Steam Punks: A Disturbing Trend in the Neo-Victorian Community

March 11, 2014

Deny the Bud, Worship the Blossom?

I am a general costumer. I love the escape, the fantasty, the research, the dedication, and creativity that goes into making a outfit outside of the modern normal. One of the most popular genres of costuming at the moment is the rapidly growing Neo-Victorian movement which encompasses multiple genres, especially Steampunk. Steampunk has grown in the years since I discovered it in 2011, gaining a complex mythos and large fanbase with their own particular styles of Steampunk (historical, post-apocolyptic, international, etc.). It’s wonderful to see so many different types of creativity melding together inside one genre!

Steampunk Group Photo by Daylina Miller, Quill & Quirk

However, as the movement has grown and multiple styles have broken off in favor of certain sets of rules, rifts have begun to form between the different Steampunk “denominations.” For example, I follow the Steampunk page on Facebook. It began as the premier Facebook fanpage for the genre, but has since come under fierce fire due to its choices of posts even though the content really hasn’t changed all that much from when it began. Instead, the attitude and views of the followers have. For example, this photo was recently posted on the page:

 Poison Nature by Rei-Doll on DeviantArt

This is Russian cosplayer Rei (Irene) in her rendition of a Neo-Victorian Poision Ivy based on this sketch by NoFlutter:

Alternate Victorian Ivy Sketch by NoFlutter on DeviantArt

Here’s a full shot of Rei’s finished costume (along with a classic Harley Quinn):

Harley and Ivy by Rei-Doll on DeviantArt

She followed the inspiration sketch perfectly! Both the costume and sketch are adorable and both have obvious turn of the century influence: a corset, bustle, stockings, etc. They also have the original pair of favored Steampunk props: the top hat and goggles. So what’s “wrong” with it? Everything, it seems:


A small sample, but you get the idea.

I don’t like using my blog as a place to stir up controversy, but this isn’t the first time such “High Society Steaming” has happened and it’s happening more frequently. Of course, there will always be people who do not like or agree with your costume choice, but the Steampunk community originally began (and continues to advertise itself as) a welcome relief from the judgemental world of other costume genres. What made Steampunk so attractive is that there were so many options, story lines, and styles that could be melded together to form something entirely unique, yet share common characteristics with your fellow costumers, like the apparently evil top hat and goggles. They’ve stuck around because people like them. They are iconic! The pair is Steampunk’s gateway drug to the wider world of the genre, drawing people in and growing the community. Once they’ve mastered the simple top hat and goggles, someone can easily develop their unique persona and style if they like. Others may be content to keep their hats and goggles. Why shouldn’t they be? Top hats and goggles are awesome!

Steampunk Spamdragon by Novawuff on DeviantArt

I agree that many enterprising people have jumped on the bandwagon to make money selling “Steampunk-style” items rather than adding to the genre, but we’ve gone from loving gears to hating them, adoring top hats to ridiculing them, fawning over a new pair of goggles to condemning them as cheap. I agree that we can’t just “glue some gears on it and call it Steampunk,” but we also can’t deny the very ideas and symbols that we originally developed our mythos on. Steampunk has developed into a much more complex movement. It expands beyond costuming into literature, music, even lifestyles. Some people immerse themselves completely, choosing to go the “neo-enacter” route by dressing and living in a Steampunk fashion in their everyday lives. But someone who likes to dress in their own style of Steampunk shouldn’t be judged any more than someone who likes Steampunk music or jewelry but doesn’t live-eat-and-breathe Steampunk or someone who likes coffee but doesn’t own their own coffee shop and can’t tell a Kona bean from a Colombian one just by listening to it rattle.

The Genuine Balancing Siphon Coffee Maker based on an 1830s design
How to serve tea like a Sir (or Madame)!

In fact, the judgemental call-outs are very similar to those you hear from the darker side of the reenacting communnity, one of the many reasons I abandoned that scene in favor of casual historical costuming. This judgemental wall, real or percieved, has slowly begun to suffocate the reenactment community because new members, afraid they will be ridiculed rather than nurtured, do not join groups. How long before the caustic attitudes brewing in the Steampunk world bubble over and start driving people away instead of welcoming them in?

