Brass neck: Felix and the steampunks

I’ve just come home from my second trip to Steampunk at the Asylum, an annual steampunk convention held in the lovely city of Lincoln.  It’s a marvellous occasion stuffed with eccentrics in the grandest British tradition: dressing up like characters from a Victorian science fiction novel, obsessing about tea and politeness, and parading round town confusing the locals with glee.

It’s also a subculture which is increasingly fascinating me as a phenomenon in its own right. I discovered the Asylum online in time to attend last year’s event, and instantly loved it simply for the costuming angle – I’m an inveterate thesp and sartorial eccentric, and have loved dressing up since I was a child. The more I discover about the culture that’s evolving out of it, though, the more I think it’s doing something genuinely unique.

The term “steampunk” was coined as an ironic take on ‘cyberpunk’ and originated as a name for an emerging literary genre in the 80s and early 90s. Over time the genre acquired all the usual trappings of a popular flight of imagination – tabletop roleplaying games, local groups of enthusiasts, costumers and prop-makers – and it now seems to be snowballing into a subculture proper.

Photo by Martin Strain.

What fascinates me is that it’s remarkably distinct from most other subcultures I’ve experienced. As a teenager I was into rock and metal and as a student in the late 1990s I was a goth; by association I’ve gained insights into cultures like the original version of punk and the many-coloured BDSM world. What strikes me most about steampunk in comparison to all these is how unlike them it is.  Steampunk isn’t merely about a shared love of a genre of music – in fact, steampunk music is almost defined by its eclecticism, varying from wildly talented comic punk to Sabbath-esque classic metal to lush, folk-influenced Victorian macabre and satirical chap-hop. It’s not about hedonism in the way goth and BDSM are. My memories of the Whitby goth weekend are mostly characterised by endless hangovers, leather restraints as fashion accessories, stiletto heels getting stuck between century-old cobblestones, and once receiving a death threat from a girl in a lycra catsuit for touching her boyfriend’s hairstyle. Almost all the goths I knew were in their 20s or 30s; the older generations sported poignantly ironic “Sad Old Goth” T-shirts, available at the annual market. The attendees at this year’s Asylum ranged in age from eight to eighty and were of all shapes, sizes and races (I knew exactly one non-white goth in my entire time in the culture); there were several wheelchair and cane users present as well, and unless I miss my guess a couple of visible trans people too. I find that degree of inclusiveness wonderfully refreshing – so many other subcultures are dominated by affluent white twentysomethings and preoccupied with the ever ephemeral “cool”.

There’s the breathtaking creativity of the scene. The number of beautiful props and costumes on display was astounding, and there’s a strong vein of beautifying the functional in the aesthetic; one gent who attended Saturday’s attempt to break the world record for the largest gathering of steampunks was entertaining the queue with a beautifully steampunked portable musical machine, mounted in a leather case as gentle classical tones poured out of an array of glistening chrome funnels.

And then there’s the way the attending steampunks behave. The organisers of Asylum have a catchphrase that goes “Be splendid!” – and people do. Locals ask if you’d mind posing for a photo rather than just snapping you (usually after asking for an explanation of what on earth they’ve just walked into the middle of, bless their hearts); press photographers are strongly encouraged to come in Victorian costume and ejected if they misbehave. Seeing this, it occurs to me to wonder what the ‘punk’ in steampunk really means.

Back in the 1970s, punk was a conscious rejection of the repressive behavioural norms of the day – a bitter blow to the already crumbling hold of old-fashioned standards on society. Forty years later we live in the age of the ASBO and the reality-show celebrity, and people are wandering around in public in their pyjamas; perhaps there was a baby in the bathwater of propriety after all, and perhaps steampunks, underneath the gentle self-parody and Utopian fantasism, are also conscious of that in some way. In our quest for freedom we’ve created a world where fame is arbitrary rather than based on skill and achievement, where standards of public dress and behaviour are at an all-time low, everything’s a cheap commodity and rudeness is almost cool in its own right – so what’s punk now, in a world where everyone acts like Sid Vicious? In such an inverted reality, does it become ‘punk’ to subvert the dominant cultural norm by being more politemore well-dressed, more creative?

