The rules of steampunk

steampunk_girls_5There are no rules to steampunk, and it’s arguably mentioned daily somewhere on a steampunk forum or Facebook page. So why do some people feel compelled to tell everyone what steampunk is and isn’t? Search “rules of steampunk” and it seems that everyone wants to be the ones to define what steampunk is or isn’t. Buzzfeed probably have the most looked at article and it’s authored by G.D. Falksen. It covers the six rules of steampunk that he says should be adhered to. Reading through the rules, they’re a veritable minefield of conundrums and paradox. You see, each section is titled as “Rule 1” etc, then the following explanation doesn’t really try to inflict any tight rules. Indeed, the final rule is to be yourself and have fun. It’s entirely possible that the Buzzfeed staff edited the article in order to give it some structure to readers who aren’t steampunks. However, the article does say that it’s not endorsed or vetted by Buzzfeed staff. has an article written by a steampunk who is also a freelance writer. I won’t cover the writing style as I don’t think it’s relevant, but let’s take a look at what he’s trying to say. He goes to the lengths of at least stating that the rules he’s laying down are “unofficial”. That’s a pretty good idea, because to say that the first rule is to create a character is quite damaging. Not everyone wants a character and if they read this article, they may feel compelled to create one in order to fit in. Nothing could be further from the truth and if you’re new to the culture and think you have to have a character, you most certainly do not. Many of the articles I researched cover what clothes you should wear. G.D. Falksen says if you think it’s too Victorian you’re doing it right, which again is a conundrum, while Joseph C. Wylie says if you don’t know what to wear, then always go Victorian era. That’s a heavy statement to make given the broad field that steampunk encapsulates.You don’t have to do any of the things these people say. The very ideals behind steampunk is that you can be yourself without judgement. Just like goggles aren’t a mandatory accessory for your hat, you can wear what you want. The beauty of steampunk is that no-one should judge you. So why do people still judge others on social media, then? Amy Wilder got vilified for daring to wear a bikini during a tongue in cheek appearance at a comicon.

I think a lot of it boils down to the “like harvesting” Facebook pages that simply put a picture up and ask if it’s steampunk. To ask that starts a discussion that turns into an argument where everyone gives their opinion on what is and isn’t steampunk. But it’s not for anyone to say. I think the best – and most neutral – article I’ve read on clothing in steampunk is this one: Steampunk Apparel clothing rules. In the article, the author does say that ideally certain clothing should be kept out of the way, but should you find yourself in a position that you can’t help but wear some trainers, then wear them. This tunnel vision that everyone has on what they believe should be perceived as steampunk doesn’t just stop at clothes. The same objective views are given to literature, cinema, photography, art, music and tinkering. For example, have a think about what musicians you would think make steampunk music. As a steampunk should I listen to them? As I write this I’m listening to ten year old Funky House. Does it, by the fact that a steampunk listens to it, make it steampunk music? If we say no and then give parameters that steampunk music should stick to (sing about topics relevant to a steampunk world, use real instruments) then we’re creating rules.

I’ve been a recognised steampunk since 2013 and in that time I’ve met a lot of people, started the Journal and become admin of two steampunk Facebook pages. The more exposed I become to people and their conduct online, the more I see the rot in people. I’ve seen someone proclaim himself a World Champion without taking part in any international event, I’ve seen people actively take themselves out of a steampunk group because they’ve asked if something they have is steampunk and people have jumped on them and torn them to pieces. I’ve seen people argue tooth and nail about what they think constitutes as a steampunk look. Quite frankly anyone that does that needs to get a grip. I used to until I realised what it was doing to me and steampunk.

Of course there are contradictions. The word steampunk is made up of two key words to describe the type of person in the culture. “Steam” refers to the time period where the inspiration is drawn from and “punk” means to go against the grain; to not conform. We cover this last bit by dressing in clothes that aren’t typical of today. But surely even punks have to follow some rules? You see, it’s a little contradictory to say there are no rules while sitting there in a top hat and goggles. Surely, somewhere, you’ve made a conscious decision to go along with the conformity of the Victorian aesthetic? That’s what brings us all together. Everyone has to follow some rules. After all, an Anarchist will despise the rules of society, but will still go outside of the pub to smoke. We follow the rules that make us feel better and safe and that’s OK. What we shouldn’t do is try to tell other people what we think is steampunk and what isn’t. We have no bearing over anyone on what is right and wrong.

I once set a poll to see whether steampunk should have some rules given that it was a rising trend and there was a danger of people jumping on the band wagon and making high priced items in the name of steampunk. Luckily it hasn’t happened. Given what is changing within the genre, maybe it’s time to lay down some rough guidelines to help people along. Maybe that will end the ridiculous threads of what is and isn’t steampunk, help people new to steampunk get more involved in the culture and also control the evolution of the genre. With no rules it could go anywhere, which in itself is exciting, but could become unrecognisable as younger talent enters the arena. This is an interesting time for steampunk. It’s never been more popular and I look forward to seeing how it goes. What would your guidelines for steampunk be if you were to add any? Let me know in the comments section below.

