The ladies of Steampunk dress in layers of ornate finery—bustles bobbing at their backs, goggles nestled in their hair, and corsets cinched tight at their waists—at least until they decide to ditch the crinoline and grab a pair of coal-stained trousers. Playing dress-up is fun, but what really attracts women to the Steampunk subculture, and what keeps them participating in it?
Steampunk has gained massive presence on the Internet, in the media, and at conventions. But for those somehow unfamiliar, Steampunk’s whimsical aesthetic draws from a revisionist version of Victorian England. It posits an alternate reality where all modern technology exists, but operates using steam, clockwork, and mechanical—rather than electronic—means. Steampunk fashion pays homage to both technology and Victoriana with a twist. Steampunk culture also encourages a mannered, Victorian style of behaviour.
But unlike the Victorian period, in a Steampunk universe women can be airship pirates, mechanics, adventurers, and industry magnates. They can wear trousers and coveralls if they choose, or they can cover themselves in heavy bustles and tight corsets. “Feminine” never means “weak,” and women don’t need to dress like men to be equal to them.
Master Costumer Priscilla Dixon, a Steampunk enthusiast since 2007, sees the hazards of a style based in an era when women were considered “ornamental,” but says, “The cool thing about Steampunk is that you can admire that aesthetic and kind of pick and choose what you like, say, ‘I like this dress, I like this look, but I still want to go out and kick butt.’”
J.M. Frey, speculative fiction author, pop culture scholar, and member of the Toronto Steampunk Society says, “The good things about the era – the craftsmanship, the respect for creation, the civility and manners and gentility – can exist, and yet the issues and problematics–colonialism, racism, sexism, etc.–can be ADDRESSED.”
It was the elaborate costumes and creative community that attracted Dixon to the Steampunk aesthetic. She loved the idea of taking old styles and changing them to suit her own imagination.
She says, “I was always the girl who was obsessed with princess dresses, and I never outgrew that obsession. Steampunk has a really big ‘maker’ aspect. There’s a lot of emphasis on making your own clothing, and sharing and contributing ideas. The sense of community that results from that really drew me to it.”
The push towards a “maker” culture encourages men and women equally to create their own clothes, accessories, and even weaponry. The basis of a typical Steampunk costume tends to be era-appropriate: dapper waistcoats for men, and elaborate dresses for women. But why live in a stuffy and oppressive past if you don’t have to?
In Steampunk fiction, the female characters leap to the middle of the fight. Jessamine Lovelace, from Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices trilogy, and Alexia Tarabotti, from Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate series, wade into battle in all their finery to hack up monsters with their razor-edged parasols. Clare’s Charlotte Branwell forgoes the corset altogether and pulls on leather armour to fight demons. In Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, Deryn Sharp dresses as a boy to fight for Britain in a reimagined WWI.
Frey says, “Steampunk is a place where women (and people of colour, and LGBTQ folks, etc.) can say, ‘No, we’re NOT going to let all the old white guys have all the fun. We are strong, we have voices, we have the right to participate, and we will, dammit!’”
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