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What The Hell Is Steampunk?

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STEAMPUNK
Erica Gannett/Time Out Chicago

Steampunk is the most famous new trend that you've never heard of. To those in the know it's been around for years. For others, it's "Steam what?"

It's certainly not new. The first steampunk (SP) convention took place in 2006: and the word was actually added to The Oxford English Dictionary last year. But it's yet to hit the media or the mainstream. To me it feels like emo did in the mid-Noughties, just before it broke big: when you could see queues round the block for underground Emo gigs but no-one in the media was talking about it.

So what the hell is steampunk? The term itself comes from science fiction novels. It was allegedly coined by author Kevin Jeter as a way of distinguishing him and fellow tetro-tech sci-fi writers from future-loving "cyberpunks" like William Gibson. But it's grown into a whole visual style, and even a philosophy. It's all about mixing old and new: fusing the usability of modern technology with the design aesthetic and philosophy of the Victorian age. Or as US young fiction author Caitlin Kittredge put it: "It's sort of Victorian-industrial, but with more whimsy and fewer orphans..."

In its glibbest sense, it can be seen as a way of giving your personal technology a goth make-over. Imagine a top of the range computer pimped out to look like an old typewriter, or an iPhone dock that lets you answer your phone using an old brass and wood receiver. But at its deepest, it's a whole way of looking and living: and a colourful protest against the inexorable advance of technology itself. And it's a trend that's sneaking its way into loads of different sectors: from fashion to film, interior design to video games.

The look pre-dated the term. High tech Victoriana can be found in Disney's '50s and '60s adaptations of Jules Verne's Around The World In 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the contraptions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Caractacus Potts, and even in our very own Bagpuss. More recently, maverick creatives like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Alan Moore took up the style and made it their own, in films like Baron Munchausen and Alice In Wonderland, and comics like The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But it's only now becoming a heavily adopted style - or lifestyle.

Its biggest impact so far has been in product design. It has reignited a love of "old fashioned" materials: brass and copper, wood, glass, mechanical workings, ornate engraving. It has also co-opted the re/upcycling aesthetic in its love of the old, the repaired, the reworked and the imperfect. And it has done so across a range of sectors. The retro-pimped products mentioned above are amongst hundreds of SP products that can now be bought online, from coffee tables to watches (in fact it just might help save the declining watch industry). And SP products are becoming a common sight on craft marketplace Etsy.

The look is also starting to influence street fashion. Steampunk clothing typically adds the 'best' looks of the Victorian era - explorers, soldiers, countesses, lords and prostitutes - to today's most relevant street styles: goth, burlesque, the fetishism of the Suicide Girls, the lace and leather of pirates, and the frills and capes of vampires. A few SP elements have already been seen in Top Shop, from spiked clothes to jewellery. Some say it's the inspiration behind the current vogue for men wearing rolled up trousers with loud - or no - socks. The trend also influenced this season's high fashion trends for fetish, glamour and dressing up.

Meanwhile, TV series like the BBC's latest Sherlock Holmes adaptation and US thriller Warehouse 13 owe a debt to steampunk style in their mixing of the 19th and 21st Centuries, as do the later Harry Potter films. There are SP video games, like the highly acclaimed Bioshock, featuring an undersea world of diving bells and crinolined orphan girls. As SP has grown, so too has the service industry around it. So you can now have SP weddings, with mechanical cakes. The trend has even given rise to its own vocabulary in which, for instance, people don't arrive, they "dock" (as in from an airship). There are a growing number of underground SP club nights too, from the pioneering White Mischief to Club Antichrist in London's (very SP-appropriate) Whitechapel districts. There are even SP bands, from Abney Park in the US to The Fearless Vampire Killers in the UK. Although not sharing a musical sound yet, such bands feature the style in their artwork, clothes, videos and lyrics. Even established bands like Panic At The Disco and rock godfathers Rush are including SP elements in their videos and tours.

The SP trend is one of a bunch of new trends linked to the Victorian age. There's a growing youth interest in Victorian spiritualism and the occult. Hasbro has just launched a glow-in-the-dark ouija board. Interiors shops are selling specimen cases, bell jars and taxidermy. There are increasing references to magic (perhaps spurred on by Steve Jobs' use of the term?) Books set in the Victorian era, such as The Crimson Petal And The White, are proving popular too. Tate Liverpool's Alice In Wonderland exhibition later this year is part of a trend for Victorian books and illustrations. And two big new films are set back then: The Raven, a thriller about horror writer Edgar Allen Poe, and this year's Christmas blockbuster Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game Of Shadows, with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law.

It might seem counter-intuitive that the Victorian era should appeal to young people who've grown up in a world of high tech gadgets. But actually, being raised in an era of new freedoms, where boundaries are constantly blurring, and by parents determined not to impose "stuffy rules" or prejudices on their offspring, can be a disorientating experience. Many Millennials are therefore drawn to eras and trends with rules and boundaries: hence the appeal of the more defined, black and white attitudes of the Victorian age. The age also seems particularly exciting and mysterious, with its glamorous clothes and uniforms, intrepid explorers, dastardly villains and dusty labs: especially for a younger generation whose interests are increasingly retro. There is even a present day environmentalist element to it all: a harking back to a time before smog and global warming, when the worst emission was the steam from steam trains.

Steampunk's retro-tech style isn't completely limited to Victoriana though. Styles can be taken from anywhere in the giant dressing-up box of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the broadness of which is part of the trend's appeal. One of the most popular looks is the Edwardian era, where clothes are very Downton Abbey, and spies, airships and flying goggles are all the rage. Still others look forward not back - or perhaps, dare I say, back to the future (Back To The Future's Doc Brown is another SP touchstone) - because the trend also takes inspiration from those dystopian sci-fi films that show post-apocalyptic societies having to make do with broken or retro-fitted technology: from Blade Runner and The Matrix to Tank Girl and Mad Max.

Whatever the era they prefer, steampunks share common interests: they all relish retro-looking technology, making things for themselves, and the romanticism and stability of the long ago. And they're going to be the next big youth and style trend - with any luck. So do you feel lucky, steampunks?

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