Photo Credit: Babs Who Takes Pictures

Photo Credit: Babs Who Takes Pictures

Honest. There Is No Secret Steampunk Handshake!

It has been several years since the mainstream’s acknowledgment of Steampunk—that ever-expanding and historically creative subculture of literature, music, fashion, science, intellectual gatherings, and beyond.  Steampunk: We know it when we see and hear it.  It appears distinct and new, yet with a comforting sense of familiarity to it.  If our grandparents and their parents could see a steampunk today, they might not find these ideas so abnormal.

Over the years, there has been an expansive wardrobe of definitions—some embraced and some cast aside, strewn on the dressing room floor like so much ill-fitting finery—that attempted to capture the requisite quality of “true Steampunk”.  Is it the copper-and-brass of smoke-stacked machinery?  The Victorian sensibilities of involved parties?  That palpable hint of merry adventure, dangerous exploration, and brave new wonders still left to uncover?

Or something more subtle?

While Steampunk scholars and artists attempt to influence the outcome of this word-war, so that the media might properly identify and show respect to this diverse culture, the extraordinary and inevitable has happened: Steampunk continues to evolve.

No sooner does the mainstream believe it has discovered the alchemical formula for a lacquer coat of Steampunk-Enough that the culture shifts, developing unique new sensibilities and interests.  And with each shift, the mainstream gives chase, hoping to find purchase among the community.

That community has built up from intimate groups—taking lunch in parks and meeting at coffee houses—to full tens of thousands of inspired contributors attending events world-wide that take over whole hotels and city blocks!

As Steampunk saunters into more public view, the odds that a new potential Steampunk lover will finally stumble onto it grow exponentially.  The more successful a Steampunk novel, movie, television episode, or music video is, the higher likelihood that it will stir at least one of its fans to action—that action might even have led them here.  After all, the average person is able to recognize what the long-time steam-boy or girl did when they caught their first glimpse: that Steampunk is amazing!

And best of all?  Steampunk is only getting bigger, better, and more amazing with each new person who discovers it, jumps into the guts of the machine, and starts tinkering.  The more a fan shows and shares, from the largest experimental prop device to the shortest, sweetest bit of flash-fiction, the more Steampunk there is to enjoy.  The brave new wonders of Steampunk will always be here to discover, open to anyone.  No secret handshake required.  Honest.

At One Time Or Another, Everyone Was New To Steampunk

Please understand that nobody owns Steampunk.  It does not clandestinely belong to shadowy steam-Illuminati, squirreled away in the dingy attic of a dead 19th-century author, only taken out of its shackles in front of other elite, in-the-know Svengali and forced to dance for their amusement.  Nor did someone wake up one morning and decided, “You know what I’ll make into a trend?  That steam-thing we keep almost-seeing in books and movies.”

Certainly, a large lot of enthusiastic tinkerers, artists, scientists, cosplayers, designers, authors, musicians, and performers championed the spread of Steampunk awareness.  These pioneers brought the culture to new minds; to people young and old who found that spark in Steampunk which fanned the flames of creativity in their own hearts.  But again, none of those people can claim Steampunk to be theirs alone.  Nor do they or should they attempt to.

The Steampunk community is so much more than “a bunch of Goths that discovered brown”, as is too often reported.  There are those on either end of the age spectrum who, frankly, have never stepped foot into the territory of Goth either before or during their stay in the land of Steampunk.  With that said, many of Steampunk’s finest did in fact venture over from being into Goth.  Or Punk.  Or Pop.  Some discovered their taste for retro-futurism through movies like Wild Wild West, Return to Oz, The Great Mouse Detective, and Steamboy—while others had their first taste with more recent films such as Sherlock Holmes and Hugo.

Still others came from proto-steampunk literature, growing up on the tales of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and Arthur Conan Doyle.  And some steampunks have never picked up a book or tuned into a movie or tried on a top hat.  They prefer instead to dance in the delights of rediscovered and abandoned technology, building replica devices in their own homes… just for fun!

Because again: Steampunk.  Keeps.  Growing.

Every day, teenagers are picking up copies of Scott Westerfeld’s “Leviathan” or Kady Cross’s “The Girl in the Steel Corset”, while other readers are diving into William Gibson’s “The Difference Engine” and the world of Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker”.  The music crowd, which once might have joined mostly from Abney Park and Dr. Steel, now follow the pied piper tunes of Professor Elemental and the music videos of Panic! At The Disco.  Yes, it’s true: someone discovered Steampunk because of television shows, like Warehouse 13, or the Steampunk episode of Castle.

Some future steampunks will see a friend’s modified wood-and-brass paneled phone case and get the itch.  Another might be invited to a period costume party or Mecha-themed anime convention, where they enjoy absinthe for the first time and how to fill out a dance card.  And still another shall catch a glimpse of a girl wearing a short bustled skirt, thrifted vest, and superfluous goggles, and rush home to look up what style she was wearing.

Some people interested in Steampunk keep it all the year round, in all parts of their lives from their clothes to their furniture.  Others parade their Steampunk side only while attending events or genre movie premieres.  And still others indulge their love of all things Steampunk simply by enjoying a good book or purchasing the art of a maker or tinkerer.

All of these entrances into the hedge-maze that is Steampunk are valid and as legitimate as any other.  Because no one was simply born with full knowledge of Steampunk, everyone can point to their moment of discovery: There is a word that gathers into one place all the books, movies, machines, and outfits I have loved all my life!

