An intriguing blend of Victorian romance and creative gadgetry, Steampunk brings a brave new world of fashion to life with old world manners and a sci-fi perspective.

Photography by Chuck St. John

Photographer Chuck St. John has become increasingly intrigued with the Steampunk Movement, particularly as it relates to fashion, one of his photographic specialties. With an infectious sense of the role Steampunk can play in far forward fashion, Chuck put together the look of this photo essay with the help of Karen von Oppen.

“I’ve always held a love for romance, fantasy, gadgetry, Victorian charm and fine-mannered elegance. I didn’t realize, however, until about 4 years ago that I wasn’t the only one with such appreciation and that there was a name for it; the Steampunk subculture has allowed me to address many of my passions under one trend and revel in the lost art of fine tailoring and impeccable craftsmanship. And it’s not just Steampunk fashion that excites me, I find that as a culture, it draws a very pleasant, intelligent and playful crowd of like-minded creatives and odd–thinkers,” Karen says.

“One of the things I love most about it is the feeling of instant acceptance, camaraderie and open–arm welcome no matter where you are. And because it’s a subculture of creative invention, refinement and elegance, one need never feel judged, inadequate, or shy about how they wish to participle. It offers a unique opportunity to express yourself with a flourish that may not generally be accepted in other subcultures or genres. There are steampunk events popping up all over. One need only hit up Facebook or Google to find the next event,” she says.


Why I am a Die-Hard Steampunk

The Steampunk aesthetic assembles 19th century costumes, coupled with home-made inventions and mechanical marvels, to create an ensemble that could only have existed in the imagination of a true Victorian.

By Paige Gardner Smith

As a hard-core geek and lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, I’d always been aware of the regular conventions, called “Cons”, for sci-fi geeks, comic book collectors, video gamers and costuming fans. There are hundreds of cons around the country that celebrate the TV, film, and literature from the realms of sci-fi and fantasy. But it took many years before I decided to fly my geek flag with pride and actually attend one of these big gatherings. I knew that I would encounter people dressed up as Star Wars stormtroopers and various incarnations of Batman, that I would be sharing the elevators with Quidditch team members, zombies, vampires, and more than one guy from Halo. These events attract people who like to costume as their favorite characters from genre television, films, books and comics. And if you’re versed in the sci-fi and fantasy worlds, you recognize the costume and usually appreciate the effort.

What I didn’t expect to see at my first Sci-fi convention was gentlemen strolling along in waistcoats and top hats, rubbing elbows with elegantly accoutered women in full Victorian dress. And certainly not to find them variously accessorized with spinning leather umbrellas, plasma-powered Gatling guns, assorted mechanized armor and other bizarre gadgetry. I saw brass goggles and gleaming (sometimes glowing) mechanical weapons paired with lush fabrics and fashion from the 19th century on conventioneers throughout the event. I was surrounded by fabulous examples of living history that seemed to have taken a wrong turn into the workshop of a crazed inventor. These costumes were distinctly individual and resembled nothing I’d seen in mainstream science fiction. So what was I seeing? What compelled these people to combine the Victorian aesthetic with fits and starts of futuristic inspiration to create such compelling costumes? The answer: Steampunk.

Steampunk, as a theme, celebrates the elegance and manners of the Victorian era while sowing into it imaginative scientific or fantasy-flavored advancements. While Jules Verne, H.G.Wells and even Mark Twain’s work over a century ago encompassed elements of this “Victorian futurism,” the Steampunk label for it only emerged in the early 1980s. Combining “steam” the popular power source of the late 19th century, with ‘punk’ (excised from ‘cyberpunk’, a better known dystopian sci-fi genre) the term “Steampunk” was coined, took hold and has since flourished as an artistic and literary style. The last decade has seen Steampunk influence increasing in film, television, and fashion as well.

But it is among a subculture of DIY eccentrics that interest in Steampunk has exploded. Attracted by the idea of Victorian futurism which offered an open field for artistic elegance to blend with scientific modification—a growing army of crafters and costumers began to bring the idea of antique anachronism to life. Some “modded” their computers and keyboards with rich wooden casings, antique typewriter keys and ornate brass embellishments, creating consoles that would have looked right at home on the Nautilus (one hundred years back and twenty-thousand leagues down). Cell phones, flash drives, motorcycles—any modern device became a target for a new “old” makeover.

The majority of fans of the Steampunk aesthetic assemble era–inspired costumes, coupled with home–made inventions and mechanical marvels, creating ensembles that could only have existed in the imagination of a true Victorian. Still others take existing characters from modern culture and thrust them back in time, re-imagining them through a Steampunk lens. Victorian versions of Batman, Captain Marvel and the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz are among the icons that I have seen recreated as they might have appeared in the late nineteenth century. Serious Steampunk costumers often craft a biography or persona for their costume and gadgetry to complete the backstory of their character from a Victorian world of “What if?”

And that’s how I was pulled into the subculture. I thought it was the most beautiful and imaginative costume art I had ever seen—a perfect blend of antique tastes and science fiction talent. How could a geek girl like me, who was crazy for robots and harbored a grand passion for the romance and style of the Victorian age, walk away from Steampunk once it’s been seen on such a grand scale? I had found my artistic calling. I could create and wear fancy bustles and crisp crinolines—and complement the ensemble with a hand-crafted brass mask of an automaton (that’s Victorian-speak for “robot”). Or perhaps my Steampunk persona could be a former nurse, just returned from war service on the Crimean front where she lost her hand in a dreadful accident. And couldn’t I build a mechanical hand of steel and leather to replace her missing one? In a Steampunk world, indeed, I could. And so, I did.

Over the years, I’ve become a diehard Steampunk. I’ve created a series of Steampunk automaton costumes that have won several awards, and my work was recently shown at “The Steampunk Exhibition” in Atlanta. I’m invited to conventions around the country to speak on the subject and introduce new fans to the genre. I’ve met many others who have felt the same attraction to this unique combination of Victorian culture and ‘clank.’ We’re an eccentric people, with one foot planted in a world gone by and the other foot feeling around under the workbench for the toolbox to change that old world in new and creative ways. It’s a little bit lace gloves and a little bit leather corset. It’s a touch of top hats, a ton of Tesla coils and altogether…Steampunk.

Paige Gardner Smith is a syndicated columnist and marketing manager in Birmingham. She wears normal clothes in her everyday life, but keeps a pair of brass goggles in her car just in case she wants to feel a little Steampunk on the drive home. You can see more of her work at

4 Responses to “Steampunk”

  1. M Lindbeck says:

    “In a Steampunk world, indeed, I could. And so, I did”…thats it…the essence..if it was it could have been changed…into a more friendly? era or atleast a bit more Steamy…Nice article. Thanx

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