Steampunk has been around for a while as a cult literary phenomenon. More recently, it seems to have exploded as a full-fledged fashion and design movement. How do you explain this?
The rise of steampunk fashion and the steampunk subculture are largely the result of the Internet. Web communities like Steamfashion allowed people interested in steampunk styles to communicate and, perhaps more importantly, to exchange pictures. In person meet-ups like the Time Travel Picnic gave people the excuse to dress up, and word about these gatherings was facilitated by the aforementioned Internet communities. Essentially, localized interest in steampunk fiction and Victorian fashion was given a means of easy mass-communication, which then allowed them to expand and develop far faster and more successfully than if they had been left on their own. The subculture was also aided by a larger neo-vintage movement in fashion, which made it easier for steampunk enthusiasts to find Victorian and Edwardian style clothing.
How do you define steampunk esthetics?
Steampunk draws very strongly on Victorian concepts and ideals, but these come in a number of different forms. On the one hand, there is a very strong emphasis on things looking good. 19th century clothing is based around the idea that it should be fitted to the wearer, not the wearer fitted to it; Victorian clothes can comfortably fit and flatter virtually any body type, whereas most modern fashions are built exclusively around tall and thin women and broad-shouldered men. Machinery was often designed to be ornamented or attractive in addition to being useful. Contrast this to modern technology, which is the victim of its own attempt to look sleek, clean and ultra-modern: it ends up looking dull and lifeless. Steampunk also draws upon the idea that things should last, and it supports the Victorian idea of clothes and possessions remaining usable from one generation to another, in contrast to the modern policy of planned obsolescence within a few years at most.
Steampunk reveres the machine as a work of art but seems to also rely on traditional craft techniques. What is the importance of the hand-made?
In steampunk, quality craftsmanship is a fundamental concept. In contrast to the “amateur hobbyist” of the mid and late 20th century, steampunk enthusiasts don’t feel the need to make everything themselves if the necessary knowledge is outside of their expertise. Instead, they are strong supporters of the professional craftsman who takes the time and effort to learn a craft or skill (whether tailoring, cobbling, machine construction, jewelry-making, etc). Steampunk strongly supports the purchasing of well-crafted goods from professionals and small business that are attempting to support themselves with their profession, in much the same way that local craftsmen from tailors to woodworkers were supported in the 19th century. At the same time, steampunk fans are often very resourceful, and if necessary goods cannot be obtained from professionals then they can find them elsewhere, in all manner of places ranging from thrift stores, surplus shops and even mainstream stores. However, supporting craftsmen and small businesses remains very important in steampunk.
Datamancer's Steampunk LaptopCan you tell me about your wardrobe?
My wardrobe is extremely varied, both in terms of style and source. Some of my favorite clothes are tailored (I have a wonderful frock coat by Kit Stølen and a three-piece suit from a small tailor), and this is often a necessity given my rather extremely tall and thin shape. Other clothes have been scrounged as necessary. I have several coats from thrift stores, a military coat from an old theater company, gaiters and motorcyclist pants from an army surplus store, and shirts and ties from wherever I can find them. Being a “starving artist” who’s surviving the bohemian lifestyle, I can safely say that steampunk can be adapted to just about any income.
We've mentioned books and clothes, but what other kinds of things are people making?
Naturally, I’m inclined to reference steampunk writing again out of professional pride, but really the sky is the limit in terms of what is out there. After clothing, Datamancer computer mods are probably the most famous (and with good reason: his working steampunk laptop is incredibly beautiful). In addition there are all manner of accessories people are making, from mock-weapons to mechanical toys to accessories like wings. It’s also very important to remember steampunk art, which is often a bridge between steampunk literature and fashion. What the authors write about the artists give a very real visual embodiment to, and this in turn helps to guide and inspire artisans and designers. Writing, art and craftwork are a sort of creative triumvirate in steampunk.