Steampunk is a peculiar cultural movement. It is a literary movement or style, at least. Some say a sub-genre of Fantasy. But it is also a style in clothing and cosplay (i.e., costume play). Elements of it have even been taken up by musicians. Steampunk conventions have become a numerous as Renaissance Festivals.
The elements of Steampunk are a quasi-Victorian setting. That is, in Britain during the rise of industrialism, technology, science, and imperialism. Or, it may be a setting in an alternative universe which has some of the same characteristics of the 19th century. Writers have set stories in the American Wild West, Australia, and other parts of the British Empire (if we admit that despite independence, North America remains essentially a branch of British culture).
When it comes to costume, steampunk has settled around taking authentic Victorian fashions and tweaking them in a direction that is more adventurous, and more self-expressive. A top hat may be adorned with flying goggles or laboratory goggles. Rivets or other hints of mechanism are used as decorative elements, especially clockwork and cogwheels. A walking stick may be the sign of a gentleman, but an engineer or adventurer might also carry an outlandish gun — even a ray gun that runs on aether.
For women, the most dramatic tweak is that corsets are worn on the outside of the dress, giving the effect of dance hall girls in the old west. In Victorian times, for a woman to show her undergarments was a signal that she was loose and lusty. In the context of today, when appearing in public in shorts and a tee-shirt are normal, and women are liberated from sexism (to a great degree), the meaning changes, for a lusty woman is a woman in charge of her own sexuality and her own life. No more “weaker vessel.”
The other element of steampunk that is important and seen in fiction and in cosplay, is the idea that technological advancement moved faster and in a different direction than in real history. So, for example, steam power was refined and used for advanced technologies, like running the mechanical computer invented by Charles Babbage. Airships were invented earlier in this steampunk world, and are the dominant form of transportation over long distances. There are even dashing airship pirates.
A world of elegant clockwork and steam-driven devices glamorizes technology but in a way that snubs its nose at the sleek, white, tech of today. Moreover, such machines are not usuallly mass-produced and made in China. They are inventions in a world of inventors. Not always, but often, steampunk draws on the recent fads for vampires, werewolves and the supernatural, but inserts it into that quasi-Victorian setting, playing with Spirtualism and ectoplasm. The “what if?” of fantasy and sceince fiction is brough to the Industrial Revolution — what if some of the science that was later rejected were actually true? Aether power leads to the internal combustion engine and the gasoline culture never to evolve.
One difference between steampunk and cyberpunk is its optimism. Sometimes post-apocalyptic, steampunk is more often a Romance. It may have its dark aspects, but on the whole it celebrates individuality rather than prophesying the absorption of the individual into cyberspace.
Steampunk also differs from many movements in that it is not a fan movement derived from a single work or author. It is unlike the fandom of Trekkies, Tolkienians, or Star Warsians, and even differs from the Lovecraftian contingent. Because there is no central author to be revered and emulated, the movement is much more creative. Every steampunk engages in steampunkery, using his or her own creativity within bounds that are extremely flexible. Indeed, steampunks are at liberty to set the bounds wherever they like and discard even the top hats, corsets, and brass goggles.
As a cosplay phenomenon not tied to any single work or series, few steampunks are dressing up like their favorite characters from an established opus. Instead, each creates her own character and weaves a story around these imagined selves, so that steampunkery becomes fodder for literature — many stories written down as adventures — but also a kind of bardic art, in which the stories are told orally and spun out and added to in the telling. Often the cosplay is a collaborative effort, with groups of friends creating their own stories together.
Steampunk is not adjective with fixed meaning, it is Steampunkery an activity, a game of play pretend for adults and kids alike that engages all sorts of artistic and mechanical talents: costuming and fashion, storytelling and music, making crazy Victorian high technology, revising history in thought experiments for fun or philosophizing, learning avidly about the history of technology and valuing technology that is wheels and pistons, not the intangibles of electronic chips and the internet.
There is an element of rebellion against the present nightmarish world created by cheap oil and internal combustion, encroaching surveillance, and smart bombs. Instead of the post-apocalyptic view of the future offered by the “punk” movement, steampunk offers a different sort of rebellion, one that seizes at the roots of our modern industrial world and manipulates them to create a different past. Nor does it do so with seriousness and nihilism; rather it does so with humour and escapism — the stuff of Romance.