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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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(no subject) - chickthepox - Oct. 14th, 2008 05:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
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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.
(no subject) - fllnangel17 - Oct. 14th, 2008 03:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lux_alexander - Oct. 14th, 2008 01:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - genoochy - Oct. 14th, 2008 05:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lux_alexander - Oct. 14th, 2008 05:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tsukara - Oct. 14th, 2008 06:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lux_alexander - Oct. 14th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tsukara - Oct. 14th, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
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*
(no subject) - squirrelmadness - Oct. 15th, 2008 01:57 am (UTC) - Expand
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
(no subject) - orbitaldiamonds - Oct. 15th, 2008 04:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - vamp_monkey - Oct. 14th, 2008 08:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - orbitaldiamonds - Oct. 15th, 2008 04:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
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.
(no subject) - cinsangel - Oct. 14th, 2008 10:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thecatinthehat - Oct. 14th, 2008 03:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - squirrelmadness - Oct. 14th, 2008 07:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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.
(no subject) - midnightstation - Oct. 14th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - standgale - Oct. 15th, 2008 01:07 am (UTC) - Expand
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.
(no subject) - ariandar - Oct. 14th, 2008 05:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lux_alexander - Oct. 14th, 2008 05:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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
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