Why so posh?

A personal view point.

In my time involved in the Steampunk community, I have been asked one question several times. Sometimes in the form of observations and sometimes as straight-out questions. Basically, the question goes something like this;

“Why do Steampunks always dress up as wealthy Neo-Victorians? What about the workers and the poor, why don’t Steamers dress up like them?” This question then is often followed up by something like; “Isn’t that just snobby?”

The assumption seems to be that Steampunks only view their fictional past, and their hobby, through the elitist eyes of the pseudo-upper middle class, and thus are not celebrating the fact that all the great strides in cultural achievement are wrought by the hands of the working class.

In fact, Isambard Kingdom Brunel never built a single bridge, he designed them, he engineered them, but he never built one. The workers did; poorly paid, ill-treated, undervalued and unrecognised. It was their blood, sweat and tears that built Brunel’s dreams.

Why then doesn't Steampunks celebrate them? Or is it just about putting on your best frock coat and corset and getting your picture taken?

It seems a good question, and I can only really answer it for myself.

Firstly, there are a lot of Steampunks who explore the engineers, workers, and even chimney sweep roles of their Neo-Victorian imaginings. A lot explore the darker side of their worlds taking up personas of criminals and rogues. And of course, soldiers. None of these are affluent roles.

For me though, and I do not think I’m alone in this, it is both a matter of choice and inspiration. My inspiration comes from the novels of Verne, Wells, and others. Their characters were not the landed or industrial rich, but reporters, scientists, academics, and adventurers. In that, they were better off than the poor working class, but still often outsiders and oddballs. From Verne’s Professor Otto Lidenbrock to Wells’ Mr Cavor to Fleming’s Commander Caractacus Pott.

I admit, though I’m no inventor, I identify with them as outsiders, though I do not attempt to cosplay them. Nor any of my own literary characters for that matter.

But the true reason I do not portray character personas of the poor working class of a pseudo-Victorian age is that Steampunk is escapism for me. Escapism from the real world.

In my real-world life, I have experienced poverty, both that of being virtually destitute and homeless as a child to living the hand-to-mouth life of the working poor.

I was homeless at 7 years old; my mother went without meals regularly to feed us. She wore the same coat and broken glasses for most of my childhood so we could eat and have shoes on our feet. I’ve worked in the factories, I’ve shovelled shite and washed it off clothes, beds, and floors. I’ve cleaned the toilets.

I do not wish to ‘cosplay’ something that I have lived through. I don’t want to pretend to walk around in dirty, shabby clothes, broken shoes, and torn coats, because I once, in fact throughout my childhood and adolescence, had to. It was my reality.

And, I think, from what I know of so many of my friends within the Steampunk community, my experiences, as an outsider and knowing poverty, means that we probably do indeed shy away from those roles and characters. Not because we denigrate them, or devalue them, but because they would be too close to the brutal realities of our lives.

Steampunk is not historical re-enactment, no more than cosplaying a Jedi or a Narn warrior is historical re-enactment.

For most Steamers, Steampunk is pure escapism with a nod to a history that never happened and a genteel idealism beyond any reality.



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