A Whole New World . . . But Not Really

Poster for the Mark Twain Exhibition

Here’s the thing about my new eBay hobby–it’s hard to sell things on there without looking to see what’s for sale there, too. I’ll confess to having bought one or two items on there since I started acquiring money in my PayPal account. I’m pretty good, though, usually, at finding a good deal or, more likely, just letting them all pass by. More than actually purchasing, though, I’ve found myself browsing. A lot.

Which is how I first came across the term steampunk. I found a vendor who sold “elven”-style jewelry, and while looking through her wares, found a few with the steampunk descriptor. Some of the things I thought were quite horrible (mostly things involving spiders and eyeballs), but other things were rather intriguing and kind of struck my fancy.

Like most things, I had a very early introduction to the steampunk concept but without knowing it (kind of like being born in the 70’s and only lately becoming interested in the era, or living in Latin America during the 70’s and later discovering just how hip and era-appropriate that was). During my sophomore year of college, I had a suite-mate in my dorm who was quintessentially steampunk, but that was the early 90’s and the term had scarcely been coined yet. I certainly never heard it. Still, Vintage-Bonnie, who had transferred in from somewhere else that fall, wore long black Victorian outfits, put her hair up in a Victorian styles (often incorporating black hairnets) and, having been injured pretty badly in a car accident a year or so before, walked with a cane. She hung out with the art-crowd, some of whom were more or less goth, but, apart from one guy whom she dated for a while, no one else really quite had quite the same style, flair, vibe going on. Not that there was anything specifically religious or irreligious about it, but she stood out somewhat on our small Christian college campus. Roommate-Jenne and I were, I think, simultaneously fascinated and bemused by everything about Vintage-Bonnie.

For the most part, Vintage-Bonnie kind of filled a niche of her own in my experience and observations, because while in college she was one of a kind, after college I never met anyone quite like her either. There were echos of it, of course. I mean, I was an English literature major. I had read Frankenstein, for goodness’ sake. (It probably doesn’t really do to confess that I haven’t, on the other hand, ever read anything by H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.) I had studied Victorian literature and the Victorian era. I’ve seen Edward Scissorhands (which, I suppose isn’t strictly steampunk, but I would argue it shares some elements).

Still. I only ever encountered the term for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Then last weekend I took The Boyfriend to the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, because he’s a big fan of the man (and his aphorisms). In the museum, there was an entire exhibit by steampunk artists, more or less loosely inspired by Mark Twain himself. (Apparently Twain–whom the museum staff insist on calling “Sam Clemens,” arguing that “Mark Twain” was his most famous character–is a steampunk honoree, on account of having written an early time travel book in the form of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.)

“What,” I asked the Boyfriend, “is steampunk?”

The thing is, I felt like I already sort of knew. Goggles and gears and airships and aether, clunky and grandiose and a little bit creepy. Actually, some of the things in that exhibit were a lot creepy. Eyeballs and brains and things. The Boyfriend’s and my favourite thing was this amazing black Victorian-style dress with long gloves and lace and a brass watch and other such things, although the story surrounding it was about a dead girl or something. The dress is made of jersey material which is part of why it’s so fabulous–it drapes marvelously–and I emailed the young woman who made it just for fun and asked how much she’d sell it for, because by this time I’ve practically forgotten about the associations with death. Let’s just say it’s . . . more than I’ve paid for anything on eBay.

I haven’t forgotten that I want to be a hippie. I’d still like to toodle across the country (or maybe back down to Latin America) in my Vanagon (and check this out!). There are still things about hippie-dom that I’m not a fan of, either–the promiscuity, the drugs, the paganism. There are things about steampunk that I’m not a fan of as well–the darker side is definitely not me. I feel no need to have a fake brain in a jar in my house, reciting Poe’s Telltale Heart ad infinitum. Someday I may write a blogpost about some of these subcultures which are, in many ways, so intriguing–nay even alluring–to me and their emphasis on death, and try to imagine the reasons why. (I already have some imaginings.)

In any case, I belong to the Church (well, I belong to Jesus, but the subculture of which I am a part is known as the Church), which is frankly more than quirky enough. Signing up for one of these other subcultures sounds like just too much work. There does seem to be some cross-over or at least haziness of definition between some of them, cf. eBay entries for items described as Vintage Goth Grunge Boho Hippie Steampunk, or Hippie Boho Tribal Gothic Steampunk Gypsy. Gotta cover all the bases, I guess. Anyway. I guess what I’m saying is, I won’t be slicing my finger with a penknife and signing any documents in blood or anything like that.

But I am a sucker for clothes. And watch innards aren’t bad.

6 thoughts on “A Whole New World . . . But Not Really

  1. It’s funny how hip Steam Punk is all of the sudden. Savers had these little index cards with prefab halloween costumes and even had a Steam Punk character. I’m currently reading an interesting, if bizzare steam punk novel called “Phoenix Rising” which appears to be the first in a series called “A Ministry of Peculiar Occurences”. I was first introduced to the term in the time when everybody thought cyberpunk would be the next big thing. Cyberpunk is nearly forgotten, but it gave birth to a half-dozen sub-sub-genre; the only two I really remember are elfpunk and steampunk. Steampunk, it seems, had to hibernate for a decade and a half before it emerged into the mainstream, though in reading the book I’ve realized that movies like “The Leauge of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “Hellboy II” kind-of flirt with some of the conceits of steam punk. Barnes and Noble recently had a whole display of Steam punk novels, and there are a couple anthologies of Steam punk stories…
    uhm, anyway, enough pomposity from me. Let me know if you want me to send the book your way when I’m through.

    • Evidently (because I’ve been googling ever since Friday’s excursion to Hartford), League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is legit steampunk–it’s cited by everybody. I’ve also seen people class Dr. Who in there; I don’t think he’s exclusively or straight steampunk, but the tardis (his spaceship) is, and some episodes are more steampunk than others.

      Yes–I’d be curious to read that book. Thanks!

  2. eBay is funny like that, there’s tons of clothing labelled as things they’re clearly not or trying to be associated with other than boho/hippy, ‘goth’ is probably the main one, then things like ‘rockabilly’ and ‘lolita’ etc but those crossovers you found are crazy lol. There’s definitely a lot of crossover in areas like boho and goth since they encompass a lot of sub-genres and have become quite generic and goth is the accepted counter culture so a lot of regular day wear is labeled as goth nowadays just because it’s dark or lacy for example.

    As for steampunk, I came across it recently as well and I simply consider it ‘inventor’ (engineer/scientist/alchemist) fashion from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, it’s like the more functional wear of those times rather than the restrictive, tight, fitted ensembles it’s more pockets and buckles/belts with a preference for Brown shades. The clothing is attractive and smart but seems to be a new excuse for charging more than if simply calling an item ‘goth’ or ‘Victorian’.

  3. “Inventor fashion.” I like it. Although I’d say across the board there’s at least a niche within it that’s pretty close to Goth.

    Speaking of which, doesn’t it seem like a contradiction in terms for something to be “the accepted counter culture”? It totally is–I just take a little bit of pointlessly (because it has nothing to do with me) smug satisfaction in the idea.

    • Yep it’s an oxymoron that is true of society, every society has its norms and customs which will always spark and contain some rebellion. That usually manifests itself in a way that becomes a trend with many, even though not the majority, it’s a significant minority which is over time accepted as different but tolerable or ok to dismiss/not notice too much because overall it’s not threatening. Goth culture is one of those.

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