Published on May 21, 2012 | by Lorelai Watt

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Technology meets nostalgia

Violinist in victorian attire

It is always the year 1880 in the weird and wonderfully world of ‘steampunk’. [Ross Turner Photography]

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of steampunk; where it is always 1880, people are called ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’, the crinoline is the high point of fashion and the phasers are set to stun.

The term ‘steampunk’ is thought to have originated from the science fiction author K. W. Jeter while he was trying to find a general definition for the work of fellow author, Tim Powers.

Owner of steampunk clothing website Gentleman’s Emporium, Chris Allen, says: “Steampunk is a wonderful combination of edgy science fiction and the elegance of Victorian living.”

“[Steampunk] gives the look and feel of a Victorian clothing style mixed with beyond-its-time technology.” – Jon Balcome

He also says that the popularity of steampunk lies in the fact that, “it gives you an excuse to get outside of the daily routine, dress better than you normally do and behave more politely than you normally do, while still having a great time with friends.”

Stars of steampunk

The world of steampunk is enormous; containing everything one could possibly think of, even a rapping professor. Paul Alborough, aka ‘Professor Elemental’ is a steampunk musician who raps about everything from life being ‘splendid’ to the pleasures of a properly brewed cup of tea.

His video for the song Cup of Brown Joy has gathered more than a million hits on YouTube and he is a regular at steampunk fairs all over the world.

Alborough ‘became’ the professor by accident: “He was just a one off performance for a Victorian variety show, but quickly took on a life of his own,” he says.

Another leading figure in the steampunk music is the Steam Powered Giraffe, a “musical pantomime troupe featuring robot imitation with song” from America who originally came to prominence through busking at Balboa Park in California.

Jon Sprague and twins Christopher and David Bennett employ vintage sounding harmonies, and say that “using elements of futurism, art deco and steampunk really helped us shape the story behind the group.” As to why steampunk is so popular to them and the wider public, it “is a stylised past that never was.”

Short films

A popular aspect of the steampunk culture is that of short films, such as Bird: A Decent Animal directed by Jon Balcome. The film has no dialogue, and instead uses music to tell the tale of a Frankenstein-esque attempt to raise a lost love from the dead.

Balcome said: “I got a lot of my inspiration from the French film City of Lost Children.”

He was also inspired by animated film 9, directed by Shane Acker and staring Elijah Wood. For the concept of the film, Balcome admits that: “I have always been fascinated with [steampunk’s] intertwining of technology and alternate history. It gives the look and feel of a Victorian clothing style mixed with beyond-its-time technology”.

“I’ve always liked using steampunk in my work because anachronistic technology is a way to show what’s wrong and right with a society.” – Molly Crabapple

He added that steampunk fitted the colour pallette and storylines of his films perfectly. 

Art and aesthetics are a huge part of steampunk culture. Artist Molly Crabapple has been nominated for this year’s Groucho Award – an annual accolade given to exciting arts mavericks.

Molly said: “I’ve always liked using steampunk in my work because anachronistic technology is a way to show what’s wrong and right with a society.”

Crabapple also hits on another reason for the appeal of the past: “As technology becomes increasingly complex and impenetrable, there starts to be a nostalgia for gears, steam, brass, machines whose workings you can see.”

Indeed, steampunk jewellery is especially admired, and an easy way of delving into the world of steampunk, if going all out in cloaks and jet packs puts you off. Websites such as Etsy sell an array of steampunk-inspired ideas, from a deconstructed watch necklace to a delicate bracelet cuff made out of repurposed gears.

Seeing the future through the past

In today’s society, with the threat of economic turmoil and an uncertain political climate, it is perhaps not unusual that more people are turning to steampunk as a way of looking to the future with the safety of things already past.

It is an optimistic way of looking ahead; concentrating on the world view of the 1880s that anything is possible.

To be honest, who has never dreamed of being a dashing pirate dressed in a velvet coat with your very own airship, or a lady of leisure who can wear a floor-length dress every day of the week while battling zombies with a ray gun? Simply put, steampunk is a lot of fun, so while the economy may not be great, perhaps everyone needs a little bit of steampunk in their lives.

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