Steam punk: a square inch of contemporary culture by Carlen Lea Lesser

A couple of weeks ago, I was corresponding with Carlen Lea Lesser about Steampunk and its influence on a recent Burberry line of clothing called Prorsum Line.  

I asked Carlen if she would consider writing a few hundred words on Steampunk and the line.  I have a rough idea about what Steampunk is but I wanted Carlen’s "square inch" on the topic.  She was kind enough to oblige.  

Here then is Carlen on Steampunk.

I was completely stunned as I read Chief Culture Officer and saw a reference to Steampunk and how it was an important trend to watch and understand.  I don’t think I ever would have thought to find a fringe subculture/sub-culture discussed in a book like that, but maybe I should have.

Steampunk began as a sub-genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy fiction.  It is generally characterized as a blending of either Victorian-style and modern technology or Jazz-age style and modern technology.  It’s a world of "what if?"  What if we had steam powered cars?  What if we had computers that ran on clockworks?  What if dirigibles were a common form of transportation? Dirigibles (think of the Hindenburg) are a dead giveaway that what you are reading or watching is at least influenced by Steampunk.  The films Lemony Snickett, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Golden Compass, and even the Harry Potter films, are recent examples of mainstream Steampunk influenced films.  But don’t think this is an entirely new idea, the true father of this lived in the actual steam era: H.G. Wells.

At its heart, Steampunk today is a revival movement, but with a twist — it’s intentionally anachronistic. When the Victorians were in their Neo-classical revival phase it was hardly purist.  You can find a telling bell-jar or antimacassar on the scene to give it away.  Plus, they were a bit obsessed with clutter and could never really master that simplicity.  But it wasn’t done with a wink and a nod.   Steampunk is.  It imagines a world where the old and the new blended together.  Sometimes this is presented as just how the world evolved, and sometimes it’s presented as a post-apocalyptic rebuilding of technology and culture.  In the latter, the Steampunk blending of old and new is out of necessity and ingenuity.

Like a lot of fictional worlds, Steampunk has crossed over into real life.  Some people live this as a true lifestyle, some do it a hobby and at conventions, and some just fuse it into life as a sensibility.  This ranges from everything from inventing amazing Steampunk gadgets (working or not) to fully adopting a Steampunk fashion aesthetic.  Some people go all out with this, but many, like me, find ways to subtly work the style into a wardrobe without it, hopefully, looking like I’m wearing a costume all the time.  Maybe it’s just the cut of a jacket, granny boots, a pendant made from old watch parts, or my current favorite – an antiqued bee pendant with a working compass embedded into it.

The Steampunk aesthetic is clearly tapping into what I would call a growing sense of pragmatic optimism, and hints of it starting to appear more and more in mainstream culture.  Recently I even noticed it in Burberry’s new Prorsum line of clothing.  Burberry is not a brand I’ve ever had any interest in, which is why I was so stunned by the Fall 2011 line they recently debuted.  If you don’t know about Steampunk you might just see the military trend that seems to be working it’s way back into our wardrobes again.  When I look at it, I see a luxury brand’s interpretation of Steampunk.  Specifically it called to mind Warren Ellis’ amazing graphic novel series, Freak Angels.

Freak Angels is in the post-apocalyptic school of Steampunk, which is always amazingly optimistic.  But this line of Steampunk isn’t a dreamy utopian form of optimism. It’s a very pragmatic form of optimism.  Think of it as, "yes we blew up the world and that seriously sucks – but let’s get to the rebuilding and try not to screw it up quite so badly this time.  And if someone would invent a way to take a hot shower that would be bloody brilliant."

The Prorsum 2011 Fall line, evokes the slightly "ragamuffin fabulous" feel of post-apocalyptic Steampunk without making the wearer look like they are heading over to ComicCon.   One could say that the resemblance is superficial, but if you look a the collection as a whole and the way it’s presented, I think you’ll find that most of same cultural ingredients that lead to Steampunk are at work here too.

References

McCracken, Grant.  2010.  Square Inch Anthropology.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  December 17.  click here.

Acknowledgement

The image is from the Burberry.com website and shows a jacket from the Prorsum line.  

3 thoughts on “Steam punk: a square inch of contemporary culture by Carlen Lea Lesser”

  1. I’m impressed by how many 20 somethings I know don’t know the term steampunk even though some of the fashion they live with is heavily influenced. I asked one a few months ago and her blank stare made me ask a dozen others. Only one knew what I was talking about.

  2. Nice piece – would love to hear more thoughts from Carlen (and everyone else!) on the pragmatic optimism angle. I think the relationship with technology and the material world in steampunk is part of what’s special about it.

    I think part of the attraction of Steampunk is that we’re edging towards a Neuromancer world and we’re realising that in the current form, it’s just not that stimulating to the senses. The digital technology of blogs, augmented reality, information flows is all around us, but for now it’s cool, but not exciting.

    Steampunk posits a technology which is intensely physical still – and I think that’s a big part of the enduring attraction.

    Finally, no mention of steampunk is complete without a visit from Professor Elemental:

  3. I think Indy is right on physical. As a kid I was an amateur radio operator and telescope builder. I could design things on my own. I knew intimately how each of the components worked and how they worked together. That is largely gone in society – even in cars where kids can only make superficial changes (and usually not improvements) to the drive train. Things have become complex enough that mastery is difficult.

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