Steampunk is a popular aesthetic these days, though it’s still too early to comment on its long-term staying power as a movement. Either way, the subculture still caters to many different groups of fans in many different countries. This past weekend the Emporium Vernesque opened its doors for a Dutch gathering of steampunks. A few months ago, the UK’s largest and longest-running steampunk festival, The Asylum, saw hundreds of steampunk enthusiasts flood the city of Lincoln. San Diego’s annual Gaslight Gathering draws similar crowds.
Most of these people are white.
I say this not to comment on the skin color of steampunk lovers per se, but rather to highlight a different problem in the subculture: the visual heritage of colonialism. Namely, in how far can we appropriate the Victorian aesthetic without paying unwanted homage to the period’s legacy? I’m far from the only person to address this difficult question. People both inside and outside the steampunk community have shared their thoughts on the (in)separability of steampunk aesthetics and ethics, and have come down on both sides. Some dismiss steampunk outright as culturally elitist and politically impotent. This couple is a good example of how neo-Victorian sentiment can get out of hand. Other commenters on the aesthetics of steampunk see no problem donning a pith helmet, smoking jacket, and monocle, arguing that dressing like a coloniser is not the same as supporting colonialism. Still others see the aesthetic as a direct critique of colonialism, appropriating it to subvert and reshape its meanings. This issue of cultural appropriation is also something we’ll hopefully be discussing at next year’s British Association of Victorian Studies conference.
For me, the most interesting response to this issue is in the increasing amount of postcolonial cosplay taking place in and around the steampunk community. In a variety of different ways, these interpretations of the steampunk aesthetic imagine the Victorian period from a perspective other than the white, Western norm. I’m hoping to write more on this topic in the near future, but here are a few great articles and websites dedicated to the subject of multicultural or postcolonial steampunk, which should tide you over in the meantime.
Below are just a few examples to get us started.
One of the first images I came across when I Googled ‘multicultural steampunk’ was this:
Steamfunk is narrowly defined as “a person, style of dress or subgenre of fiction that seeks to bring together elements of blaxploitation films and merge it with that of Steampunk fiction”. A broader definition is A philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction.
Visually it works as a combo of genteel nineteenth-century styles and the powerful fashions of the 70s funk movement. I have yet to find many concrete examples of this type of cosplay in the steampunk world, restricted as I am to Google Image searches, but am fascinated by the potential of the aesthetic. If you know anyone who has worked in this area, I would love to hear about it!
More common in the steampunk cosplay world is the visualisation of alternate empires. Britain wasn’t the only nation with a large international presence in the nineteenth century. Austin Sirkin has a great post to this effect called ‘adding a multicultural touch to steampunk without being an insentsitive clod’. He also includes some of the better-known examples of this kind of cosplay:
[W]e have the well-known Steampunk blogger/scholar, Ay-leen the Peacemaker:
[…]Next we have another familiar face in multicultural costuming, Jeni Hellum:
This Turkish Steampunk outfit doesn’t incorporate many “Western” elements, though whether you consider Turkey Eastern or Western likely depends largely on what era you live in. Still, this is an excellent example of portraying a culture that you don’t belong to.
Do check out his article for more examples.
In addition to referencing some of the other international powers of the nineteenth century, Sirkin’s post also looks at those nations and peoples who were on the losing side of history. He provides the following three images of Native American cyberpunk, though as he points out, despite their attractiveness as examples of postcolonial cosplay, these images have problematic, commercial origins:
While in this case the images are rendered problematic by their status as ads for the company ColourChiefs, they do provide an interesting launchpad talking talk about Native Tech. Monique Poirier wrote the following about her own foray into Native American steampunk back in 2010, describing what she enjoys about the subculture’s opportunities for neo-historical revision:
Part of the fun of Steampunk is the aspect of alternate history; of deliberate anachronism and the application of alternate timelines and technological developments and the ration of ‘Steam’ to ‘Punk’. It means having the chance to create alternate histories in which Native Americans maintain sociological primacy and control over the North and South American landmass, if we so choose–my own Steampunk persona is an Air Marshall in a timeline in which Tecumseh’s Rebellion was successful and resulted in the creation of a Native American confederacy of nations that holds most of North America, as well as parts of Mexico and several island nations in the Pacific (most notably the Kingdom of Hawaii). She carries a ray gun–and as far as I’m concerned, this is still entirely Native Tech.
Though I really like this idea of intentionally anachronistic history and revisionist mythmaking, I can imagine that the line between respectful and disrespectful uses of this aesthetic is a fine one. This is a problem Monique Poirier does mention frequently in her writing, and is something blogger Miss Kageshi also discovered following negative responses to her own post on Native American steampunk.
And the rest
What do you think? Can steampunk escape its colonial heritage? What should postcolonial steampunk look like?
I’ve included a slideshow of more postcolonial steampunk cosplay below. Please note that, like the images above, these images each have their own context and nuances, which should be researched before re-posting them elsewhere. Where possible, all images link to their source, but if you spot someone you know who isn’t credited, please contact me: