The term Steampunk has entered our lexicon over the past few years, cropping up in literature, movies, and even fashion. But what is it really, and what is all the fuss about?
Wikipedia defines Steampunk as:
“…a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. Although its literary origins are sometimes associated with the cyberpunk genre, steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West”, in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has maintained mainstream usage, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. Therefore, steampunk may be described as neo-Victorian.
“Steampunk also refers to any of the artistic styles, clothing fashions, or subcultures that have developed from the aesthetics of steampunk fiction, Victorian-era fiction, art nouveau design, and films from the mid-20th century. Various modern utilitarian objects have been modified by individual artisans into a pseudo-Victorian mechanical “steampunk” style, and a number of visual and musical artists have been described as steampunk.”
Steampunk has entered the cultural mainstream in clothing style, fiction, video games, TV, movies, and more. There are even sub-genres of Steampunk such as Cyberpunk, Gearpunk, and Dieselpunk. As Steampunk becomes more widespread we have more and more character choices for our cosplay. “Glue some gears on it and call it Steampunk” is no longer enough when it comes to costuming in the genre. Characters such as Madd Moxy from Borderlands or Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd are some examples of pre-existing characters we can choose as a basis for modding. Post-apocalyptic characters are also available to play with – think Mad Max or even Waterworld.
When creating an original Steampunk costumed character, you really need to imagine an entire background story for the character. Ask yourself what is their occupation, what is needed to do that job, and how does this person live? Are they rich or poor or in-between? What is the society like? Answering these questions will help you determine if the character needs weapons, tools, goggles, an aviator’s helmet, or a pith helmet. The answers will also help you choose the types of fabrics to use in creating your costume.
I cosplay across many genres including Steampunk. I’ve created two original Steampunk characters. The first is Eve Parker, aka The Two Faces of Eve, which appeared in Cosplay edition of Modern Nightmares Magazine. Eve is a schoolteacher by day, but once the students are gone her sassy side comes out. Eve has more of a purely Victorian aesthetic yet doesn’t need a lot of special equipment to do her job. She has no need of goggles or gears so they are not part of the costume. I believe metal and leather add a lot to the Steampunk aesthetic, so Eve’s outfit has carved metal buttons, chains, and buckles for adornment. The fabrics are modest and affordable by a spinster teacher, but the clothes are comfortable without large bustles or hoop skirts that would make teaching in a cramped classroom difficult. To introduce her sassy side, she simply pulls up her skirts by means of buckles and straps and gives you a cheeky peek at her lace and ribbon-trimmed pantaloons.
My second original character is “Steampunk Sadie”. Sadie’s look is an eclectic mixture of old west characters. Part saloon girl, part gypsy, Sadie is fun-loving and free willed but still has a touch of Victorian lady hiding underneath. She wears a bandolier with glass bottles of potions and herbs – the tools of her trade. Sadie is an apothecary and a matchmaker, so naturally her specialty is love potions. Again, with this character, there is no need for goggles or gears; she simply doesn’t require those items in her day to day life. But let’s not be mistaken, she has plenty of impressive stuff back at her workshop. Mortar and pestle, jars and boxes of herbs and plants stacked high on shelves, vials of colored liquids, specimen collection containers, and maybe even special oculars to help her pull tiny seeds from their pods. She may carry some of these items out and about with her, but mostly she just needs to carry her best-selling potions for a quick sale to a lovesick traveler.
If you are still stumped trying to create an original character, consider a genre mash-up. Find a character you love from Sci-Fi, Disney, comic books, or anime and re-imagine them in a Steampunk setting. What needs to be different? How does the wardrobe change? What kind of tools will they need in the new environment? I’ve seen some very well-done combinations at conventions around the country. Princess Leia, Ariel, Steampunk Adventure Time characters…the possibilities are endless! I’ve been envisioning a Steampunk Velma (from Scooby Doo), but that’s still a future project.
For more ideas on mash-ups talk to your artist friends or visit artistic websites such as Deviant Art. I’ve seen numerous artist renditions of existing characters re-imagined as Steampunk. If you find a drawing you like, contact the artist and get his/her permission to use the concept to spawn the three dimensional version. Once you have the character and costume finished, make sure to credit the artist and send them some photographs.
Watch movies and TV shows, read some Steampunk fiction, use your imagination, and even consider looking to designers such as Kato (Steampunk Couture) for inspiration. Go antiquing and check out thrift stores. Visit old hardware stores or stop at ghost towns on your travels. Get your gears turning and have fun creating your own Steampunk character.