Photo by Martin Strain

Personally, I look at modern Pagans, sustainable living nuts and the many small-scale attempts to find an alternative economic model to capitalism that go on in the subcultural holes and corners of Britain, and I think that looking for the good in our own ancient history could well be a form of rebellion in a very temporal world. My flatmate and I have both acknowledged the faint unease that goes along with wearing fantastified Victorian costume – the consciousness that Britain’s age of empire was a brutal time for anyone not lucky enough to be one of Her Majesty’s own – but it was also a time of hope and innovation. Victorians thought in a way that at times completely ignored the confines of our own soggy island and the facts of the physical world as they seemed to be laid out at the time; many of their engineering creations endure to this day and have inspired generations. That spirit of determination and positive change is something I seek for throughout my life, and I certainly hope to honour the idea in whatever steampunk creations I come up with over time.

The Asylum is now in its fourth year and growing every time. Human nature loves to complain and there’s a certain degree of grousing among the “old guard” about the dilution and cheapening of the ethos (although steampunks even complain in style), but I for one am keen to learn, and look forward to the opportunity to get to know some of that old guard.

Photography: myself and Martin Strain.

36 thoughts on “Brass neck: Felix and the steampunks

  1. Fantastic post – It was my first time at the Asylum and I love the inclusiveness off it. It is so refreshing to be part of something which is not dominated by age.

  2. Tinker says:

    Great write up Felix and you seem to have grasped what many of us are about. Yes the punk element is a rejection of anti social behaviour, selfishness, casual contempt and dowdiness. Creating an amazing gadget or outfit is about art, expression and imagination. Steampunk opens your eyes to possibilities rather than limitations.
    Inclusivity is very very important to us and we are evolving ways to make the sub culture more inclusive all the time.
    As for the Victorian aspect – we are of course aware of the history but this is a contemporary movement and negativity is part of outsiders’ stereotypes and prejudices. Not part of steampunk as enjoyed by the vast majority. As people learn more about the scene they understand it is about taking the BEST of the past into a bright new future.

    • Felix Pearce says:

      Goodness, the man himself, I’m honoured :)

      On the subject of post-imperial guilt – I think I just spend too much time around people who are rabidly politically correct. There are some folk who just want a reason to exercise their shoulder chips and punish anyone who doesn’t perform the appropriate self-flagellations. It’s not my natural habitat but I’ve been thrown into that world recently, and getting more involved in steampunk is just one of the many things I’m doing to try to haul myself out of it again and get back to the positive side of life!

      • Tinker says:

        Unfortunately there are a number of people who like to have a pop at steampunk based purely on their own prejudices. It is particularly frustrating when these “commentators” have never actually attended a major steampunk event and are thus commenting from a position of ignorance. Steampunk is far from an idyllic utopia but on the whole strives to be inclusive and friendly. There may be the odd person whose experience differs but statistically compared to other groupings, scenes or sub cultures I would wager steampunk is one of the most inclusive.
        As for “the man himself” b#gger off, I’m just someone who tries to make steampunk events happen. There are a goodly manywho do too and not all working for the VSS. (Good, fair blog though and thanks for the kind words…)

      • Felix Pearce says:

        Credit where credit’s due, Major. I’ve done my fair share of attempting to organise and cat-herd in various contexts and the commitment, passion and ability to bite one’s tongue the job demands is an achievement in itself. We’re all British enough to be self-effacing but it can be taken a little too far, I feel – you do a great deal every day to give steampunk a good name!

      • Tinker says:

        Thank you very much. It can be a little uncomfortable however to receive all of the complements particularly when it is a team effort.
        People who are not familiar with the VSS ethos have been known to criticise us and state we are trying to control steampunk and set ourselves up as power brokers. Nothing could be further from the truth. We may be critical if people try to organise events which potentially damage other already established features or fail to deliver for the community but on the whole we try very hard indeed to help others get things running. (After all we want things to go to where we can have a good time and not work.)
        My personal resistance to praise is because I want the community to benefit as a whole.
        Sincere apologies.

  3. As a “Yankee in her Majesty Victoria’s Steampunk Court” I was MORE than impressed with Asylum and with your most genuine, impartial yet personal accounting of same. I frequent dozens of steampunk events/festivals/conventions in the US of A as a performer, a vendor and as an “attendee” and was mildly apprehensive about Asylum… I was not quite sure of what to expect. Acknowledging that there are a number of notable expressive differences twixt US/UK events, the “be splendid” core remains deliciously the same… and your definition of the “punk” is steampunk reaches the pinnacle of expressiveness: “…so what’s punk now…? …it become(s) ‘punk’ to subvert the dominant cultural norm by being more polite, more well-dressed, more creative. ” You have, good sir, hit the proverbial nail on its head. In a word…you are splendid!

