What Is Steampunk? A Subculture Infiltrating Films, Music, Fashion, More

What Is Steampunk Subculture Infiltrating Films

'Golden Compass.' 'BioShock.' Alan Moore's 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.' Goggles. These things might not seem to have much in common, but they're fundamental elements of a trend that's hiding in plain sight.

Like a beacon of light out of the Movies Blog post on steampunk films, a Newsroom item from a steampunk newcomer and loads of photos from two steampunk events.)

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The term arose during the 1980s, when literature that basically transported cyberpunk tales into the past became popular. The aesthetic gradually spread into other art forms.

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The steampunk look reflects the Victorian and early Edwardian eras (roughly 1801-1910 — check out examples on It's the only reason John Norris got into this. )

Popular blogs like the British sites Brass Goggles and Coilhouse offer a place for others to exchange stories, DIY tips and the latest direction of the trend.

And, of course, where would any self-respecting subculture be without its own music? While there's been much debate on the issue, steampunk-related music usually has orchestral characteristics, à la Rasputina , or it could also have a Tom Waits-esque metallic, gritty sound. A lot of steampunk bands offer amalgamations.

Groups like the aptly named Vernian Process combine Victorian-themed lyrics with old-world instrumentation recreated on synthesizers to create old-world instrumentation while using Victorian-themed lyrics. 'I [chose the band's name] because of Jules Verne, father of the genre and the process,' the group's Joshua A. Pfeiffer said. 'Vernian Process is like the process of making steampunk music.'

Another great example is Dr. Steel, a hip-hop steampunker. Draped in a white lab coat, clad with ironworkers' goggles, he uses technology to promote a message of peace via strict control. Fans are promised a Utopian Playland and sublime entertainment if they become a member of his 'Toy Soldiers' fan group.

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Abney Park are probably the most visually mainstream band in the genre. With beginnings as a goth act, Abney found their calling as steampunk 'airship pirates,' and are happy with the musical vagueness of that designation.

'You can't really pigeonhole all steampunk as a music genre,' bassist Daniel C. said. 'We can do a Victorian [acoustic] music set or we can do our live [electric] set; two completely different sounds, but the focus is considered steampunk.'

Of course, as these bands, fans and subgenres grew and found each other on the Internet over the past few years, it was just a matter of time before a summit took place. 'There was the interest among the online community,' Jaborwhalky's G.D. Falksen said. 'What they really needed was someone to just say, 'Hey, you guys should talk to each other.' '

And so it began. Under the guise of a neo-vintage festival, Salon Convention drew a minimal crowd in 2005. Then Dances of Vice came in 2006 and attracted even more, and this year's Salon Convention sold out.

Now, steampunk is getting its own conventions. The highly anticipated Steamcon is taking place October 23-25 at the Seattle Airport Marriott. California is getting some steamy love as well. Steam Powered starts on Halloween and goes through November 2.

With all this activity, it feels like just a matter of time before this underground scene moves above ground. Voltaire seems to think it's already happening.

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'I never really imagined it would become mainstream,' he said. 'But walking down the street the other day, I passed a Levi's store. They had brown, acid-washed denim jeans [in the window] with a sort of ripped, old-timey shirt and a top hat floating over it. And I thought, 'By Jove, any second now there's going to be goggles on everything!' '