Steampunk: The RetroFuture Aesthetic | Sunday Observer

Steampunk: The RetroFuture Aesthetic

11 July, 2021

Steampunk is both a science fiction sub-genre as well as a sub- culture movement that is defined by technology and designs that have been inspired by 19th century fashion and industrial machinery. It depicts an alternative reality of neo-Victorian retro futurism where society would be based entirely around steam power.

The visual iconography of steampunk, namely gears, goggles, vests and technologies seemingly built out of brass and wood, have made its way into popular culture ever since the nineties. However, beyond the simple aesthetics of it, Steampunk holds a deeper counter cultural message that is often missed in favour of its surface appeal.


While the term steampunk was first coined by American Science Fiction and Horror author Kevin Wayne Jeter in the late 80s, the concepts that made up steampunk existed long before that point. Jules Verne, the 19th Century French Speculative Fiction novelist, has had his work credited as being precursors to steampunk. Having lived in an era with a deep enthusiasm for science and engineering, Verne had a deep interest in technology but had no real working knowledge of it.

This has led to him producing some of literature’s seminal works of fiction, such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, depicting settings and technologies based on his idealised view of science. Other popular authors like H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley served as influences for steampunk.

However, steampunk did not truly take off until the late 2000s when it suddenly surged into popularity. SteamPunk Magazine was a popular online and print magazine that promoted steampunk culture, first published in 2007. In 2006, the first official steampunk convention, ‘SalonCon’ took place and later in 2009, the much larger ‘SteamCon’ had begun. In 2005, ‘Steampunk Couture’ an exclusively steampunk clothing company was started. In the following years, many high profile fashion brands like Prada and Chanel would also represent steampunk fashion on runways.

Different sub-cultures

Steampunk, despite itself being a subculture derivative of cyberpunk, would also go on to inspire a multitude of different subcultures. Clockpunk re -imagines steampunk in a preindustrial era, replacing steam power with clockwork.

Taking steampunk in the complete opposite direction, Dieselpunk centres around combustion engines and is generally more focused on aesthetics than anything else. Stitchpunk centers around weaving and darning.

While most people focus on the steam part of steampunk, the punk aspect is just as vital to the genre. Steampunk generally holds anti- establishment sentiments in how it incorporates technologies discarded in modernity.

It invokes imagery from an apparently simpler and more technologically idealistic period where people built things themselves, a celebration of individualism. However, most political ideas at the core of steampunk have long since been forgotten. Most of those who indulge in steampunk do so for its aesthetic appeal, as a form of escapism or fandom. So for most, steampunk is now more a hobby than a cause.