Photo courtesy of The VOU.

**A La Moda is a monthly Slice of Culture series where we explore different cultures, trends and more in the fashion world. “Moda” translates to “fashion” in several languages including from Spain, Eastern Europe, South Asia and more.

Steampunk fashion subculture turns 37 years old this year.

You’ve probably seen glimpses of this subculture through corsets or leather pieces. In New Jersey, there’s at least two statewide conventions that give a space for this community: the annual Rock & Roll Steampunk Fair and Steampunk Alchemy Fest 2024.

This month’s subculture started off as just a science fiction sub-genre that eventually sparked endless creativity in a community who wondered what our future would’ve been like with an alternative history. 

What is Steampunk? 

Steampunk fashion. (Source: My Steampunk Style)

Steampunk is a subculture built on fantasy that reinterprets history. This subculture is all about exploring and experimenting with what could’ve been. 

Similar to the lolita subculture we explored a couple months ago, steampunk is heavily inspired by the fashion of the Victorian era. The technology of the Industrial Revolution is another major source of inspiration for steampunk enthusiasts. 

Steampunk enthusiasts refer to themselves as steam punks or steamers.

Steamers approach steampunk fashion in their own way that resonates with their self expression. This allows them to create their own stories and personas or characters. The subculture is open to all regardless of gender, race, age or class.

Steampunk is considered a counterculture; a counterculture is a culture that rejects the values and norms of mainstream society. This is evident in the relationship steamers have with technology. 

When it comes to modern technology, most of our products are monotonous since they’ve been designed to look the same. According to Nick Tavers, a dystopian steampunk author, Steampunk “thrives on the possibilities of scientific romance as an alternative to the current world of massed produced plastic and big banking.”

Steamers prefer to be resourceful and focus on the repair-work and customization of their technology. Steamers prefer for their technology to have unique details since they choose to incorporate it into their personal style.

Steampunk Origins 

(Courtesy of broke & chic)

Science fiction literature has had a big impact on the conception of steampunk.  

Although steampunk culture has been around for decades, it didn’t get its official name until the 1980s. The term “Steampunk” was actually created in 1987 by famous author Kevin Jeter in his novel “Morlock Night.”

The cyberpunk era was Jeter’s inspiration behind the term. Cyberpunk is another popular sub-genre of science fiction originating in the 1980s that revolves around futuristic technology in a dystopian society. The term was originally just a play on words, but it eventually stuck within the community.

Although steamers do not align with modern technology, the impact the internet seemingly has had an impact on the popularization of steampunk culture throughout the world.

SteamPunk Magazine was an online and semi-annual print magazine dedicated to all things steampunk. The magazine was based in New York City and was active from 2007 to 2016. Meanwhile, North American online magazine and resource directory, The Steam Punk Explorer, continues to push out content for 37 states including New Jersey. The Jersey section consisted of news, features, events and guides to the “Steamiest” local places; the last post for New Jersey was nearly one year ago today.

Wardrobe Essentials

(Atomic Jane website / Screenshot)

Steamers are very big on DIY and customization when it comes to their fashion style. The subculture incorporates visible machinery with the elegant aesthetic of Victorian fashion. A few essential pieces a steamer will have in their wardrobe are: 

  • Corsets: Corsets are a popular staple taken from the Victorian era and incorporated into steampunk fashion. Corsets are worn by women steamers as a clothing item instead of as an undergarment. They are usually made with real or faux leather, brocade or velvet. 

  • Leather: Along with metal, leather is one of the most common materials in steampunk attire. Leather is utilized to create corsets, masks, belts, bracers and other accessories. 

  • Top Hats: Top hats are another Victorian era staple that was initially intended for men, but are now utilized as a unisex accessory. Steamers add gears and other machinery to their top hats to make them unique. 

  • Gears: Steamers add gears, screws, nuts, medallions and bolts to their clothing and accessories to compliment their clothing.

Initially, most steampunk clothing and accessories were handmade and customized to each person’s liking, but as the subculture grew, clothing companies saw this an opportunity to mass produce steampunk clothing for steamers to shop both in person and online.

A few brands that cater to the steampunk aesthetic are Steampunk Styler, Atomic Jane Clothing and Angel Clothing.

Steamers in New Jersey 

C.O.G.S. Expo is a volunteer-run steampunk convention held in New Jersey. The program typically includes makers, panels, gaming, contests, live music, and more. The “Community Organized Gathering of Steampunks” emerged after controversy with Jeff Mach. (Cici and Nico / via Steampunk Explorer)

The most common way for those in the steampunk community to get together is through Renaissance fairs and comic conventions. Many steamers use these events as an opportunity to cosplay.

On Saturday, May 4, the fourth annual Rock & Roll Steampunk Fair will take place in Washington Borough. The free event will have live music, artisan vendors, cosplay and other activities from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Roughly half an hour drive north, in Hackettstown, is where the Steampunk Alchemy Fest will be hosted on Saturday, June 1. Debuting under a new name, the event will have live entertainment, vendors, cosplay, food and an evening cabaret for guests over 18 years old. According to the website, the summer festival “celebrates the creativity, innovation, immersion, diversity, and inclusivity,” offering a platform for people to immerse themselves in the world of retro-futuristic. General admission tickets are on sale now.

Prior to these Steampunk events, Jeff Mach, of Hackensack, kicked off one of the first steampunk conventions called the Steampunk’s World Fair, which was founded and launched in 2010. It was held in Piscataway and gathered 3,000 people, and continued to host several annual events. But, in January 2018, Mach was accused of sexual abuse, putting the fair under fire. The event was  attempted to be revived under a new name, the Wicked World’s Fair, on Feb. 23 to Feb. 25, but the Steampunk Explorer talked with attendees who described it as “the Apocalypse.”

The Steampunk Worldwide Expo & Symposium, which seems to be associated with Mach, lists dates for May 3 to May 5, but it’s unclear who the organizers are and if it’s still going on.

For those who would like to keep up with the steampunk community, The Steampunk Explorer continues to report news and what’s happenings around the U.S., including New Jersey.

Impact on Mainstream Fashion  

Alexander McQueen’s mens F/W 09-10 runway collection inspired by steampunk fashion.(Source: StyleZeitgeist)

Outside of the subculture itself, various high end designer brands have included looks inspired by steampunk fashion in their collections. Famous brands like Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior, Dolce and Gabbana and Jean-Paul Gaultier used steampunk elements in their runway looks.

My Thoughts on Steampunk Fashion

The conception of Steampunk from a book sub-genre to an actual fashion subculture has been super fascinating to learn about.

Usually, when a subculture comes to life it’s because those people already share common history but, steampunk is a subculture born from shared interest in a fantasy about an alternative reality. Within the steampunk community, the possibilities are truly endless because steamers have the freedom to create their own narrative. 

Now that I’m aware this subculture exists so close to home, I’m looking forward to seeing how it continues to expand and evolve throughout the upcoming years. 

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