It's always difficult to pin point the beginning of a style or fashion trend. Steampunk is no different, even if it is clearly coupled to the maker movement. It has some roots in the short-lived cyberpunk style of the late 80s and early 90s (grunge won), which combined plastic and metallic accessories with brightly colored block coloring. Cyberpunks incorporated glow sticks, backlight, pvc, and telephone cords to their everyday look. The movie Hackers is a great example. There is also a goth element: steampunk witnesses goths discovering color, texture, and new avenues of characterization. The Victorian homage remains (along with the stripy stockings). And then there are also some Burner style elements to steampunk as well. So what we have ended up with is the idea of color and found-object aspects a la cyberpunk combined with Victoriana lace and frills a la goth, melded to wild homemade fabrics a la Burners. Jodhpurs, meets automated arms, clock jewelry, and yarn hair.
Strangely enough, the fashion side of steampunk seems oddly disconnected from the literary movement, which started in the early 80s with K. W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock. I find this odd because I came to steampunk literature through fashion. Both are now evolving. The steampunk movement (whatever it may be) now includes people who are into dressing it a little bit (a cog necklace, a newsboy cap), and people who are hardcore aestheticists (full on bustle dresses). There are makers with massive fire-breathing snails, makers with alcohol-dispensing brass backpacks, and makers who are green-believers who want to use steampunk to save the planet. The literary side of things is changing as well: there's steampunk romance, and steampunk adventure, and steampunk paranormals, steampunk noir, and steampunk dystopias. Having watched the cyberpunk movement fade away, I'm delighted to see steampunk become ever more inclusive, in as many ways as possible. After all, one of the worst things about the Victorian era was it's elitism, snobbery, bigotry, and classicism. I'd like to hope steampunk can leave those bits far behind.
Gail Carriger is a self-titled fashionista, an archaeologist, and a steampunk author who, when not excavating, lives on a vineyard in Northern California with one cat, three vehicles, and fifty pairs of shoes. Her books are Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless. If you'd like to read more on her thoughts concerning steampunk fashion and it's cultural evolution she has a piece on the subject coming out this October in Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer.
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Soulless was thrust upon the unsuspecting public October 1, 2009. Changeless on March 30, 2010, and Blameless is due out in September of 2010.