  4. [...] good heavens. I’ve just received an email from WordPress saying my steampunk entry has been picked for Freshly Pressed, and now I’m embarrassed by the howling wasteland [...]

  5. pikeknight says:

    Looks to me like a fun convention in a beautiful city. Thanks for posting these wonderful pictures so that those of us living in more culturally challenged regions of the world have something to gawk at besides concrete, dirt, and cacti.

  6. hyunhochang says:

    My first steampunk con was Steamcon II in Seattle a few years back. I had been into the genre for almost a decade, but hadn’t found an interesting community to geek out with until I moved back to the Emerald City and started poking around. Most other cons that I’m familiar with have a pretty low cosplay turnout–maybe 10% of people. Steamcon, and every other steampunk event I’ve gone to since, blew me away. I think I saw two jean-clad people the entire time. We had nearly 2,000 dapper men and women proudly brandishing their bodices and top hats in the middle of Seattle.

    I’m glad that you found Asylum so positive, and I hope that more people continue to discover the subculture. For myself, at least, Steampunk revolves around a desire to create and preserve ingenuity and beauty of both the past and present, coupled with a thirst of living life like it’s an adventure and wanting to create a better society than the one we have now. I would say the “punk” comes from the sentiment that we can and will create a different community, based upon our own values and interests. Being polite, well dressed, well spoken–these all factor into it, but I think they are only auxiliaries to a greater desire to merge the knowledge and imagination we possess now with the optimism and and aesthetics of the past.

  7. betunada says:

    guess ‘we’ (in the colonies) think our lives are varied and sometimes approaches “full” — but this (your post) is the latest i’ve encountered from the mother land telling yet more esoteric rich wonderful tales! thanx!

  8. LifeofMat says:

    I’ve always thought steampunk is fascinating. If you haven’t heard of them, I think you’d enjoy a steampunk band called Abney Park.

    • Felix Pearce says:

      I did a bit of research on steampunk music after hearing the bands at my first Asylum, and I have to say the standout for me musically is Pocketwatch, who sadly don’t have any online tracks I can link you to yet (although they should some time soon, apparently). They have a marvellous blend of lush and macabre – steampunk in a nutshell if you ask me. Abney Park are good but a little too inclined to self-parody for me, I’m exceedingly picky about lyrics and they don’t quite hit my personal mark. Though my single favourite steampunk track has to be The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing’s Brunel – moshing to demonstrate your love of Victorian engineering is just too steampunk for words :)

  9. merifully says:

    Steampunk in Seattle has very much the same kind of vibe, if not a little to the geekish end. We are close to Microsoft after all. Great post! Thank you!

  10. I’m just going to put it out there as a suggestion for December to Lincoln Council……..Steam Punk + Lincoln Christmas Fair Mash-Up – I’d almost consider hopping back over the pond to attend that!!

    • Felix Pearce says:

      Oh my lord yes… apparently something like that happened in Matlock Bath, which is a crazy little Victorian sea-front transplanted to the middle of Derbyshire. The locals were if possible even more confused than the Lincoln crowd!

  11. A. S. Ellis says:

    This is entirely new and fascinating to me, and you seem to do a marvelous job of presenting it well-roundedly. I found your thought process regarding what is “punk” today in light of its own history most intriguing. Congrats on FP!

  12. JD says:

    Soooo cooollll!!!! :D

  13. I had never heard of Steampunk until about a year ago when I was asked to write a review of a friend’s book which is called a Steampunk novel. Whether it is or not, I’m still not sure, but here’s my review if you’re interested! (And thanks so much for stopping by my blog!) http://afinedayforanepiphany.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/the-peculiars-a-book-review/

  14. WOW the pics are SO COOL. i really love steampunk. even though sometimes i find it can be very gimmicky, i think it’s so intricate and “fantastic” when done right – these pics are amazing. thanks for sharing!

  15. mcolmo says:

    I think it’s a great movement and I see it as an art form that includes costumes, writing, films, and more. there is even a Steampunk cruise going on, I think they will sail next March, 2013, wish I could go though.

  16. L. Palmer says:

    Steampunk is a fascinating avenue of the imagination. I’ll have to look for a con in my area.

  17. Celeste Smith says:

    Reblogged this on Halloween Culture.

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