Steampunk Oddfae by oddfae on DeviantArt
“If I promise to take the goggles off, will you let me out?”

22 Responses to “Steam Punks: A Disturbing Trend in the Neo-Victorian Community”

  1. I love the little weirdo in the jar!

    but yes, I think you eventually get this problem with anything, there are people who just aren’t happy unless theyre telling someone else that theyre doing it wrong, and they love to explore strange new worlds

  2. Great article. I’ve seen this happening too. It’s a real shame, but I know there are groups that don’t tolerate that kind of behavior (my local group being one of them), so at least it’s not pervasive.

  3. Laura Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

  4. I can understand how some folks feel about the Steampunk costuming, it has gotten somewhat predictable. Especially with the ladies. If the lady has a great body, good looks then a corset, some goggles and a bed-sheet of a bustle is the look. I’m more interested in the “not-so-super-model” folk who had great costumes.
    My only problem with the FB Steampunk group mentioned above was the fact that the admin took a very long time to approve my post. I didn’t know why and never found out (even though I asked), so I left the group. I’m not a great Steampunk costumer yet however I do work hard on my things. Plus I want to belong somewhere people can share what they have even if it’s not great or complete.

  5. I just think people generally have stopped being able to have fun! Let’s face it, dressing up or making inconsequential but beautiful stuff is an extension of childhood play. Creativity is too precious a commodity to be straightjacketed. Besides, I think those who can’t play are scared of those who can.

  6. Cassidy Says:

    I’m not surprised the steampunk community is having this issue. For one thing, over the past year it seems like the whole “this person’s obviously not a real geek” drama has been raging (especially around attractive women in costumes, it must be said). Moving into “she’s just doing the most minor steampunk accessories to get ~attention” sends like a natural next step from talking about superhero costuming.

    But I also think it has roots in the idea that reenacting is judgmental. Outside of regiments with (understandable, I think) standards to keep everyone on the same page and in uniforms that match, hardly anybody cares about clothing to a great degree. Allowing a very few bad apples to ruin the reputation of the whole batch means that the real problem – that some people do not understand the rules of socializing – gets ignored, and forming a new society based around the idea that a different genre will make everyone act decently will end up having the same problem down the line. Only instead of “you’re using the wrong type of fabric” it will be “you don’t look enough like the character you’re dressing as” or “you’re showing too much skin.”

    Which isn’t to say that everyone who wants to do steampunk should have stayed in reenacting, but that maybe defining the group against that instead of against “you’re not X enough” is part of this drama.

  7. I agree and disagree.
    Bullying in any form and any forum is wrong. And we’ll always have people who just HAVE to tell you their opinion. I believe this is human and until we change our culture overall, we’ll never get past it. This does not mean we should condone bad behavior, but we shouldn’t be surprised by it either. A united anti-bullying front is needed.

    I disagree in some ways. The examples you showed weren’t horrible, though I suspect others were. The woman in the photo put her costume out for display to those who are fellow costumers and/or cos-players. Opinions will form. I believe there is a line between offering your opinion and bullying/being rude/acting inappropriately. Are we to not have opinions? If someone doesn’t like something, are they not entitled to not like that something? I frankly don’t like what she’s wearing – my opinion is only that – and my follow up action is to not wear something like that. Period. No drama.

    Determining where that line is seems easy at first, but it isn’t. Clearly, just because I walk down the street doesn’t mean that I’ve given some guy permission to comment on my body or appearance. My simple presence is not permission. But not so clearly, when you go to a cos-play event with other costumers or put your costume up for display on a Facebook page for costumers/cos-players, is that permission? I don’t know: I can see both sides in that case.

    I don’t have all the answers. I may read comments here or elsewhere that will entirely change my mind – it’s happened before. Yet, I feel that there is some amount of room for one to have a negative opinion about a costume that does not include rudeness or bullying.

    As for goggles and top hats – they are a bit cliche, but as you said, they are a terrific “gateway” drug.

  8. kathrynne Says:

    I wrote a huge reply to this, but then it got dropped for some reason, and that’s just too depressing.

