What is steampunk? History, Fashion, Art and Culture

You know steampunk. No, no, it's not a question, it's a statement, you know steampunk!

You must have come across it, even without knowing it. In a novel or in a movie theater, on the facade of a monument, on a street corner, in a museum, on a piece of clothing... You don't believe me?

Steampunk Hat
If I tell you uchrony, does it speak to you? The steampunk movement is everywhere and for those who would not know it yet, we are going to try to enlighten your lantern so that you recognize it the next time you cross it.

The beginning of the Steampunk? This story has a strange beginning!

Yes, there are not only dog punks, there are also steam punks, the literal translation of steampunk. Its followers are called steamers. The evocation of steam can be explained by the origins of the steampunk movement which draws its inspiration from the Victorian era.

Victoria reigned for sixty-three years between 1837 and 1901 when the British Empire was at its peak, as was the industrial revolution. And when you say industrial revolution, you say steam! For the first time in history, man mastered a source of mechanical energy and did not hesitate to invent the craziest machines... with varying degrees of success of course.

The steam engines seen by the steamers take on disproportionate proportions and mix the retro side of the Victorian era with today's technological advances. This leads us quite naturally to uchrony! Uchrony is the art of developing a fictional story from a historical starting point. Uchrony is an essential part of the definition of Steampunk.

Canadian poet and writer Douglas Fetherling describes the steampunk movement as "a genre of science fiction that revisits our past as if the future had come earlier.

And what do punks have to do with it?

Punk literally translates as thug, but it should be considered in the sense of the protest movement, because our steamers don't borrow anything from the thugs, except sometimes a little scoundrel look. The Steamer never loses his sense of humor and if he uses the term punk, it is always in the second degree.

However, he can be a contentious person by refusing the negligence of our modern times. The laxity must not prevail on the aesthetic and the steamer works hard his look not to fall into the banal and the sheepish behavior. It is the antithesis of fashion, which makes it by definition timeless.

The invention of the word steampunk is attributed to the Californian author K.W. Jeter. In 1987, with his friends Tim Powers and James Blaylock, they were writing science fiction novels drawing ideas from the excitement of the Industrial Revolution. It is whispered that K.W. Jeter added the word punk to make fun of cyberpunks, eternal pessimists and very first degree. The steampunk being on the contrary by nature optimistic and teasing, he is an adept of the second degree. So it's not sure that cyberpunks understood the joke!

Who is the chicken or the egg? No one knows! But who is Jules Verne or steampunk?
Jules Verne is an indissociable, even founding, character of the steampunk movement, so much so that one might wonder if he didn't invent it. To begin with, he is right in the right century and his talent as a visionary is immense. All of his heroes are involved in technological engineering to travel the planet in machines that are ahead of their time, whether on land, underwater, in the air and even beyond by going around the moon.

All his inventions are revolutionary and his ingenuity is impressive. If he appeals so much to Steamers, it's because he uses all their favorite objects: dials, counters, pumps, gears, coils...

steampunk universe
In fact, if you want a definition of the steampunk movement, think Jules Verne and there you are!

When evoking Jules Verne, the Nautilus is never far away and the giant squid that Captain Nemo will fight is none other than one of the most precious symbols of the steampunk movement: the octopus. A strange coincidence, isn't it?

How can we recognize the steampunk universe?

Sober, uncluttered, discreet... these are the adjectives we never think of when talking about the steampunk movement! In the steamer's environment, the gleaming and bolted abracadabre machines circulate by activating all they have of rods, levers and gears in a surge of steam. Automatons with perfectly oiled joints rub shoulders with passers-by magnificently dressed in the taste of the Victorian era, with the discrepancy of their accessories which are anything but accessories, googly glasses, top hats, pocket watches...

Steampunk Clothes and Outfit

One might be tempted to think that the steamer is a bit obsessive! Gears are everywhere, he rarely leaves his glasses, wears his watch exclusively in his pocket and, because he is always polite, only uncovers himself in front of women. Discover our collection on Steampunk Clothes and our blog about the steampunk fashion.

On the whole, the outfit is Victorian with characteristic touches here and there like an octopus brooch, a ring with gears or a pair of googles on the forehead.

A distinctive sign par excellence, the Steamers' glasses do not go unnoticed. Wearing a pair is enough to make you feel like an aviator/explorer aboard his biplane or to feel the freedom of Lawrence of Arabia riding his motorcycle.

His pocket watch gives the steamer an elegance, but it is also a way to satisfy his obsession with gears that he never tires of admiring. So you can imagine that the workings of a mechanical watch are of the utmost importance to him.

The hat has long since fallen into disuse in our latitudes, and the steamer is to be thanked for repairing this lapse in taste. A man without a hat, what indecency!

And where do we meet these elegant steamers?

In steampunk literature...
It is in literature that the movement was born and it still has its place there. Some describe it as a sub-genre of science fiction, but it is a genre in its own right, there are shelves that are not shared.