9 thoughts on “The rules of steampunk

  1. I like your idea of “Rough Guidelines”–Rough guidelines in the form of “here’s some things that are generally considered steampunk, but this is by no means an exhaustive list” would be helpful, and would probably inspire newcomers to create their own riff on it. (which is the whole point of steampunk, isn’t it?) It drives me nuts that some people feel they have any sort of authority to dictate what is and isn’t steampunk. Unless they can produce their “Committee to Preserve Orthodox Steampunk” membership card dutifully countersigned by Jules Verne and Nikola Tesla, their opinion is worth no more or less than anyone else’s.

  2. This is just a personal observation, but I think one of the drawbacks is some folks seeming terror of inflicting rules is causing a refusal to admit there are even any guidelines. This is a problem when someone new to the genre is making a genuine enquiry, and the first thing they hear is there are no rules do whatever you want. In truth that is neither correct nor helpful.

    Not everything under the sun is inherently Steampunk. If that was true there would be no yardstick by which folks judge the Steampunkiness of anything, and we all know there certainly is. A pair of neon yellow Nike trainers (for example) are unlikely to cut it as Steampunk footwear in most peoples minds (as said, if they’re all you’ve got then wear them). But could they be modified to do so is another question. One assumes if an equally dayglo Nerf Gun can somehow be made to pass muster, then there’s probably no reason why not. An aesthetic example admittedly, but the same goes for literature, art music etc. If something proclaims itself Steampunk, people will be looking for certain traits, features, elements and so on by which to judge that, so what are they?

    That’s one example of how a reasonable knowledge of what qualifies as Steampunk aesthetics (and how to achieve them) comes into play. Whether it was managed at all and how well, will of course always be a matter of subjective personal opinion, and there can certainly be no rules on that. But how is the inarguable fact that there are influences and guidelines (or perhaps more importantly how are they supposed to evolve and develop) ever going to be communicated if some Steampunks keep insisting that they don’t exist at all?

    1. That’s a very good point. One that the article is trying to make and that others have already made on other media platforms. It’s very difficult to say there are no rules when everyone runs to a general theme and the name itself infers a certain structure to the culture. That’s why I think some guidelines would be a good idea, but who should say what they are? I could easily run up a rough draft, but who am I to say what guidelines should or shouldn’t be included?
      Therein lies the problem. 🙂

  3. Guidelines.
    It’s a hobby/subculture it’s supposed to he fun.
    If you regard it as Steampunk then it is

    What is Steampunk to me? An opportunity to make things, be inspired, make friends, get a bit alternative, exercise a sometimes weird imagination, dress up with no rules, be admired for some chutzpah, admire.others for the same, encourage others, offer making advice, get making advice, wear a big coat, get photographed, showoff a bit, no authenticity police and have fun. I got into it after going to several WGW to enjoy the ambience and be amazed at the creativity and the other half and I thought we can do this. Since then I have bought cheap and expensive, made and remade and commissioned wacky stuff. All in the pursuit of a bit of a laugh and good honest showing off.

  4. Does it even matter what is or isn’t Steampunk when you have a group of people wearing what they feel great in, and going to an event to HAVE FUN? Surely fun should be the key word here.

    All this bickering about what is or isn’t takes me right back to ‘gother than thou’ back in the day when I wore black rather than shades of brown/grey/pirate/madcatwoman lol. Tedious. And not remotely constructive.

    I am 40 and an old goth. Bit late now. I do Steampunk because it’s fun but it doesn’t make me any less goth or less SP because I don’t wear it 100% of the time or affect mannerisms of speech nonstop or whatnot. I don’t go into werk in corsetry and with teacups at my desk. Neither do I crimp and do the white face anymore. Admittedly my clothes are still mostly black and my socks are stripy but I dont go ‘all out’. There is no right or wrong in dress or music however. How you do things is entirely up to you… so long as it is FUN and inclusive.

    But better to discuss what IS than what ISN’T. Keep it constructive lol!

    (none of the above makes grammatical sense. I have not had enough tea yet)

    Basically what I am trying to say is BE SPLENDID. We are all in it together if we’re in it at all 😉 xxx

  5. It is true that many people just want to have fun and dress up, get out of the routine and fall into a fashion. But it is also true that the Steampunk has a strong intention to review social and Anti-consumerism .
    So we will use the Steampunk just as visual fashion that many want to enjoy or will try to instill values ​​and make people realize that the society in which we live is perfectible and perfect it is in our hands?
    I think it is important to mention that one of the rules (which as any rule can be broken ) is to use the fiction towards an improvement in our society and culture do not you think so? But as others have already said , I’m not one to put the rules.

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