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Historical Costumes in Steampunk

Updated: Mar 21, 2022

So my dream of publishing a book has finally been realized. The Wrench in the Machine is now available on Amazon. I am particularly proud of the title which is not just inspired by a line from Associate 321 in the story. Its also inspired by one of the works that brought me into Science Fiction in the first place. Ghost in the Shell.

Like most, I wanted my first time to be special. So I commission Staranger Art to do the cover. And has he. After I rid myself of junk I no longer need I will look into getting this printed (Let me know if you would be interested in a poster).

However, the Steampunk community being what it is I didn't expect it to attract too much attention. After all, the cover by Stavarnov of S-36, which is a homage to the pulp covers of old, didn't seem to draw much interest. However, Staranger's cover did get much attention from Reddit, to my surprise.

I did get some remarks that sparked this article's topic.

"Is this Steampunk..? This looks Victorian to me?"

Alright, kiddies let's talk about the following concept in writing called, World Building... Repeat after me. World... Building.

For those new, to my articles or the Steampunk Beginners Guide on Youtube. To me, Steampunk can mean one of three things.

  1. I am one of those horrible people that think Steampunk is not a setting, or a flavor, or cereal, but an actual genre of storytelling.

  2. The aesthetic.

  3. The Steampunk Community

We touch on the community later, but let's start with the obvious. Aesthetics are a part of storytelling, especially in regards to the world-building.

Before we start, there is a difference between 'building a world' and world-building. Writing a master thesis on the logistics of cereal production in Mordor is building a world. Describing a character observing how a cart with sacks of cereal gets unloaded is world-building.

Worldbuilding is not about coming up with magic systems, city layouts, or writing the holy book of your religion.

We all know what the Bible is. We can all summarize The Garden of Eden. But what is important in your story is how characters interact with the bible. A character could interpret it as a metaphor of how women discovered agriculture, thus creating urban societies that drove humanity away from the nomadic lifestyle and all that it entails. Or, a character could take it literally and Eve was the world's first sparerib... with breasts and- Where was I going with this?

Oh, right world-building.

So, in my humble opinion worldbuilding is how characters interact with the world. This included their opinion on it. This can be influenced by many things, like how something smells, sounds. What colors something has. The origin of a person or object, and of course what clothes they wear.

Let's talk about the community for a second. In the past, I defended the position that Steampunk wasn't cosplaying. Well, that becomes increasingly harder to defend when all the costumes look alike. The same colors, the same attributes, and with the increasing popularity on the internet, the same Chinese props from Wish or Amazon. Look, I am not saying there is no real talent required. But with especially most steampunk armored suits, what is the fundamental difference here. I'm sure they get a lot of like on social media, but to call it unique. No.

But then you see a person in a genuine historical costume. Now, maybe it is the reenactor in me that become happy of seeing a Victorian costume in a quasi-Victorian setting. But I find this more immersive than, yet another adventurer or captain or professor.

Let's take a series like Deadwood about the Wild West frontier town of the same name. it's a prospectors town filled with well, prospectors, miners, merchants, and prostitutes. Now, they all dress historically, but none look the same. Despite the sizable cast, you can all distinguish them from each other due to the state of their clothes, facial hair, hairstyle, and the way they talk.

Jane for instance. Even without her manly clothes, you could still recognize her due to the way she speaks and the fact she is either drunk or hangover. Or the saloon owner who essentially rules the town Al Swearengen by his wicked glare or Sheriff Bullock who, despite his respectable appearance, always looks like one wrong statement away from killing a man.

Imagine this series being Steampunk. This isn't that far-fetched because progress, change, and corporate interest are major themes in the show. For example how Swearengen responds to the arrival of the telegraph operated by a Slavic tenderfoot Pasha Lychnikoff. Lychnikoff... really. "Messages for invisible sources", he calls them, vocalizing his displeasure about its anonymous senders...

Where is the lie?

In a letter, you can recognize a person's handwriting. Messages send electronically, well at best you could recognize the transmission for an individual telegrapher.

By the way, I use this example about the telegraphs because radio telecommunication is an important topic in our novel The Wrench in the Machine and the supplement comic. I cannot talk more about this without going into spoilers.

Could the same conflict occur in a Steampunk setting? Well yes, but it depends on the setting. And if not about telegraph poles, maybe about robot laborers.

The real question is, would cladding these characters in copper and gears make them more interesting. I doubt it. As a matter of fact, it might make them less unique. And for what? Fanservice. More details don't make more better. For example, during an interview, Bonsart did Valentin Felder on his stop motion film 'An Unwound Clockwork' Felder mentioned how he wanted to add a zeppelin in the background because, well that is the Steampunk thing to do... But then he realized that, in a story about isolation, adding a zeppelin would undermine the themes. After all, air travel doesn't just allow you to go anywhere. It visualizes the desire to go anywhere. A desire that is not supposed to exist in his world.

Going back to Steampunk Deadwood, I would change little to the costuming myself. I would and an electric generator maybe to power a saloon. maybe some advanced gambling apparatus in the casino. An eccentric inventor's laboratory who is annoyed because he came here to get away from the government. But now the town wants to be annexed to guarantee their property rights... To name an example. But what does this have to do with historical costumes in Steampunk? Steampunks are not reenactors, are we?

Here is the thing. Let's take an example of Steampunk with historical costumes. Steamboy (2003). Probably the, be it a flawed film, most steampunk film out there in my opinion. The historical setting is a deliberate choice that contrasts the (quote, unquote) Steampunk/anachronistic machinery from the daily existence of the common Britt. This is important for the plot because, slight spoiler warning, the motivation of the villain is to inspire humanity by launching a flying castle into the air. He not going to conquer the world with it or anything... Well maybe in a philosophical sense. It's just his well of saying to the world, fuck physics, hoping more people will follow his example. I heard of creative destruction but this is... Something else.

Here we see a man walking along the shore in awe. We see the contract between a simple man and the machine. The contrast between what we know is possible and the fantastical. There he is contemplating. " Is this really the future? Is this what humanity is capable of?" A loaded question that can be answered ever which way.

If this was a steampunk setting according to the standards set by the convention attendance. Eh, this would be Tuesday wouldn't it Now, if all the characters already possessed technology like this, now of this would have worked. The flying castle would just be another prop, just larger.

This is the importance of historical costuming within Steampunk. To separate the non-fiction from the fiction. This is why most characters on my book cover dress historically. Because if they did not, well... Everything would fail to impress. The Wrench in the Machine is about police inspectors simply doing their jobs until they encounter a creature of otherworldly origins. Before they know what is happening they are plunged into a world of secret societies, hidden wars, and transhumanist fanatics.

The Association of Ishtar is a series of short stories about explorations of the otherworldly and the fantastical. If the protagonists themselves would be fantastical... Well, what would be left to be in awe of? What could terrify them? What challenges would be left to overcome? And what would entertain the reader if the unknown is just more of the same?

And this is probably my main complaint. Steampunk creators are being held to a standard set by the crowds visiting the conventions. I've multiple responses of people complaining that the aesthetic of my characters, costumes do not conform to the standards set by 'Cosplayers'. No offense to the Cosplayers, but this is not a good development for the creatives who seek to create original content within the Steampunk space where they get dismissive comments for not conforming to the cogs on bowlers stereotype.

Now before people rise up in protest and say, " well everyone is allowed to dress the way they want". YES. I AGREE. But realize they are all making the same out of fear of being dismissed for not being Steampunk enough.

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