Moreover, reference books are nowadays exclusively dedicated to the steampunk movement. Among them, Le Guide steampunk by Etienne Barillier and Arthur Morgan with interviews, notably with Jeter, Powers, Blaylock, Greg Broadmore or Mathieu Gaborit; Tout le steampunk ! for a complete panorama by the same Etienne Barillier and Raphaël Colson; La Bible Steampunk by Jeff VanderMeer, a real illustrated bible.

To understand the basics of steampunk, you have to go back to its origins and every self-respecting steamer has read the complete works of Jules Verne. The other great writer who has a place of choice in the library of a steamer is H.G. Wells. His time machine represents the quintessence of the steampunk movement. What steamer doesn't dream of traveling back and forth through space-time, defying fads and trends?

The books of the inventors of steampunk are essential, even if they are not always translated from English. KW Jeter wrote Morlock Night - a sequel to The Time Machine - and The Infernal Machines, while Tim Powers wrote The Ways of Anubis and The Weight of His Gaze, and James Blaylock wrote Homunculus and Fugitive Time. All these novels must be read with the right amount of second degree to integrate the humorous dimension that accompanies a not quite philosophical background!

It is in the 90's that the movement developed more, initially among English-speaking writers and then among the French. To mention only the best known, here are a few examples: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, who portray the real pioneers of computer science, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. These two Britons actually lived in the Victorian era and, when the light bulb didn't exist yet, conceptualized The Difference Machine (also the title of the novel), the first calculator supposedly powered by steam ("supposedly" because neither of them succeeded in building the machine).

Thomas Day's The Squirrel's Instinct resurrects Sherlock Holmes and Watson crossing paths with Jack the Ripper, not to mention aliens and robot dinosaurs!

With The List of Seven, by Mark Frost, it is this time the author of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, who is in the spotlight.

It is necessary to make a small parenthesis concerning Sherlock Holmes with whom the steamers maintain a very particular relationship. They cherish him and make him the privileged partner of many protagonists, making him the hero of novels as well as comics, movies or video games. The latest cinematographic adventures are an excellent proof of this, as Robert Downey Junior's look attests.

  • Michael Moorcock's Time Nomad, an uchrony based on the premise that technology is stuck in the age of the steam engine.
  • "Les confessions d'un automate mangeur d'opium"(Confessions of an opium-eating automaton) by Mathieu Gaborit and Fabrice Colin, in which automatons and flying machines run on ether.
  • "La lune seule le sait" by Johan Héliot, a trilogy in which we meet Jules Verne sent on a mission to the moon and Napléon III at the mercy of aliens! 
  • Comics are of course not to be outdone, especially since the spirit lends itself particularly well to high-end graphics with both content and form. Steampunkers are often the heroines and go through wildly dangerous adventures full of extravagant pitfalls. Jacques Tardi is probably the most quoted author in France with Le démon des glaces and his series Adèle Blanc-Sec.
  • Joe Benitez regularly dazzles us with his unbridled inventiveness in the adventures of his Lady Mechanika where magic and superstition upset the technological innovations of Victorian England.
  • Lady Mechanika
  • More testosterone-focused males, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a must-see, and the film version is better known here than the original American comic book.
So of course, the list is not exhaustive and the steampunk departments of books and comics are growing every day for the greatest happiness of the fans of crazy stories, where imagination knows no limits.

Steampunk Movies

If we count the adaptations of novels and comics considered as steampunk, then the movement has been represented since the beginnings of cinema. Already in 1902, Méliès was inspired by Jules Verne for his Trip to the Moon.

A good part of the works of Jules Verne or HG Wells have been adapted many times to the cinema. Globally, we can notice that a good part of the films that we associate with the steampunk movement are not original screenplays but adaptations of books.

Steampunk Movie

The history of cinema is strewn with films that can be considered as steampunk works, from the most kitsch to the most modern. With the progress of special effects, creators have an infinite palette of means to put in image their craziest delusions.

However, filmmakers have not waited for the digital era to tinker and put in image extravagant and sometimes gigantic machines. Here are a few nuggets that have marked the history of cinema, putting aside the multiple adaptations of Verne and Wells: Blake Edwards' The Great Race Around the World, the story of a race between New York and Paris in 1910. Its director, the brilliant Blake Edwards, is one of the few Americans to sign his own scripts and you can trust him in the field of zany and slapstick imagination.

For These wonderful flying fools in their funny machines by Ken Anakin, after a novel by Jack Davies, you understand from the reading of the title where the steampunk is going to nest!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang directed by Ken Hughes. Screenplay by Roald Dahl after the novel by Ian Flemming or when the delirious author of My Uncle Oswald adapts the creator of James Bond, who abandons the Aston Martin for an old banger. This is a foreshadowing of crazy finds!

For a more contemporary period, we must count on the adaptation of the television series The Mysteries of the West by Barry Sonnenfeld. It takes up the crazy peregrinations of James T. West and Artemus Gordon, who are sometimes robbed of the spotlight by their magnificent steam train.

