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Let's Talk about Steampunk

What you need to know to get into character for a comic con or sci-fi convention
Heather Dawson wears a necklace by Shooting Star Jewelry that enhances the esthetic of her Victorian lady persona.
photo by Alyson Grauer

To launch week three of a Month of Fantasy and Adventure, Facet is pleased to welcome guest blogger Alyson Grauer! Aly's list of accomplishments is long, as she is a performer, writer, and lifelong dreamer who has more ideas than time. We've asked her to fill us in a bit on the world of steampunk, especially as it relates to cosplay. Steampunk is so popular in jewelry, but how does it fit in with a full costume that you would wear to a comic con or sci-fi convention?


Steampunk is a key phrase thrown around a lot in various artistic communities these days, but what is it really? Some attribute the term to author K.W. Jeter, who reportedly based the idea on the already present science fiction concept of cyberpunk. If you ask anyone in the steampunk community what the term actually means, you’ll find that everyone has a slightly different definition, and that’s exactly what makes it so much fun.
Fortune teller-in-a-box Madame Fusilli is decked out in hand-strung beads and thrifted finds that she has reorganized and repurposed to suit her costume.
photo by Alyson Grauer

Steampunk is generally considered a kind of alternate historical fiction - a past-that-never-was - primarily focused on the Victorian era, when steam engines on trains and ships were the height of technology. It supposes that the switch to electricity either never happened or simply didn’t replace steam power, and that machinery is composed of clockwork and gears. In the book world, some consider it a subcategory of science fiction, and some place it on its own shelf. It is both a literary genre and an artistic aesthetic, as you may already know, and its influences can be seen in fiction, film, TV, music, costuming, high fashion, accessories, and of course, jewelry.

Costumers, historical reenactors, and fans of all kinds have found that steampunk allows them to be as decadent, as imaginative, and as unique as they desire. A steampunk costume can run the spectrum from a museum-replica Victorian gown, to an airship pilot in a leather jacket and grease-tinted goggles, to anything in between, as outlandish or as minimal as the wearer chooses to be. Steampunk is a fantastical feast for the senses, and includes extraordinary working mechanisms, as well as artistically placed gears and wires, and can be based both in history and in the imagination, in equal measure. 

Closeup of the fantastic hat of the Librarian Marshal at Salt City Steam Con 2014.
photo by Alyson Grauer

The only limit is your own imagination, and DIY is highly celebrated. I once saw a woman at a steampunk convention portraying what she called a “librarian marshal.” She wore a Victorian ladies’ walking suit (a two-piece day dress) with a utility belt and a wide brimmed Western style hat bedecked in all manner of "library" supplies: stamps, index cards, brass fixings, gears, and even feathers and brooches. She had, instead of a fob watch, an extendable chain for a librarian’s rubber stamp for checking out/checking in books. At another event, I met a young woman whose character was the daughter of a great explorer, and she wore a pith helmet and cream colored travel dress with a bustle - and the cage of the bustle was artistically exposed to reveal several brightly colored tropical birds. Although the birds were fake, there was a sound device hidden on her person that emitted birdsong and twittering so that despite the reality, one was invited to engage in the imaginative truth: that her bustle was full of rare exotic birds. Although I don’t recommend such a bustle for sitting long hours in a parlor or at tea, it was quite the sight to see and an outstanding fashion statement. 

Jewelry maker Kathryn Jones sits proudly by her table of handmade steampunk wares - primarily chain maille necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Check out her jewelry at her Etsy shop, Katy J's Jewels!

Jewelry is a significant part of the steampunk vision as it is a way to adorn the body and to tell a story - how decadent is your character? How wealthy? How adventurous? How functional? Is your character nobility or inventor, soldier or explorer? Say it all with accessories. Jewelry can be beautiful, but remember this is steampunk - you get extra bonus "points" if it’s also somehow functional. Earrings that look like lightbulbs… that actually light up! A bracelet or cuff that has a working compass in it! A hair piece or fascinator that contains a small phonograph that plays actual music!

Think these examples are too extreme? Never. Steampunk is unlimited, and your imagination will lead you to new heights!

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