  9. kathrynne Says:

    I rewrote my earlier reply……

    I think a lot of this has to do with reenactor mentality. ( I am a reenactor…. and if I hear ‘if they’d have had it, they’d have used it’ one more time I will probably choke) Steampunk is not traditionally modern, not futuristic, and not comic books. It’s a neo-Victorian society, not comic-con. Those girls did an awesome job on their costumes. But spandex is not Victorian, not Edwardian, and not early 20th century. Stockings with visible garters would have been taboo in Victorian times, as would skirts short enough to show off your grooming preferences.
    Gentlemen in top hats, leather, brass, and yes, even flying goggles work for that chosen time period. Spandex and platform (but really cute) shoes just don’t. I teach classes in what is and is not acceptable on my chosen time period (1940s). I don’t hunt people down and throw my opinion at them, and am usually far too polite to insult someone on their chosen wardrobe. So looking at it from a traditional Victorian frame of mind- they don’t fit in. They are outstanding comic-con costumes…. not Steampunk, because unless they were circus performers, ladies simply did not go around wearing such little clothing in the Victorian era. It is all make believe, thanks to pioneers like Jules Verne. But think of it as Marvel comic fans trying to come to grips with people who are huge DC comics fans. Their worlds just don’t mesh. I think these people, though very isolated and protected by their supposed anonymity on the internet, don’t want the comic-con world to superimpose itself on theirs, simply by adding some brass bits and a top hat. It is anachronistic, and probably makes them feel like the work they have put into their impressions has been cheapened by ‘outsiders’. It doesn’t excuse rudeness.

    • Liz Says:

      Steampunk is not just Victorian, it is Neo-Victorian (Neo-Victorian is a wider category into which Steampunk falls). The “Neo” part means new, so new materials, new technologies, and new culture, not rigorously historical European/Victorian/Edwardian. Besides its historical influence, Steampunk and other Neo-Victorian styles are rooted directly in fantasy and the modern world and swirl all three together. Steampunk is not a real, historical world, but an amalgamation of many. There are guidelines, but it is not strictly Victorian, so you can show stockings, you can wear a corset without a cover, and you can wear an exposed hoop skirt.
      Steampunk has always been a little wacky and over-the-top. That’s what makes it so fun for a wider audience than strict historical costuming. It allows you to play! Some of the best Steampunk advice I’ve ever read said “Start Victorian and add or subtract.” So, start with a bustle dress, and then remove the underskirt and bodice. Or start with an Edwardian motoring outfit and add a raygun.
      “Historical Steampunk,” for example, is strictly Victorian with only additions. What worries me is that people are not allowing for anything other than Historical. They get offended when others adopt only certain bits instead of the whole thing or show “too much skin.” However, the many other subsets of Steampunk are just as valid. So someone who puts decorative gears on their top hat shouldn’t be decried as un-Steampunk by someone who owns an extant 1890s tailcoat and only wears silks. There are many, many different variations to consider, like International/Exotic Steampunk with adds in Japanese and Indian influences, Industrial-Revolutionary which extends the Steampunk era back to the very advent of the steam engine (17th century), or Post-Apocalyptic style which explores what would happen if all sources of power but steam were suddenly lost.
      Thus, it’s hard to consider something “anachronistic” in Steampunk because it’s a fantasy world spread across multiple time frames and places simultaneously (not to mention that one of the biggest thing is time/inter-dimensional travel). It may be Victorian based, but it is science fiction. It’s the halfway point between “comic con” and historical and should draw on both.

      • Raven Wolf Says:

        I completely agree with this. Steampunk only /starts/ with Victoriana, it has spread so far from there. Steam power, aether devices, rayguns and blunderbusses, fashion from high Victorial Lady and Gentleman to guttersnipe and engineer, with as much or as little as you want!

        Give it room to breathe, It’s not a static culture like historical reenactment, it’s an alternative past, present and future which /never actually happened/. You cannot be accurate to that :) Every single Steampunk has their own vision of what that is.

  10. My wife and I ran a new Steampunk event recently and tried to address things in a positive way. We had classes from non-Steampunk folk on actual Victoriana.

    Topics included:
    Period dances
    Flower Language
    Stage Magic

    Rather than dress people down, we tried to raise the bar and provide knowledge.

