By Austin Sirkin

You may be getting a handle on what Steampunk is, but I’m here to talk about the boundary between what is and is not Steampunk, specifically in terms of clothing, because that’s what people seem to care about the most, apart from music. It’s possible that you’ve heard that Steampunk is whatever you want it to be, that it means different things to different people, and that there’s no way to do it wrong. While it does, in fact, mean different things to different people, the former and latter statements are at best naïve and at worst simply wrong. If Steampunk is whatever you want it to be, why even bother with labels at all? For that matter, why even bother with words? We can just go back to sitting around campfires, grunting at each other about our bodily odors.


Obviously that’s ridiculous, but classification exists for a reason; it helps us make sense of the world around us, a task which is both ongoing and never-ending. If we give up on trying to make sense of both the world and ourselves, we may as well go back to the aforementioned campfire. I only say this to show how important it is to define things, and how seriously I take it. That said, some people feel that defining is necessarily about excluding, and I’m here to tell you that that isn’t the case. There’s a difference between saying, “That outfit isn’t Steampunk” and, “That outfit isn’t Steampunk, therefore you aren’t as good as me.” The former is acceptable, the latter is inexcusable. I’ve never been to a Steampunk event where someone said, “You’re not wearing a Steampunk outfit, get out,” to anyone, and if someone were to say that, I would have extremely harsh words with them. That’s because Steampunk is a generally welcoming subculture, and it doesn’t really matter whether you’re dressed as a goth, dieselpunk, anime character or whatever. Your clothing doesn’t determine your worth as a person, and we should all embrace that idea. I’ve known many amazing people who can’t put together an aesthetically-pleasing outfit to save their lives, most infamously the author Jay Lake, whose clothes have been known to induce epileptic seizures. His outfit coordination has no bearing on his ability to write great Steampunk books, so why should it matter?


With that out of the way, what isn’t Steampunk? There are several aspects of Steampunk, and as I said, I’m going to primarily concern myself with the fashion. My go-to example is a Burger King employee’s uniform. It’s just not Steampunk, no two ways about it. Not only does it fail to provide any of the visual cues that would make us think of Steampunk, but it also carries with it the modern aesthetic baggage of us all having eaten at Burger King before (or almost all of us), so we can recognize it for what it is almost immediately. That isn’t to say that someone couldn’t make a Steampunk Burger King outfit, because they could, and that’s exactly the heart of the issue. When you think about what you would have to do to a Burger King outfit to make it Steampunk, you’ll be heading in the right direction of defining exactly what is and what isn’t Steampunk.


Steampunk, the aesthetic, is simply anything that cues the viewer that it is Steampunk. Often, those cues are Victorian clothes, goggles, leather, brass, wood, etc., but they can be a vast array of things when combined in the proper manner. This is why some friends and I decided to do Nerfpunk at DragonCon last year, in order to prove the point that your outfits don’t have to be brown and black in order to be Steampunk. For those not familiar, we made our Steampunk outfits bright yellow and orange in order to match our unpainted Nerf weapons. But because our outfits didn’t have the traditional Steampunk colors (which are, themselves, visual cues) we had to make sure that we included as many other cues as we could: vests, bustles, goggles, boots, etc., so that when someone looked at us, they saw Steampunk, and it was a huge success.


It’s simple enough to make a non-Steampunk outfit: just avoid all of the aforementioned visual cues. Now, problematically, most people are concerned with not just making a Steampunk outfit, but making a GOOD Steampunk outfit. Of course, the difference between a poor or mediocre Steampunk outfit and a good Steampunk outfit is entirely subjective and really just requires the cultivation of a good eye for such things.


The boundary between Steampunk and Not-Steampunk isn’t black-and-white; no one stands at that boundary and makes irreversible decisions about what does and doesn’t qualify. The fact is that in that gray area surrounding the edges, there are things that will read as Steampunk to some people and not others, and that gray area can sometimes be huge because, as I said earlier, Steampunk can mean different things to different people, but not vastly different things. We all operate in a shared reality and as such, the word ‘Steampunk’ exists to describe a set of people, objects and other things that share similar traits. Since the word ‘Steampunk’ isn’t meaningless, it obviously is successful in defining those traits for most people, thus reinforcing the fact that there are, indeed, boundaries between what is and is not Steampunk, regardless of how gray they may be.