From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Jeremiads: On The Popularity of Steampunk

Does the New York Times article on Steampunk mean the genre/fashion craze has made the high water mark and will begin to recede from here? What is the shelf-life of an aesthetic movement, and for that matter, what is the sociological force behind this particular movement?

It’s a Stylistic Rebellion

Particularly as an aesthetic movement, steampunk is popular primarily with an under 30 set. This is a generation that has rarely owned hand-crafted objects. Our consumer goods have been mass manufactured, extruded plastic blocks. Aesthetic appeal was rarely a consideration, and even if it was, each product was exactly identical to the other. You could try and stand out through your particular fashion sense and consumer good choices, but more often than not, you ended up looking like a thousand others.

Steampunk is a middle finger to the iPod, but it’s also a blown kiss. This movement says, “yes” to technology and science, but also “does it have to look so antiseptic?” The design aesthetic of Apple appeals to many, as evidenced by their stock prices, but it’s somewhat repulsive to others. And for a generation who has rarely owned hand-crafted objects, the attraction of taking something and modifying it, crafting it, until it is yours and unique–is very strong. The Victorian period was not the last time things were made by hand, but it’s an aesthetic distantly enough removed from the modern that it feels different, more so than the 40s, 50s, 60s, etc. Steampunk is brown and brass, in contrast to the whites and blacks of modern design. It’s metal and wood, not plastic. It’s lace, not lycra.

It is also a callback to a period when objects looked exactly as if they were capable of what they could do. A square block of plastic does not convey its ability to communicate over vast distances. There’s nothing inherently communicative about it’s shape. A steampunk ray gun, on the other hand, cannot be confused for much of anything else. Technology then was cruder, but you could tell what something did by looking at it. You could see the inner workings, and those inner workings were much easier to understand. I think most people feel they could learn to put watch pieces together. Not very many believe they could learn to manufacture circuit boards.

Has it peaked?

Unless you’re invested semi-professionally in the popularity of the genre as I am, then this question doesn’t probably matter to you. Having spent most of my spring preparing a series of images and storylines that draw heavily from this aesthetic, I am a little concerned that the popularity of steampunk is about to peak, if it hasn’t already. If the activity on the steamfashion group on Livejournal is any indication, popularity has already begun to wane. I recently rejoined this group, and I have found that posts to it are increasingly infrequent. Now it may just be that everyone is too busy making things, but I suspect some have already moved on to other fixations. After all, you could make a strong case that the fashion-aspect of steampunk evolved out of Goth culture, and so it’s not unreasonable to believe that it will continue to evolve and fracture off into other sub-cultures. We already have terms like clockpunk and dieselpunk, even if these terms don’t have the same traction in the zeitgeist that steampunk has right now.

The nice thing about a genre and an aesthetic that is based heavily on a historical period is, it probably never really goes out of fashion. There will always be some small subset of fans interested in the time period. Let’s face it: steampunk is freaking cool, and it’s going to take something pretty drastic to change that. Even if that does change, it’s not like being uncool has ever stopped fans from liking something.

Reprinted by permission of the author, from jeremiahtolbert.com

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