  11. cinemattire Says:

    I think this is a very thoughtful article, highlighting what may be a pervasive issue (in differing forms) throughout reenactment circles of various types.

    Just to offer my personal 2 cents’ worth, as a longtime costume-person and an aficionado of the “neo-Victorian side of steampunk”, as it were…. I have absolutely no problem with the goggles-and-top-hat school of steampunk costuming per se. Au contraire, I adore goggles and top hats! I agree that they are, for better or worse, hallmarks of the genre now, and therefore likely to remain ubiquitous. Whether adding goggles to any old outfit genuinely makes it legit from a serious steampunk perspective, on the other hand, is a much knottier problem, and one which I won’t attempt to unravel here.

    What I did want to add to this debate is the idea that steampunk can be a very empowering arena for females: a place where aspects of the ethos of Victorian times can be re-created and revisited, without the ever-present misogyny of the actual historical era. However, when steampunk devolves into yet another excuse to undermine women by portraying them as scantily clad objects of desire, I myself prefer to get off the train. So I guess my conclusion is that for me personally, any given steampunk costume which consists of an overtly revealing get-up + some goggles (especially if not backed up by at least a modicum of grounding in Victorian history, steampunk literature, etc.), kinda just adds up to standard-issue objectification of women, plus some goggles.

    But then, that’s just my take on things, and I’m certainly not planning to foist it on anyone else unless they want to share! ;)

  12. LadyD Says:

    Interesting post. I seem to be latecomer to steampunk. I love the styling…although like in the vintage scene I’m not a fan of the ‘pin up’ styling. Its too…comic book and really not my thing.
    I like historical clothing and I try to get away with what I can in real life. I’ve never been to a steampunk event but I admire what is produced. I’ve tried bustle dresses…but I just can’t make them look nice…I look like a stocky queen victoria. :/
    I would call myself a historical cosplayer, because what I make is in the spirit of the original but I won’t nessasarily worry if I use polycotton rather than linen.
    I would say the image in your post is cosplay referencing steampunk. Rather than steampunk influenced by cosplay.

    • Liz Says:

      Exactly. It is a cosplay mixing in historically-inspired elements. Steampunk is the half-way point between historical costuming and cosplay, so it works. Some may object to the pin-up-like showing of skin, but that shouldn’t render the costumes non-Steampunk (the Victorians have plenty of risque pictures to their credit and some people love the look), especially when the referenced character is herself a seductress and rather salaciously dressed. Another wonderful example of Steampunk cosplay is the two ladies who sewed amazing Victorian-styled Star Trek outfits:
      Cosplayer Genovefa and friend are dressed like Janeway and Data
      This pair of outfits takes the otherwise tight-fitting Starfleet Uniform and gives them traditional 1880s lines. They were meant as cosplays, not Steampunk, but by all definitions, they meet the Historical Steampunk criteria, rendering them, to some, as “too Victorian” while others claimed that they still weren’t Victorian enough! When you are dealing with a costume genre with so many possibilities, it’s hard to please everyone! I’m not so concerned with individual opions. They are natural and everyone– including me– has them. However, I am concerned at how many people fail to see the merit of a costume for it’s character and craftsmanship, but rather insist only on finding flaws.
      (Seven of Nine would be interesting to see as a Steampunk cosplay since her signature is the skin-tight suit. Perhaps a Camilla Clifford style dress would be in order? I might need to look into this!)

      • LadyD Says:

        think of all the coboy movies with saloon girls…even some of the costumes from calamity jane were rather risque and would fit steampunk genre.
        My tried and failed outfit was a victorian interpretation of the modern sherlock holmes outfit…I think I need to start with a pattern to get used to the shapes rather than just draping it. It looked awful! (I’ll be posting about it next week on my blog).

  13. Prof. Steampunk Says:

    We solved this problem at Weird West Fest in the fall. There are now Commissioners of Steampunk and Official Steampunk Police. WE WILL BE WATCHING YOU.

    If you are wondering who died and made us the Commissioners and the Police, WE did. Don’t like it? Tough Shit! BTW, if you don’t have a sense of humor, don’t read this. Your brain will explode! (That’s Steampunk for LOL)

    Laws, Rules, and Regulations
    Of Steampunkery

    GULIELMI IV. Regis.
    AP. LXXVI.

