Steampunk is a genre defined by elaborate, mostly steam-powered, machinery. In contrast to modern devices, the equipment is often crude, employing brute force rather than digital finesse. But modern industrial design stresses simple lines, inexpensive materials (usually plastic) of necessity monochromatic or made in only a few very common colors. It hasn’t been that long ago that when purchasing a new laptop you could get any color you wanted as long as it was black.
On the other hand steampunk-themed devices are elaborate, finely crafted and highly decorated. They utilize polished brass or hardwoods and are often intricately carved or engraved with fine detail entirely unrelated to functionality. In most cases the décor is completely irrelevant to the function, often gloriously so.
While modern warships have sleek lines, their exteriors are smooth, camouflage gray and featureless unless broken by a hatch or weapon installation. Everything has something to do with function. There is nothing superfluous or decorative.
But with steampunk style, camouflage is a foreign concept. Steampunk warships stand out – they don’t blend in. Victorian warships were colorfully painted, often in bright colors such as cream and white with identifying stripes on their funnels. The name of the ship could often be found on a brass or even gold-plated plaque across the stern and new ships were fitted with elaborate gilded figureheads as late as the First World War.
In 1914 when the Great War broke out, the Royal Navy shipped ashore tons of decoration, brass railings, plaques, and furniture from its warships as they converted to wartime status. Today’s naval warships clear for action in a few moments. (But then, the Victorians weren’t expecting jet-propelled cruise missiles to swoop into their anchorage with guidance systems primed to lock onto their brightly decorated vessels, either. Great War Zeppelins puttered around at the speed of an automobile and their primary targeting device was the Mark I eyeball.)
Victorian armies wore snappy uniforms of bright colors, unlike the sand and mud colored variations today. Soldiers wore their brightly colored medals into combat with a sense of style not seen since the horrors of the Great War put an end to that entire generation.
I think modern society finds steampunk style so appealing for the same reason that style appealed to Victorians. The Victorian Age was the beginning of modern consumerism. Industrial mass production brought products once limited to the upper classes to the rest of society. Eventually even the poor got a taste of the Good Life, abet a simplified, mass-market version of it. Competition brought prices down, sometimes through technological efficacy, but often through shoddy workmanship. If you remember from school, this was the era with muckrakers, child labor, and the Pure Food and Drug Act. Cheap goods are not quality goods because quality doesn’t come cheap. But the new steam technology flooded the market with cheap, shoddy goods.
The Victorian middle class could afford better than that. And back then, as now, lower price meant no frills. Victorians craved products that looked good, and that meant brass and steel and hardwood. Plastic not being yet available, the cheap knockoffs back then were made of tin and pine. But the descendants of those products (today probably made in China) are all plastic. Even expensive items like computers and other electronics now come with plain plastic covers sans décor to keep costs down. When you go to a store, products are all similar looking, very slick, plastic, unadorned so as to keep prices low and appeal to as many as possible. They’re colored tan or khaki or black or gray because pink and violet and aqua and teal have a more limited following. So everything looks like it came out of the same factory.
And just as the Victorians, we crave individuality. We want something special. We want a red one. Or maybe teal. Or baby blue with little daisies. And we’re sick of plastic. Everything’s plastic.
Victorian technology made tin items cheap and plentiful. Back then everything was wooden or tin, unless you were wealthy and could afford silver. And for those who could afford better, items with personality, with style, with color and decoration made of better materials appealed.
In today’s economy, we’re the same way. Everything is made by machine. So much so that some items like computer printers aren’t worth the skilled labor to repair because it’s just cheaper to buy a new one. Everybody’s laptop or cell phone looks the same, even if they came from different companies. What impresses us is highly decorated, individually made items.
This is steampunk style: ornate. Frills you don’t need but they look cool. We like things made of materials that are hard to mass-produce because everything’s made of plastic. Give us colors and patterns and prints and brass. Or rubber and fur and bone, because we never see those. We crave form over function because functionality makes everything look the same. My phone, desktop tower, keyboard, monitor, calculator, speakers, printer, TV, microwave, stove, refrigerator and electric mixer are all just different shades of the same plain, smooth crappy tan plastic. I’ve even got a set of smooth metal file cabinets THE SAME COLOR. You buy trousers at the store and your choices are blue jeans or… khakis!!!
It's no wonder tattoos are epidemic. Kids today are sick to death of plain.
Just as the French army used to march into battle dressed in red trousers (until they got shot to pieces by hordes of sneaky Germans hiding in plain sight in their fecal-colored gray uniforms) the Victorians also craved style over functionality. Even those sneaky Germans didn’t switch out those spiked helmets of theirs until after the French got rid of the red pants. But function eventually conquered form and steampunk style died in the mud of the bloody trenches of the First World War.
Just compare the airplanes or tanks of that world war with the other. In the First World War airplanes might have one or two or even three sets of wings and tanks came in all different shapes and sizes with multiple cannons and machineguns, with crew ranging from one or two to dozens in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. By World War Two they all pretty much look similar regardless of which country they came from. But steampunk didn’t stay dead. The more things stay the same, the more we long for change.
Steampunk means more expensive, bulky and troublesome, but it has panache. And that’s what steampunk style is all about – looking cool. It’s not about being just another mass produced microchip. We were all handmade and we want to look it.
If you’d like to read some handmade books with steampunk style try