But everyone has to start somewhere.  Even the most world-renowned steampunk musicians, makers, and scientists were once beginners.  And those varied, beautiful moments worth encouraging and celebrating together.

Being As Steampunk As You Want To Be

Look at almost any entertainment and traces of Steampunk can be found therein.  By simple association, this does not make everything with such hints “All Steampunk all the time.”  It does, however, mean that Steampunk can be anywhere.

Thus, anything can be steampunked.  There is a strong undercurrent among much of the Steampunk community for DIY (Do-It-Yourself) and creative innovation.  The idea of draping a lush layer of Steampunk over a pre-existing fandom, character, world, or item has been around as long as steampunks have.  In fan art, even Mickey Mouse and his gang have gained clockwork arms, monocles, and wire-caged bustle skirts.

Few things are universal among the Steampunk community.  There is, however, a general understanding that artists can find an audience… as long as they are making a perceivable effort.  After all, slapdash work in any genre or subculture will only gain ire and scorn: the opposite intent, one would hope, of any artist claiming to love the source of their inspiration!

There are infinite approaches to appreciating and playing in Steampunk.  It can be part of just about any activity!  You can:

  • Write or read an original or fan fiction story, poem, or play
  • Write or read a Steampunk essay, magazine, or blog
  • Attend an author reading, movie showing, concert, or performance (including sideshow, burlesque, cabaret, and vaudeville shows)
  • Make your own short films
  • Attend a local dance night, convention, tea party, absinthe tasting, tweed ride, or picnic
  • Plan a tea party, absinthe tasting, tweed ride, picnic, or Steampunk night at a local club (you can make your own public or private fun!)
  • Take a class in fan language, tea ceremonies,
  • Take a lesson in period, ballroom, burlesque, or belly dancing
  • Browse a history museum, technology museum, or Steampunk art gallery
  • Attend a play or opera, either an original Steampunk work or one where the sets, costumes, and time period have been “steampunked”
  • Listen to a Steampunk music podcast (such as Sepiachord or The Clockwork Cabaret) to discover new sounds and artists you like
  • Paint, draw, sculpt, build, or digitally create a work of art
  • Take a favorite character to draw or cosplay and “steampunk it”
  • Explore your inner mad scientist through giant mechanical spiders, death-rays, and weather-control machines
  • Wear clothing that fits your personality and perceptions of Steampunk while at school, work, or out for the day
  • Modify and up-cycle your old clothes into something unique and new
  • Check out a thrift store, consignment store, or hunt through your attic for other fun pieces to add to your daily or event-only accessories
  • Create a personal piece of mechanical-inspired jewelry for yourself or a friend
  • Take pictures of your favorite Steampunk people, places, projects, and objects
  • Read about Victorian and Industrial Era history, fashion, science, medicine, philosophy, and machines
  • Have your tea leaves read, or attend a period-inspired séance
  • Learn to tie a bow-tie, use a sewing machine, type on a typewriter, ride a penny-farthing, play a banjo, accordion, harpsichord or other non-standard instrument
  • Learn a “Lost Art” that requires use of your hands and imagination: knitting, crocheting, fabric dyeing, hand-stitching, weaving, metalsmithing, wood carving, leather tanning, the language of flowers and their arrangement, haberdashery, cobbling, pocket watch and mechanical repair
  • Learn the martial art of Bartitsu, or street performance arts such as poi spinning and being a human statue
  • Join a table-top or live-action Role-Play Gaming set in a Steampunk world
  • Play a Steampunk-themed board or card game
  • Take a trip in a dirigible, zeppelin, or hot-air balloon to the Moon, the Center of the Earth, or the Lost City of Atlantis
  • Join or start a local Steampunk fan group (many sandwich shops, coffee shops, and bookstores host other types of clubs on a weekly or monthly basis: they might be willing to host your group!)

It’s important to remember that there are even more ways to enjoy Steampunk, and they don’t have to all exist at the same time in the same place!  Sometimes a steampunk only wants dress in interesting clothing and never bother with the period history that inspires the culture or understand how a steam engine works.  While another steampunk may enjoy writing with the setting but never wear something more unusual than a baseball cap on their head.

Large ways or small, overt or covert, Steampunk is here to play with in whatever way you see fit.  You can be as Steampunk as you want to be.

About That Handshake…

There might still be out there a curious newcomer, interested but unsure about Steampunk, questioning if they will fit in and if they have read enough of the backlog to have caught up.  Perhaps they feel that there is an imperceptible Steampunk thing that others have and they don’t.  Then for that person, there is good news and bad news.

The bad news: Remember that secret Steampunk handshake discussed earlier, the one that doesn’t exist?  Well, in an effort to draw people in this far, the truth had to be stretched on that one.  Sorry for the deception.

The good news: By way of an apology–for the first time ever in print!—below is a detailed explanation!  Yes, this one simple move grants full access to the wonderful world of Steampunk without fear of appearing out of the loop.

Grab a friend to practice.  First, stand facing each other.  Secondly, both parties stick out a firm but inviting hand.  Then, clasp those hands together.  Finally, give a smile.  (Optional secret password of “I’m so glad Steampunk brought us both here” is considered acceptable.)

There you have it.  The honest to goodness secret Steampunk handshake.  The next time you find yourself wondering after how you, too, can open the doors to all that Steampunk has to offer… you now hold the key in your hands!

Curious about Steampunk?  New to Steampunk?  Interested but unsure?  Rest assured that you’ve come to the right place!

Originally published on February 11, 2012