    An Act for the Amendment and better Administration of the Laws relating to the enforcement of Steampunkery in all regards, be they deemed fashion, science, speech or other, in England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, India, Africa, the Americas, and any and all free states of the known world and the land of NEVERWAS. [Enacted this 14th day August, in the year of our Lord, 1834.]

    WHEREAS it is expedient to alter and amend the Laws relating to the definition of Steampunk: Be it therefore enacted by the King’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the Authority of the same, That it shall be lawful for His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, by Warrant under the Royal Sign Manual, to appoint Three fit Persons to be Commissioners to carry this Act into execution, and also from Time to Time, at pleasure, due to Death or otherwise, to appoint some other fit Person to the said Office; and until such Appointment it shall be lawful for the surviving or continuing Commissioners or Commissioner to act as if no such Vacancy had occurred.

    2. And be it further enacted, That the said Commissioners shall be styled “The Steampunk Law Commissioners for NEVERWAS ;” and the said Commissioners, or any Two of them, may sit, from Time to Time as they deem expedient, as a Board of Commissioners for carrying this Act into execution; and the said Commissioners acting as such Board shall be and are hereby empowered, by Summons under their Hands and Seal, to require the Attendance of all Such Persons as they may think fit to call before them upon any Question or Matter connected with or relating to the Administration of the Laws pertaining to Steampunkery, and also to make any Inquiries and require any Answer or Returns as to any such Question or Matter, and also to administer Oaths, and examine all such Persons upon Oath, and to require and enforce the Production upon Oath of Books, Contracts, Agreements, Accounts, and Writings, or Copies thereof respectively, in anywise relating to any such Question or Matter ; or, in lieu of requiring such Oath as aforesaid, the said Commissioners may, if they think fit, require any such Person to make and subscribe a Declaration of the Truth of the Matters respecting which he shall have been or shall be so examined: Provided always, that no such Person shall be required, in obedience to any such Summons, to go or travel more than Ten Miles from the Place of his Abode: Provided also, that nothing herein contained shall extend or be deemed to extend to authorize or empower the said Commissioners to act as a Court of Record, or to require the Production of the Title, or of any Papers or Writings relating to the Title of any Lands, Tenements, or Hereditaments not being the Property of any Parish or Union.

    3. And be it further enacted, That the said Commissioners shall cause to be made a Seal of the said Board, and shall cause to be sealed or stamped therewith all Laws, Rules, and Regulations made by the said Commissioners in pursuance of this Act; and all such Laws, Rules, and Regulations, or Copies thereof, purporting to be sealed or stamped with the Seal of the said Board, shall be received as Evidence of the same respectively, without any further Proof thereof; and no such Law, Rule, or Regulation, or Copy thereof, shall be valid, or have any Force or Effect, unless the same shall be so sealed or stamped as aforesaid.

    4. And be it further enacted, That the said Commissioners shall make a Record of their Proceedings, in which shall be entered in Writing a Reference to every Letter received, from whence, its Date, the Date of its Reception, and the Subject to which it relates, and a Minute of every Letter written or Order given by the said Commissioners, whether in answer to such Letters received or otherwise, with the Date of the same, and a Minute of the Opinion of each of the Members of the Board of Commissioners, in case they should finally differ in Opinion upon any Order to be given or other Proceeding of the Board; and such Record shall be submitted to One of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State once in every Year, or as often as he shall require the same.

    5. With all due diligence, pomp, and ceremony aforementioned, the Commissioners of Steampunkery are hereby named, certified, and credentialed also as
    The Official Steampunk Police
    And shall have all requisite and forthgoing power and authority to sit in judgment on All Things Steampunk.

    6. Be it known that from this day forward this power and authority are seated in the physical and corporate bodies of the following personages:

    Prof. Steampunk, Chief of The Official Steampunk Police
    Lady Art’amiss D’cor, Assistant Chief of The Official Steampunk Police
    Capt. Cosmo Osric Galloway, First Deputy of The Official Steampunk Police

    7. Be it also known and obeyed that these Commissioners may, at their whim and call, designate additional Deputies with the intent and purpose of enforcing the following Laws, Rules, and Regulations of Steampunkery within, without, and beyond any and all present and future Borders and Boundaries of the land now and forevermore known as NEVERWAS.