Van Hesling by Stephen Sommers. I'll give you the synopsis as it is, it speaks for itself: in 1888, after killing Mr. Hyde on the roof of the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral - an allusion to Quasimodo - the famous monster hunter, Professor Gabriel Van Helsing, is sent to Transylvania by the Vatican to counter Count Dracula, who is using Dr. Frankenstein's research, as well as a werewolf, to carry out sinister projects.

Christopher Nolan's prestige. Magic tricks against the backdrop of the electrical research of Nikola Tesla, another icon of the steampunk movement.

Hugo Cabret by Martin Scorsese with an automaton and the clock of the Montparnasse station where the young Hugo Cabret rubs shoulders with Georges Méliès... All the elements are there!

The latest is Peter Jackson with his Mortal Engine. A visual festival in an apocalyptic world in which steam has become the main source of energy. More steampunk than that you die!

On the French side, directors are not jostling each other, Caro and Jeunet are probably the most steampunk of our filmmakers with their timeless offbeat universe.

The authors of animated films have of course seized this universe with delight and if we have to quote only one, I choose Hayao Miyazaki to whom we owe The Walking Castle or The Castle in the Sky. His imagination overflows without limit and his films are always a marvel as much for his complex scenarios as for his magical graphic richness.

Moreover, Japanese mangas, paper or big screen, are crazy about steampunk. Their precise and chiseled lines lend themselves nicely to it and their authors can give free rein to their propensity to create honorable and courageous heroes.

Once again, these are only a few examples and it is likely that as digital tools become more and more powerful and easily accessible, creators will multiply their forays into the steampunk universe.

We must also include video games and role-playing games that are naturally influenced by this universe. For the classics, we count Arcanum: gears and spells, Bioshock, Machinarium, Final Fantasy...

Steampunk architecture

Steampunk architecture is unconditionally associated with Victorian architecture. There is nothing modest about the Victorian style, it plays with luxury and grandeur with a zest of the romantic style that remains, to stimulate the imagination, stir passions and evoke mystery.

The Victorian architecture does not deny the classical style by mixing some Greek and Roman columns. It is grandiose and complex and when steampunk gets involved, it brings it to life and we suspect behind each porch or nestled at the top of each tower, a parallel world abounds.

Many steampunk adventures are born in the setting of London because not only does the architecture lend itself to it, but its legendary fog is a perfect fit to cast a mysterious and somewhat disturbing veil.

Behind these high walls, the dark interiors conceal equally convoluted furniture and partitions that one suspects hide secret passages if one can find the mechanism hidden in a wall or behind a painting. The floors creak, the doors squeak, the characters on the paintings seem to follow you with their eyes... An angel passes by...

Steampunk Music

Music softens the mood... or not
Assuming that the steampunk movement mixes steam engines, pistons, gears of all kinds and freewheeling automatons, you can imagine that the orchestra is not composed of a harp and a harpsichord! No, it's more like a deliciously grating mix of techno, electronic rhythms and if there are still traditional instruments, they have been put through the mill of the industrial revolution.

Victor Sierra and Abney Park are pretty well known in the scene. Victor Sierra is based in Paris but you can see them live all over the world. Check out their videos, round glasses on the nose and long coat, their look is unmistakable, they are indeed steamers.

Abney Park is an American band from Seattle that mixes rock, industrial music, world music, electronic music... They exploit their abundant vein in a steampunk universe and it moves.

But the pure Steamers are not the only ones to be inspired by Steampunk. The very dynamic Shaka Ponk is an excellent rock band that uses Steampunk in a very humorous and aesthetic way, without making it a nostalgic object.

Will the future of steampunk sing?
There's no doubt about it, steampunk is destined to take root in the 21st century and grow. We can see this by the media, which are just beginning to talk about it, but don't dare to get too close to it yet. They are only followers, not initiators, but if they ever find the Ryan Gosling of steampunk or the Scarlett Johansson of steampunkers, they will swear by it.

IBM has developed a technique to calculate what it calls the Social Sentiment Index to measure the opinions and tastes of the general public, the Madam Irma of trends. It analyzes online exchanges, observes social networks with a magnifying glass, computes figures and data and gives its implacable verdict.

IBM asserts that the steampunk movement has a very bright future ahead of it, a study conducted with its Social Sentiment Index allowed it to determine that 63% of discussions around steampunk were made by individuals under 30 years old, and that 33% of these discussions took place on video game sites. In 2010, the volume of steampunk-related chat increased by 296%, driven by the October 2010 New York ComicCon dedicated to the trend. Finally, Twitter is home to six times as many discussions on the subject as Facebook.

Even if the curve seems to have stabilized since 2015, it has seen a spectacular rise since 2004, multiplying the number of Steamers in the US and elsewhere in an unprecedented way.

So convinced?

Well, now you have a little idea of what the steampunk movement is but admit it, you already knew it!