Do steampunk accessories need a function?

Accessories can be goggles
These goggles are my own used in a shoot. Image copyright Matt Grayson for The Hellfire Club

In a made up universe that relies heavily on science fiction, fantasy and imagination, do we really need to ensure that all our accessories have a purpose? Should our gears that we stick to our hats be functional? Even if that function is make-believe?

Accessories in steampunk

I can honestly say that I’m a proud owner of a lovely pair of goggles made by Thomas Willeford. They’re brass and leather and divine to look at. One of the lenses has a small pipe sticking out with more pipes surrounding it. I bought them from him at Whitby Steampunk Weekend in February 2017. When buying them, he said “These are Bird Watching goggles. But for people who don’t like birds, so they have a miniature Gatling gun.” I thought it amusing and I’ve since used that to explain the design to anyone who admires them.

Why do I feel compelled to do that, though?

Why does the styling on my goggles need a purpose?

I read an article in Belfry magazine from March 2016. It was with a steampunk and he explained his view on the subculture. It didn’t go with how I view it, but I don’t mind that one bit. Steampunk is personal and should be respected. My article isn’t discussing the interviewee’s opinions on steampunk, however. In the interview, he makes a few references to what he considers to be not steampunk. Examples such as “a 70’s brown suit from an op shop and glue brass cogs on a $2 top hat” and “sneakers, jeans, a 70’s vest, white business shirt, aviator sunglasses, and a $2 top hat with cog-shaped embellishments”. The latter I couldn’t decide whether he was being sincere or using hyperbole to make a point.

I lost faith in the validity of the article when the infamous article by GD Falksen was mentioned twice as some sort of gospel. The 6 rules of steampunk fashion (in a culture that has no rules) was detrimental to the steampunk culture and I wrote several articles countering the effects that it could have on people newly coming into the scene. Indeed the Belfry article could have the same problem. If the person in the sneakers, jeans, 70s vest, shirt and aviator sunglasses was at their first event and had just bought a top hat which they were cautiously wearing for the first time, who is anyone to tell them that they aren’t steampunk? Are you the final word on steampunk? I know I’m not. They should be welcomed, congratulated on what they’ve done and maybe have some ideas suggested to help them along. Screeching (now it’s my turn for hyperbole) about it not being steampunk only puts that person off and makes you look elitist. He did at least admit that he’s elitist. Which is odd considering he uses GD Falksen as a base template for his views.

Corrupted song

Many people – the person in the article as well – believe that additions to clothing need to have some kind of function. I ask why? Sir Reginald Pikedevant made an entire song about it. His rap “Just Glue some gears on it (and call it steampunk)” – referred to in the interview – covers exactly what people such as the chap in the interview is saying. Or does it? Actually no. Sir Reginald is quite clear that he’s pointing out the problems with sellers on eBay and Etsy who don’t try to modify anything (he holds up a keyboard as an example). They simply glue decorative gears on something and give it a steampunk label. They do this to increase the price. He doesn’t mention people who use cogs or gears as decorations. But the message in the song has been corrupted and used for purposes outside it’s original intention.

I once went on a shoot in my Steampunk Freddy outfit. I had some goggles on my hat and I was also wearing some on my face. It’s not something I normally do, but I thought it looked pretty good. Someone commented on the picture that I had two pairs of goggles on and it looked stupid. I wondered why it did. Is there some rule that one must only wear a single pair of goggles? They’re a decorative accessory. Must people only wear one earring? Or have one tattoo? In fact, while we’re talking about earrings, when people mention to me that something must have a purpose I ask them:

Explain the purpose of earrings.

They don’t have one other than as a decoration. Why can’t we have decorations in steampunk? Why must everything be functional? To suggest that it should be is surely ludicrous. Don’t get me wrong, I love to see moving parts on hats and on backpacks etc. But should I get annoyed if someone sticks some decorative gears on the side of their hat?

Steampunk is based on a civilisation where the power of steam is the main source of propulsion. Where gears, cogs, clockwork, brass and copper pipes are everywhere. Wouldn’t they be brought in to fashion designs? Do we laugh at people for wearing dog shaped earrings if they love dogs? Or having a plane shaped keychain if they love planes? Of course we don’t. The style and designs of the things they are passionate about are shown in their jewellery and as adornments to their clothing and it’s the same thing in steampunk.

Using the ambiguous statement “You can’t just glue some gears on it and call it steampunk” when referring to decorations on clothing is dangerous to the success and evolution of the culture. It’s negative and completely unnecessary.

Contrastingly, having a purpose to your decorations and modifications can help. It can give you focus on what you’re creating so you don’t sway when the next piece of gorgeous reclaimed brass comes along. But it doesn’t HAVE to have a function. It could just be there to look nice.

3 thoughts on “Do steampunk accessories need a function?

  1. What makes steampunk so welcoming and accessible is you don’t need a master welder certificate to participate. Yes, people do that by gluing gears on their clothing, but as you said, that’s the way people celebrate what they love. Throughout history and before unless you think all pictographs and cave paintings served a function beyond recording events and things people were passionate about.

    While I will be right up there in admiring something that serves a function, and love how people come up with explanations to build on the sense of world, it’s the excitement of “I made that,” which makes the steampunk aesthetic appeal to me. I write books, though I’ve been known to have gears on my covers, so I don’t even glue gears to my hat.

    Besides, setting fashion rules ends up excluding all the other cultures that would be included in a steampunk world because the “rule-makers” seem to have a heavy Victorian bias focused not on the Victorian Era but on Victorian England, with a nod to the American Wild West, when all parts of the world, thanks in part to British expansion efforts, would be neck deep in it as well.

  2. I like the idea of cogs and obvious mechanical embellishments on devices having a reason to be there. It helps the flow of the artifact. Having cog print material or other will used Steampunk tropes isn’t wrong in anyway. It is your own take on your appearance that is important.

  3. Yes, I think that steampunk accessories need a function, as long as we remember that sometimes the function is just looking good, or cool, or giving the maker a sense of accomplishment.

    The pair of goggles that I wear on my top hat are completely non-functional–as goggles. One lens has a non-functioning iris and one lens has a diffraction-rainbow pattern on it. But they were the first goggles I’ve made and I like them. I also sometimes wear lenses that clip on my glasses that function as magnifiers as well as red-green 3-D image viewers. I’m also proud of them.

    As a scientist, I’m partial to accessories that move or flash or send out trans-dimensional tachyon beams, but they don’t have to.

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