argue, more traditional than many "traditions" we find.
Oct. 14th, 2008 11:11 am (UTC)
To summarize, saying that a steampunk outfit is "too Victorian" is much like saying tea has too much water in it.


I know you are speaking to those who "fear" not having enough gadgets to be considered steampunk, and those who eschew the gadgets in favor of a more period correct look. Thank you for defending the true Victorian look in steampunk!

Sorry people responding to this thread are taking you to be putting down set-in-stone definitions rather than simply defending those who choose a more period look.
Oct. 14th, 2008 07:54 pm (UTC)
Here here! I second I second!

*second round of applause*
Oct. 15th, 2008 01:57 am (UTC)
You are quite correct. My purpose is to defend people who are clearly dressing in a manner befitting steampunk, but who, for some reason, receive the criticism that they are "too Victorian." Given that steampunk stories often take place in the Victorian period, or in a setting that uses Victorian technology and imagery (steam power and analogue computers, most notably), the idea that something is "too Victorian" is rather silly.
Oct. 14th, 2008 11:26 am (UTC)
Egads, I hate being stuck in Alaska! I want to go to these conventions! Or at least meet one other person, in person, who's into this stuff too! The only group I know of around here that does fun stuff in costumes is Amtgard, and that's a fantasy LARP. :(

At least I can use my ren faire corset for both outfits! It was damn expensive.
Oct. 14th, 2008 04:16 pm (UTC)
There is Aurora Con in Anchorage, if you like an excuse to go out. It's an anime con, if you have leanings towards that. It has already passed, being Sept 27-28 of this year. At least, you have a chance to catch it next year. http://www.auroracon.org
Oct. 15th, 2008 04:08 pm (UTC)
Ooh, neato! I'll definitely be checking that out next year!
Oct. 14th, 2008 08:14 pm (UTC)
it's like it over here in my [art of the UK, I know of only 2 other people in close range who like steampunk, And we have no conventions or anyhting like that here as well.
Oct. 15th, 2008 04:14 pm (UTC)
Well, if all else fails, I'll just have someone take pictures, and I'll post them here (once I have a costume made) and act like I'm going to a steampunk con online. ^_^
Oct. 14th, 2008 12:32 pm (UTC)
Bravo! A pure Victorian look is as valid as a gadget-laden one.

Oct. 14th, 2008 01:09 pm (UTC)

Anyway, you know me. I try to stay true to the style while going funky with fabrics. It's all fun and games until I sew through my thumb! :D
Oct. 14th, 2008 01:26 pm (UTC)
you joke, but I know someone who's done that.
Oct. 14th, 2008 10:23 pm (UTC)
*raises her hand*...I've done that.
Oh God have I done that...O.o
Oct. 14th, 2008 03:39 pm (UTC)
you posted again...and i really need to friend you.
Oct. 14th, 2008 07:51 pm (UTC)
You are a troublemaker. That you are.
Oct. 14th, 2008 01:26 pm (UTC)
Well said sir! I for one am a huge proponent of the classical Victorian outfit - lets not forget that in the age we look to for inspiration, even the most adventurous and physically active types dressed like this. Yes, some concessions were made to their surroundings, but not much. You can be steampunk when covered in leather, brass, and goggles, but I would argue that you can be equally steamy in full Victorian get-up, as long as you have the right attitude.

As for the whole/steampunk/cyberpunk/punk thing, well, I've written extensively on this (as you know) but wouldn't subject anyone here to it. Suffice it to say, that at least in my mind, that while connections with the punk movement of the 20th century are tenuous at best, the definition of the word as someone who is anti-rules, anti-establishment, and in general different applies equally to both genres, and indeed to cyberpunk as well. For the record, that definition of the term was around well before the punk movement of the 20th century.
Oct. 14th, 2008 01:41 pm (UTC)
Victorian styles are a fine point from which to start, but if one never moves away in any direction, then that's just Victorian. Just water, no tea.
Oct. 14th, 2008 01:43 pm (UTC)
A well constructed and organized piece. I enjoyed reading the passionate statements that people posted. My own opinion is that "Steampunk" is a new form of Victorian Sci-Fi, i.e. Verne, Wells. That said, I know now after much reading and research that it has gone beyond that and evolved into something more, which is great!! I personally love the historical Victorian look, but I also enjoy the "punk" aspect, being a die-hard "Clash" fan. As far as its relation to cyberpunk, I see none. To me it would be comparing "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" to "Blade Runner". Both are Sci-Fi, yet are of two different aspects of Sci-fi. Neither being better than the other, because both are fantastic!!
The most important ideal I believe is that all have fun. Regardless if you lean over to a more historically correct outfit, the more punked out look, the gothic look or even the gadget costumed person, all are elements of the same product. Be creative, have fun, enjoy the music, wear your creation with pride and forget about the trivialities.
Oct. 14th, 2008 02:01 pm (UTC)
Well put and well illustrated.

