Steampunk: The world’s most derided subculture is ready for its comeback

Grab your parasols and aviation goggles! Steampunk might be considered untouchable now, but the pace at which trends are being regurgitated means that anything is possible

By now, we’re all familiar with the relentless cycle of trends that are infiltrating the internet – and our minds. From Y2K to Indie Sleaze, we’ve experienced an endless rehashing of old aesthetics repackaged in TikTok-friendly formats and hailed by online commentators as the Next Big Thing. With the mid-aughts making a comeback in terms of indie music, Tumblr aesthetics and the emo revival, we find ourselves thinking: what’s next? 

To answer that question, we need to dial back to a time when technology, and its advancement, felt like it had real revolutionary potential. As capitalism swallows itself and any chance of a future beyond it, it’s easy to feel like the Future = Bad. But this doesn’t get to the root of our collective angst, nor does it help us move forward. Perhaps what we need is something so based and cringe that we can’t help but put our obsession with the past to bed – a nail in the coffin, if you will.

As one of the last remaining 2010s subcultures to not be put through the cultural ringer, steampunk should be set to make a return in our nostalgia economy, but why hasn’t it? The hashtag #steampunk currently has 460 million views on TikTok, so there’s clearly a growing interest, with users showing off images of coal-powered flying boats and get-ready-with-me’s featuring period-appropriate attire such as bustles, corsets and petticoats, not to mention accessories spanning clocks, cogs, parasols and aviation goggles. But, aside from an (apparently) promising online presence, the subculture has yet to take on any noticeable cultural relevance, bar the occasional nod by PC Music affiliates Dorian Electra and umru.

Steampunk was first coined by writer K.W. Jeter in 1987 to describe a subgenre of science fiction that incorporates 19th-century aesthetics and retrofuturist technology inspired by the sort of fictional machines you’d find in an HG Wells or Jules Verne novel. But the term now retroactively refers to many works of fiction created as far back as the 1950s. For example, steampunk imagery can be seen in films such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan (1978) and Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), which imagine a fantastical version of old industrial Europe inhabited by airships, air pirates and steam-powered robots.

Yet, as far as the mainstream goes, steampunk doesn’t exist – and if it does, it’s considered deeply uncool, triggering the same eye-rolling disdain as the mention of Disney adults, electro-swing and trilbies. Synonymous with middle-aged couples in nondescript British towns, barbershop quartets and Doctor Who enthusiasts, there’s a sincerity to the subculture that has yet to pass the threshold into irony. 

That said, the last few years has seen a reclaiming of all things considered un-aesthetic, whether that’s the messy maximalism of cutecore or the chaotic and meme-inspired fashion championed by the likes of James Wallace and 25FNYC (Wallace recently posted an Instagram story on @fakegucciwatch account, signalling the possibility of a steampunk-themed collection). Surely if despicable Minions and Shrek can find new life as garments worn by Extremely Online edgelords, it’s not too far a stretch to imagine steampunk catching on? Elsewhere, remix culture has spawned a generation of cultural contrarians who splice up nostalgic sounds as a way of reinventing the familiar, mixing together (typically) low and high culture sounds for maximum impact. Think: eurodance and happy hardcore combined with progressive techno and orchestral samples.

Saying this, there are a few potential red flags. Typical of any subculture that glorifies the Victorian era, there are bound to be some imperial undertones, whether intentional or not. At annual steampunk gatherings such as the Weekend at the Asylum in Lincoln, enthusiasts sip on gin and dance along to choirs singing about the joys of English breakfast tea. It’s this nostalgia for a time so inextricably linked to colonialism that feels a little… naive, if not low-key sinister. The emphasis on adventuring and taking earth’s resources also seems at odds with the present, where we are all too aware of man’s disastrous impact on the natural world. 

But, consider this: steampunk is a reimagining of Victorian speculative fiction, where steam, not electricity, is at the forefront of technological advancement. Nowadays, we find ourselves at the forefront of another technological revolution, not one powered by steam, but by silicon. The information age has skewered our understanding of the world and how it works, as IRL experiences are replaced with computer screens and algorithms that dictate our interests. 

Steampunk, in contrast, allows us to observe culture from the inside out. Or, as scholars Rachel Bowser and Brian Croxall put it: “the tinkering and tinker-able technologies within steampunk invite us to roll up our sleeves and get to work reshaping our contemporary world.” With ongoing threats in the form of global warming, microplastics, and the cost of living crisis (the list goes on), there’s a temptation to bury our heads in the sand and wait for it all to blow over. But that won’t fix any of our problems, only exacerbate them. Perhaps by understanding its machinations, AKA how the cogs wind up and down, we can feel more connected to the present. 

So, to point out the obvious: steampunk isn’t back. But I wouldn’t be surprised if people started donning cogs and top hats in that post-ironic, anti-aesthetic sort of way in the coming months. Maybe Minion-mania will bring goggles into style. Or, the goth comeback will segue into neo-Victorianism, which is only a short stretch away from – you guessed it – steampunk. Whether it’ll ever become a trend IRL is yet to be seen. But if our post-pandemic apathy has taught us anything, it’s that people need something to spark their imagination – and if that’s a steam-powered zeppelin, so be it.