I’m going to shock you – or, more likely, amuse you: Steampunk is the new Cult of Beauty. Historically minded people are either twitching or snickering. Stay with me on this – humor me. There is some logic to my madness.
Per the Legion of Honor’s website, the Cult of Beauty was an “unconventional creativity of the British Aesthetic Movement, tracing the evolution of this movement from a small circle of progressive artists and poets, through the achievements of innovative painters and architects, to its broad impact on fashion and the middle-class home. The … manifold forms of Victorian material culture: the traditional high art of painting, fashionable trends in architecture and interior decoration, handmade and manufactured furnishings for the “artistic” home, art photography and the new modes of dress.” (They should know: the Legion of Honor is the only U.S. venue on the world tour of the Cult of Beauty Exhibition that includes the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.) The Aesthetic Movement was an Avant-Garde cultural phenomenon during the Victorian Era, 1860 – 1900. You know … the age of Steam.
A brief version is that Victorian artists, designers, and creative types all decided that what is functional must also be beautiful. Furniture, tools, and other daily goods of the moneyed middle class needed to be more than just useful. Clothing too needed to have something that went beyond a fashion magazine (they had them then too.)
If you accept that the Cult of Beauty was all about making the common object a work of art and bringing art into the daily routine, then the modern Steampunk Aesthetic Movement fits the description. One need only look at the computers, laptops, wrist watches, hats, corsets – the list is quite long – being sold or displayed to see the comparison works. This isn’t just adding gears and a pair of goggles, though in some ways it could be. This is about the need to take the mundane sterility of the 21st Century and to give it the complex beauty of the 19th Century.
Entire gatherings of Steampunkers are focused on manufacturing beautiful things. And no one is making anything boring. It might not be to your taste, but it will not be dull. I particularly point to the website of the Datamancer – Jake von Slatt. He has converted monitors, laptops and keyboards into works of brass, bronze, and antique art. Swirls of ornate decorations that evoke the very whimsy of Victorian living grace the polished frames in which you find a flat screen. Old typewriter keys replace the square knobs on the keyboard. The box the laptop is now housed in … oh my!
This goes towards fashion as well. Having attend a few Steampunk conventions, I’m always amazed at the array of leather corsets with brass buckles, top hats with goggles, pith helmets, men’s sculpted facial hair, women in bustles (that would be me, by the way,) and accessories to make a Victorian weep with joy. Let’s be serious – we absolutely love to dress up and to dress well! And yes, some people do just put some gears on it and call it Steampunk. Well, we’re not all craftsmen. But we can all participate because the philosophy of making the ordinary beautiful does not require perfection – simply satisfaction with beauty on a personal level.
I will also state that the new Steampunk Aesthetic Movement has made something else lovely – behavior. I have found the overall experience of working with Steampunkers to be quite nice. Seriously! Good manners at conventions are the norm, not the exception. It is as though the graciousness of the Victorian era has provided a beautification of the boorish modern interpersonal value. Where rudeness can be the norm of the 21st Century city dweller, Steampunkers have embraced a higher code of getting along. I defy anyone to find inclusion, tolerance, and acceptance graciously given anything less than splendid.
My point is that while not everyone who enjoys Steampunk is focused on this new aesthetic, most are. And whether or not we can make the darned pretty stuff or choose to wear it outside of conventions and parties, we still are drawn to that beautiful age where complicated design is purposely added to what might otherwise be quite sterile and cold.