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

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:

compile

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?”

From Conventions to Curators: Period Steampunk Fashions

A.K.A. My Museum Shopping List!

(If you read my blog regularly, this first part may sound familiar…)

Steampunk is a modern fashion movements that reinvents certain aspects and fashion facets of Victorian culture, putting a twist on the old style. Seeing beautiful fashions revived in new ways makes me excited, both as a historian and as an avid fan of dressing up! I am, however, terribly picky and pragmatic and I like to be able to make that if I’m going to invest in a dress, I’ll be able to wear it as much as possible–museum-wise and convention-wise.

In my years of costume-image collecting, I’ve discovered that there are hundreds of extant, real Victorian gowns that look modern enough they could have been made yesterday!

Steampunk

Here’s just a brief overview of Steampunk for those of you who aren’t familiar with the style. Steampunk is an alternate reality where Victorians developed advanced technologies revolving around steam-power and clockwork– think Jules Verne or H.G. Wells— though the movement has begun to develop a more futuristic, post-apocalyptic theme. That’s a really brief overview just so you get the fundamentals. Steampunk, like any fashion movement, has infinite variations! Steampunk can range from bionic men dressed as Abraham Lincoln (a favorite!) and ladies in clockwork fairy wings all the way to straight-laced aristocrats in impeccably detailed 1890s evening attire.

The hallmarks of steampunk fashion are:

Favorite time period: 1660-1750 (for fancy watches) and 1870-1910
Bustles
Corsets
Dusters, vests, and military Jackets
Utility belts, pouches, and satchels
Edwardian “active wear” like pantaloons, riding jackets, etc.
Hats, especially top hats (often tiny)
Big boots
Flying things and travel
Gears, clocks/watches, and keys everywhere
Gadgets, gizmos, and props galore
Goggles  and tinted glasses
Heavy ornamentation and layers
Often used colors include brown, burgundy, and army green
Often used materials include leather, brass, and  a mix of structured/draped fabrics

*

Period Fashions and Accessories with Steampunk Flair!

Bicycling Suit, circa 1896

Accordion, circa 1860
(Not really a fashion, but imagine how awesome you would be if you took an accordion to Steamcon!)

Evening Dress, circa 1893

Straw Top Hat, circa 1820

Riding Ensemble, circa 1896

Carpetbag, circa 1860

Bonnet, circa 1887
(Complete with spiked studs along the rim!)

Pelisse, circa 1820

Wool Boots, circa 1860-1869

Day Dress, circa 1881
(I love the “gauntlets”)

Motoring Goggles, circa 1910

Dinner Dress, circa 1894

Steampunk’s other major theme is clockwork and watches, especially ornate ones. The wildly detailed watches are more of a hallmark of the 17th and 18th centuries rather than the 19th century, when the majority of the Steampunk mythos takes place. 19th century watches are rather plain comparatively. I just pretend that I invented a time machine, went back to 18th century Switzerland, and stole all their watches!

Antique Steampunk Watches

Watch, circa 1660-1670

Watch, circa 1710

Snuff Box with Watch, circa 1766-1772

Watch, circa 1753

Watch Mechanism, circa 1750-1760

Watch, Fob, and Chain, circa 1786

Steampunk is unbelievably fun to costume! You can be a pirate, a queen, a mad scientist, Darth Vader, a robot, or just a regular citizen that happens to carry around a oscilloscope laser cannon tucked quietly in your garter! The best part? You can be as historically accurate or inaccurate as you like and no one will bat an eye.

Bonus:

AWESOME CORSET!

Corset, circa 1890

A perfect hourglass!

29″-19″-29″

(Bust-Waist-Hips)

(71-48-71 cm)

Just in case the size is shocking, keep in mind that this corset was probably made for a teenage girl and some folks are naturally thin! :)

From Conventions to Curators: Historical Gothic Victorian Fashion

A.K.A. My Museum Shopping List!