I like my tea with milk and sugar. So I will start with the Victorian Earl Grey and add my flavors as I wish. LOLZ!!!!!!!


Edited at 2008-10-14 02:01 pm (UTC)
Oct. 14th, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC)
I remember my first experience with Earl Grey, it was awful and I think I had the misfortune of having spoiled tea leaves. A couple of years ago, I braved my fear after a decade and had the best cup of Earl Grey I ever had. Since then, I love Earl Grey and have it every chance I get. Although, I still have my Oolong, Osmanthus Jasmine and Jasmine Pearl tea. But, I'll never stray too far from my native High Mountain Tea, a more fraqrant version of Oolong (even mainland China favors our High Mountain Tea). I am so glad that my favorite tea house has a location closer to where I live, so I never have to worry about my supplies running low.
Oct. 14th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
I have a love for Oolong as well. But the Jasmine Pearls ROCK MY SOX!!!!! I got a very nice supply when I was in Hong Kong. They are just so good!!!

I was somewhere in Mainland China on business and had a factory owner give me 2 boxes of Green Tea from a mountain within the region. He did this because we raved about how good the green tea he was serving tasted. I was so happy with the tea. Since then I don't really drink any other green tea. LOLZ!!!!!

Oct. 15th, 2008 01:07 am (UTC)
I think it's very easy for a tea company to produce a bad Earl Grey - it seems to be stronger than other teas and you can thus end up with a stronger bad taste. Plus, if you drink it without milk (as one apparently should) then any negatives are nakedly experienced rather than being masked by milk - as in a bad cup of English Breakfast, for example.
I had the best tea I've ever had at a Chines restaurant recently however; I don't know what kind it was we just asked for "tea" and I'm not really familiar with Chinese tea. It was pure yummy tea with a strong taste and no bitterness or nasty flavours at all.
Oct. 14th, 2008 02:02 pm (UTC)
Great post :)
Oct. 14th, 2008 02:35 pm (UTC)
A good post, but I've never seen 'too Victorian' as a problem in this particular community ;)

Personally, I find too many Victorian pieces quite boring (probably from seeing so many pieces in the Goth subculture). I quite like when people are clearly influenced but not constricted by Victorian fashions.

It was a lot of fun to read everyone else's comments too!
Oct. 14th, 2008 03:06 pm (UTC)
With as often as I'm seeing Kit's picture these days, I wonder if he'll be doing panels at Cons soon. ;-)

A good read, G.D. I'm in love with the new interpretations of Victoriana, spiced with sci-fi when it makes sense. And that's the lovely thing about steampunk: it's like sci-fi, but with prettier clothes.
Oct. 14th, 2008 05:48 pm (UTC)
If you like victoriana mixed with sci-fi, grab a copy of Space Captain Smith by Toby Frost.
Oct. 14th, 2008 05:50 pm (UTC)
:-) Awesome, thanks for the recommend. I'll definitely check that one out.
Oct. 14th, 2008 05:51 pm (UTC)
My pleasure, enjoy!
Oct. 14th, 2008 03:12 pm (UTC)
Another movie which you may want to refer to, Mr. Falksen, which has a number of steampunk running through it, is "The Great Race" which, I believe, pre-dates all your examples (and pre-dates the term of Steampunk, but I always forget when that term was brought forth to begin with) except for the original Wild Wild West, which came out the same year in the movie theater. I've been on this comm for awhile now and have never seen it referred to (though "Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang" has). "The Great Race" has all the inventions, the costumes, and the concept of the race (the around the world in 80 days). I'm assuming you have seen it, but if you haven't I highly recommend it.


