What is Steampunk?

The phenomenon of Steampunk is becoming increasingly popular in both literature and fashion. But just what is steampunk?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it in terms of literature as, “a genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology.” It goes on to define Steampunk fashion as, “a style of design and fashion that combines historical elements with anachronistic technological features inspired by science fiction.”

The term “Steampunk”, which combines Victoriana with modern day technology (fuelled by steam rather than electricity or batteries, etc.), originated in the late 1980s. It was first used within the world of literature, when science fiction author K. W. Jeter sent a letter to Locus Magazine trying to find an accurate description of the book he’d written (Morlock Night).
Although it was Jeter who is credited with inventing the word “Steampunk”, it was William Gibson and Bruce Sterling who developed it into being a sub-genre of fiction, rather than a few niche books. They did this via the popularity of the novel The Difference Engine (1992). This book, which provided an alternative, fictional version of the Industrial Revolution, saw Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine as not just a unique object of future potential, but an accepted and well used piece of machinery.

According to the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrence, “Steampunk is an inspired movement of creativity and imagination. With a backdrop of either Victorian England or America’s Wild West at hand, modern technologies are re-imagined and realized as elaborate works of art, fashion, and mechanics. If Jules Verne or H.G. Wells were writing their science fiction today, it would be considered steampunk.”

It isn’t just literature that embraces steampunk. Over the past decade in particular, it has also become a fashion style. As with the literature, the clothing involved mixes together traditional Victorian garments such as top hats, corsets and frock coats, with cogs, goggles and boots. Steampunk fashion frequently creates something wearable and elegant out of random bits and bobs of metal, leather and wire.

At a time when the modern world faces political instability, it is perhaps not surprising that a culture which lets us escape into the romance of the past, while simultaneously allowing us the use of a certain amount of the technology we have become used to, is rising in popularity.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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