There 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.
iliveindallas.com 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.