Thank you for such a wonderful article.
Oct. 14th, 2008 11:52 pm (UTC)
A note on my fangeekery (please say I was the first to use this word?), I LOVE LOVE LOVE Around the World in 80 Days, and REALLY love when Steve Coogan (heart-throb) shouts at Monique, "Miss LaRoche!!" because that's my last name, too ;D
Oct. 15th, 2008 01:15 am (UTC)
For me most of the steampunk aesthetic is in things - environment, furniture, tools, etc. So in terms of clothing this really only plays out in the accessories. I don't really think it influences the clothes a great deal in any obvious or foreseeable way (if there had been a steampunk era, they may well have ended up wearing different clothing to the Victorians, but we have no reliable way of knowing what that clothing would be). Increased practicality of clothing is the only thing I can see emanating from the theoretical steampunk culture, but this would not make much difference in women's clothing, for example, without also assuming a greater social advancement in the form of emancipation for women than actually occurred in the Victorian time period. Which is of course possible, but is not a given in any steampunk universe.
So I don't think steampunk directly translates into clothes without a specific supporting universe, eg. a specific book, or a universe from one's own imagination.
Thus, someone who dressed Victorian, but liked to surround themselves with steampunk gadgets, not evident in their clothing of course, would "be steampunk".
Oct. 15th, 2008 03:10 am (UTC)
I find it bizzare to think of something as "too Victorian." Honestly, Victoriana is the basis of our fashion; how can you have too much of it?

Really, I think the problem would be "not enough tech" rather than "Too much Victorian". Victoriana is the baseline, the tech is the icing on the cake which makes it steampunk. And to me... to me, I feel that too many gears and whistles just makes something look stupid and forced. To me, it's more about the environment - Captain Nemo (my personal inspiration. well, he and Jules Verne in general!) wasn't steampunk because of what he wore, he was stemapunk because he had an electric (or, according to Disney, nuclear) submarine. It wasn't his clothes, it was his surroundings and his tools (such as the electric harpoons). To go even further, the characters in Journey to the Center of the Earth weren't steampunk becuase they had nifty gear, it was because of the journey they were taking.

Thus, I could have a "character" who looks like a perfectly ordinary Victorian... but what if he's an intrepid reporter and photographer, possessed of a revolutionary new camera small enough to carry about and a developing studio in a wooden case; and a typewriter (yes, a typewriter!) small enough to slip into a handbag? A reporter who defends the supposedly "mad" scientists of his world and their creation; a man who rides on airships across the oceans to catch the latest stories? He could dress like any other middle upper-class traveling Victorian, it's what he does and the gear he uses that matter. And I'd personally feel that such a fellow was far more Steampunk than, say, some chick who'd just sewn a whole bunch of brass gears onto her skirt. The latter may be more obviously steampunk, but I think the former would fit more the spirit of the genre.

This is all, of course, personal opinion. I'm sure someone will come along and tell me how blatantly incorrect I am. ;)

(That said: Someone who is just a rich upper class Victorian snob straight out of an Edith Wharton novel is NOT steampunk; that is Victoriana, which is still a pretty cool thing, just... not Steam. Now, if said rich upper class snob straight out of an Edith Wharton novel had an airship instead of a yacht, we might be talking...)
Oct. 15th, 2008 06:22 am (UTC)
Totally off topic here, but was there anyone else who watched The Prestige NOT knowing exactly which actors were in it and squeed in joy when you realized David Bowie was playing Nicola Tesla?

Besides me, of course.
Dec. 17th, 2009 07:06 pm (UTC)
Steampunk isn't as hard to find as I thought it was.
Jan. 30th, 2010 04:50 am (UTC)
I could not have said it better myself. Although, I find this "cyber-goth" rape of Victorian Era clothing vulgar and believe it has been taken much too far away from said movies.
I think, as a whole, these "cyber-goths" are too frightened to dress in such a manner consistent with people around them and wish the same recognition that they receive in the outside world for dressing in such a manner. I, myself, feel this is my psychological then anything else and these people should not be given the satisfaction of being chastised or commented upon. My only question is: After everyone has changed to this "cyber-goth" version of Steampunk, what will they do for attention then when they know they are not the only ones doing it?

I, myself, would like to attend one of these conventions out of old English curiosity. And wile I am attending such a thing- I will put on one of my many period dresses for the fact that I love to wear them.
( 43 comments — Leave a comment )

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