Steampunk–Hybridity and Fantasy

photo 1aI attended my first ever Steampunk festival/carnival/fashion show this past weekend.  I’d never heard of the fashion or the sub-culture before attending.  But, like any good subculture, people get really “into” it.  It’s a great example of the fine line between appropriation and innovation.

photo 3bThe movement comes out of a literary sub-genre of science fiction–future (sometimes post-apocalyptic) societies are imagined in which 19th century industrialized Western fashion is combined with America’s “Wild West” fashion ideals (and just a splash of “punk”) all within a world in which steam power is imagined to either have gained mainstream use, or was the primary technology utilized.  One of the key features of Steampunk is the sort of retro-futuristic technologies and inventions associated with the genre.  Many of the people I saw outfitted themselves with aviator goggles, Victorian fashion, and an odd assortment of historical cultural items from either the U.S. or other European nations.  And they were keen to ask each other about their accessories.  Authenticity–particularly among the more heavily costumed participants–seemed to be prized.

photo 2There were so many things I found interesting about the group and the whole event.  One thing I imagined was the time and effort it must have taken to produce some of these outfits.  Some people came in groups or with a close friend.  But many people came alone and walked around, having their costumes admired by others, posing for pictures with people they didn’t seem to know, and perhaps imagining themselves a part of a story or film they enjoy.  photo 4bSome couples seemed to have been involved in the sub-culture for a long time, and I also saw parents who seemed to be helping their children find an interest.  The age range of participants was really impressive.

In some ways, I was reminded of Renaissance festivals.  Participants similarly dedicate an extreme amount of time to outfitting themselves in ways that make them impressive at these events, perhaps developing personas to go along with the costumes they don.  photo 3Members selectively appropriate bits and pieces of identities, costumes, technologies, and more from various sources (history, science fiction, cultures slightly dissimilar from their own) and paste them all together in an awkward hodgepodge all while giving it their own distinctive flair.

Cultural appropriation is a process (often undertaken rather frivolously) of “borrowing” cultural objects and practices for reasons to do with either fashion or fun.  But, sociologists often discuss this kind of appropriation as one in which dominant groups “borrow” bits and pieces culturally associated with marginalized groups in ways that borrowers seem to see as somehow enriching their identities.  In the process, however, the groups from which they are borrowing are often re-marginalized in ways that often are framed as “honoring” them.  Indeed, it’s a practice that’s often been found to be associated with white people in the U.S. (see here, here, and here for some examples).  But, is this sub-culture an example of this kind of cultural appropriation?  Or are they something else?  Is this an example of white people searching for ways to enrich their identities with elements appropriated from other cultures, histories, and fantasy?  Or am I reading too far into this group?

7 thoughts on “Steampunk–Hybridity and Fantasy

  1. You pose some really interesting questions here (ones that I wouldn’t have thought to ask!).— I guess part of the answer to whether or not this is the same kind of appropriation would require us to ask who the steampunk movement appropriates. It seems that–just like with the Ren. fests or with LARP– these groups appropriate across time, rather than across ethnicity, place, or cultural heritage. It is definitely a distinction worth thinking about.

    • Thanks Claire. You’re right. And it’s something I didn’t point out. They’re also appropriating elements of fictional cultures as well. And some of the historical appropriation seems a bit fictional as well, based more on stereotypes of certain periods (possibly) than on actual historical record. I guess I’m interested in whether (and I didn’t interview people about why they participate) this is part of the same things we see when white people understand themselves as “cultureless” to use Pamela Perry’s term. So, I completely agree: it’s a distinction worth making when the “things” being appropriated belong to historical periods or fictional groups than when they are culturally associated with various marginalized Others. I guess I’m wondering if the desire to participate comes from a similar emotional place within white culture. Thanks for the comment. Really useful!

  2. Well, the cultural items being appropriated mostly come from Britain at a time when it was a dominant world power. I hear more criticism of Steampunk for romanticizing British colonialism than for cultural appropriation. I may have to think about this a bit more.

  3. Surely any new cultural trend involves some appropriation of elements from existing cultures, trends and traditions, and the fusing of those elements into something new? In that regard, it’s a similar process whether you’re appropriating from another culture, another time in history, or just last year’s trends. Picking from history at least avoids marginalising existing groups, although I think it does risk romanticising the past, focussing on stylistic elements and forgetting the structural inequalities on which they were founded. Though again, is that so very different from more modern fashions?

    • thanks for writing djiril and andrewknighton. I agree with both of you. I think the idea of romanticizing the past is a possible interpretation, and it’s also true that if it is appropriation, it is certainly a different kind of appropriation than the kind of appropriation in the link djiril provides illustrates. I’m still interested (though I have no way of measuring this) if the practices comes from similar emotional experiences associated with whiteness.

  4. Pingback: Suggestion Saturday: September 7, 2013 | On The Other Hand

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