Gothic Victorian (sometimes called neo-Victorian) is a modern fashion movement that reinterprets certain aspects and fashion facets of Victorian culture, putting a twist on the old style. Seeing beautiful fashions revived in new ways makes me excited, both as a historian and as an avid fan of dressing up! I am, however, terribly picky and pragmatic and if I’m going to invest in a dress, I want to be able to wear it as much as possible: museum-wise and convention-wise.

In my years of costume research, I’ve discovered that there are plenty of extant, real Victorian gowns that would work just as beautifully in a Victorian parlor as they would in Dracula’s castle!

Gothic Victorian

Gothic Victorian,a sub-genre of goth or gothic style, flirts with the darker side of life. It dwells on tragic romance, the mysteries of the human mind, and the fantasy world of nightmares. The most mainstream examples can be found in Edgar Allen Poe’s tales, almost everything Tim Burton has created over the years, and the unique poetry of Emily Dickinson. Everything may seem black, grey, and red all over, but Gothic Victorian embraces the beauty of the sad and the fun of antique fetishes. It takes inspiration from the Victorian period, but doesn’t adhere very strictly to it, mixing in modern necklines with puffed crinoline skirts. Not all Gothic Vicotiran fashion is dark. Clothing is sometimes white, pink, or soft blue to display a ghostly or innocent soul. Gothic Victorian lets you explore the two sides of you personality you usually have to hide– your romantic side and your wicked side– all while looking amazing!

The hallmarks of Gothic Victorian fashion are:

Favorite time period: 1850 onwards (and some medieval, renaissance, and baroque influences)
Bustles, hobbles, and full skirts
Corsets and cinchers
Trench coats, boleros, and military jackets
Parasols
Hats, especially top hats (often tiny)
Tall boots and high heels
Bones, roses, spiders, crystals, and blood
Stripes and plaid
Parasols, gauntlets, and gloves
Curiosities and mementos mori
Heavy ornamentation and layers
Often used colors include black, red, and jewel tones
Often used materials include satin, beads, velvet, and lace

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Period Fashions and Accessories with Gothic Style

American Silk Dress, circa 1870

Dinner Dress, circa 1880

Parasol with Ivory Handle, circa 1870

Day Dress, circa 1885

Gold Brooch, circa 1890

Evening Dress, circa 1885

American Silk Dress, circa 1879

Fetish Boots, circa 1900

Silk Dress, circa 1869

Mme. Uoll Gross Ensemble, circa 1885

Evening Hat, circa 1888

Evening Dress, circa 1881

Ball Gown, circa 1875

Gothic Victorianism is known for it’s fascination with love and death. Victorians had symbols for nearly everything, including snakes for eternal love and anchors for loyalty and hope. They also had elaborate mourning procedures that involved symbolic items such as veils and mourning jewelry. Sentimental and mourning jewelry hold a special place in my heart. Pieces are often made from human hair woven into brooches, necklaces, bracelets and more. The tradition of weaving hair into jewelry began in the 17th century with Stuart Crystals and grew throughout the 18th and 19th centuries until the Edwardian era. Mementos mori (“Remember your mortality”) have been around since ancient times, but became especially popular during the 15th century. Gothic Victorians still employ updated versions of mementos mori, including skulls, angels, crosses, and relics.

Mementos Mori and Sentimental Jewelry

Rosary Bead, circa 16th or 19th century

Stuart Crystal Ring, circa 1728

Hair brooch, circa 1842

Jet Necklace, circa 1875

Hair Comb, circa 1851

Stuart Crystal Ring, circa 1686

Stock/Stick Pin, early 19th century
(this pin is rumored to have belonged to Napoleon I)

Bracelet, circa 1886

Snake bracelet, circa 1870

Mourning Ring, circa 1661

The “gothic” part of Gothic Victorian refers to it’s use of what I like to call the “harmonious grotesque.” There’s always something a little unsettling about gothic fashion, but that little twinge of dystopic strangeness really enhances the allure! I love Gothic Victorian style, especially how dark, yet appealing it is. It’s perfect for those of us who love being romantic, but can’t stand being saccharine. It’s bittersweet and beautiful!

Bonus:

AWESOME CORSET!

Corset, circa 1890

Sexy, hot-pink satin corset…and it’s historical! :)