    Laws, Rules, and Regulations
    Of Steampunkery
    Within, without, and especially beyond the Borders and Boundaries of NEVERWAS, be it known to all men, women, children, and others, that the very nature of Steampunkery is firmly rooted in and grows from the Neverwasness which permeates all aspects of Steampunkery.

    Be it also known and obeyed that this Neverwasness is the ruling argument in the following Laws, Rules, and Regulations, to wit:

    Law the First
    Known as the Law of Tolerance
    ALL aspects of Steampunkery which may, by any stretch of the Imagination, be considered Steampunk, SHALL indeed BE Steampunk.

    Law the Second
    Known as the Law of Exceptions
    See Law the First.

    Law the Third
    Known as the Law of Trial and Appeal
    ALL Trials and Appeals shall be Heard and Adjudicated by the Three Commissioners of Steampunkery or their official Designees. Designees MUST be designated in an Official Commission overseen by at least two of the Commissioners of Steampunkery.

    Law the Fourth
    Known as the Law of Finality
    ALL Decisions of an Official Commission, whether overseen by Commissioneers or Designees, Shall be Final and irrevocable, with the exception that a Designee decision may be Overruled and Overturned by a vote of Two of the Three standing Commissioners of Steampunkery.

    Law the Fifth
    Known as the Law of Longevity
    ALL Commissioners of Steampunkery will serve for life terms or Forever, whichever comes first. Designees shall serve for life, unless Undesignated by Commissioners, requiring a 2/3 vote.

    In Summation, let it be known and obeyed that the Spirit of the Laws demand thusly:

    Intolerance within Steampunkery will not be Tolerated!

    Signed, acknowledged, and legislated this 14th day of August, Year of our Lord 1834.

  14. justine Says:

    What an interesting article. Its weird how within a community some people prefer to tear each other down and nitpick instead of supporting each others’ common passion yet differences in expressing it.

  15. clgbutterfly Says:

    Fear not, not all steampunks and steampunk communities are so judgemental. My husband and I promote bringing in new people to steampunk and reenacting because unless you recruit and spread your enthusiasm there will be no one in the future to share it with. We promote finding your style and enjoying the genre. My husband and I have been involved in reenacting and steampunk since 2005 and will always work to promote community and acceptance while stimulating the imagination.

  16. Sadly as a non-steam-punker (but an avid appreciator of the incredible and imaginative costumes they create), I’m not here to add to the conversation. What I AM here to do is to say I just nominated you for a Liebster Blog Award! Hooray!

  17. Thank you for not only a well written blog, but the comments you have shared as well.

    Personally, I often cringe when faced with ‘costume nazis’ in any genre… Renaissance, Pirate, Steampunk…what? How can an ‘imaginative make-believe timeline’ screw up historical accuracy??? The best response to those who love to nitpick is that I can see where and how they are having fun, but I wish they could see the point at which I am having fun and let me be…but it is often a personality disorder of OCD that will not allow some people to keep their opinions to themselves. It also seems that they never learned the important lesson “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”

    I happen to love many of the ‘pin-up’ looks, having a passion for modern day retro pin up as well, but it was kind of funny when there were only two entrants to a recent ‘steampunk’ contest for women. The other entrant was in the requisite pinup outfit with a ‘crotch shot’…I was in a very modest, but completely NON-historically accurate ‘Steampunk Witchy-Poo’,,,I actually rallied my voters, so that the ‘crotch shot’ wouldn’t win…and managed to swing the vote. I think that sometimes the overwhelming amount of pin-up in any genre, disheartens many otherwise lovely women from even sharing their photos publicly (I am fortunate that most of the communities I participating in, in RL or online, are fairly balanced between the two.)

  18. Katprint Says:

    I mourn the loss of common courtesy, including the obligation to refrain from unsolicited criticism or rude personal remarks or talking about people behind their backs or about 100 other beneficial principles of civilized conduct. Even if the cosplay costumes weren’t lovely (which I do think they are lovely), the cosplayers can take off those costumes and wash off that makeup but the internet trolls are stuck with this ugliness deep inside them.

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