My favorite short answer is: “Victorian Science Fiction.” The longer answer is much more complicated and is different for everyone.
Some of the comments I have seen around the net: “you can’t use this because it isn’t Steampunk,” “doing something this way isn’t Steampunk,” “that particular era is not Steampunk” and “people wouldn’t have dressed that way in Victorian England, so that can’t be Steampunk.”
Like most people who love Steampunk and have made costumes that they consider Steampunk, I also have my own particularities about it. However, I disagree with all of the statements written above, because the thing that a lot of people forget is that STEAMPUNK IS MADE UP. This is not a world created by one person, with only one vision. It is an interpretation that each person gets to make individually, which is a big part of the fun. My Steampunk may not be the same as your Steampunk, and because of that we get a “world of Steampunk” that is vastly enriched because of the differences.
I am not a Steampunk re-creator. I don’t usually see a photo and try to make something exactly (or as close to) something else when it comes to Steampunk. I have tried this once (with my black 1906 dress that eventually became an 1890s dress) and I wasn’t happy with it. I usually find that making up things from various inspirations works better for me. There are people who do re-creations of historical garments and turn them into Steampunk garments and they are AMAZING. I drool at the photos. And this is THEIR vision of Steampunk, and it is ok. It just isn’t mine, at the moment. But as I have learned in the past, never say never!
I love the idea of bringing Steampunk out of the Victorian time period. I have seen some amazing RenPunk, NerfPunk, DieselPunk and various other outfits made that don’t necessarily conform to the Victorian ideal, and some of these folks have been told their outfit is not Steampunk because it is not “Victorian enough”. I have also seen the opposite happen – people who make beautiful Victorian outfits who are told their outfit can’t be Steampunk because there is nothing “Steamy” about it. Just because they have no gears or are not carrying a modded weapon they can’t be Steampunk – their outfit is “too Victorian”. Again, STEAMPUNK IS MADE UP. There are no rules. If you want to wear your corset on the outside with a tiny little bustle? Go for it. If you want to wear a big beefy arm made of so much modded metal it is a wonder you can lift it? Go for it. If you want to dress in historically accurate Victorian clothing right down to your undergarments? Go for it. Steampunk is what YOU make of it and you should not feel like you have to be confined by someone else’s rules.
For the most part my experience in the Steampunk community has been a welcoming one and I try to contribute to that when I am asked about Steampunk or at a con or other event. But as Steampunk has become more popular (and possibly fashionable if we are to look at some of the more recent fashion shows done by Gaultier and McQueen and the plethora of tiny top hats available for purchase at Claire’s), it has also gotten to the place where people feel that they can tell others what IS and what IS NOT Steampunk. And while I love guides to where to purchase things for your Steampunk costume and posts on the trends or most commonly seen items in Steampunk (clocks, gears, etc.), it is when people start telling others what they can and can’t do or should and shouldn’t do in regards to Steampunk that it starts to irritate me. Who are you to tell another person that their vision is wrong? It isn’t like J.R.R. Tolkien (if he was still living) going to Peter Jackson and saying, “You know, those Hobbits are SPOT ON to my vision, but those Elves need some work. No one’s ears are that pointy. And Viggo Mortensen should have been shirtless. A lot.” (Ok, that last part was just for me.)
There is no one true way to Steampunk, and that is THE FUN OF IT. You get to do what you want! Be what you want! Interpret the world in your own way. There are those things that are so common that everyone associates them with Steampunk – clocks, gears, modded weaponry. Those things will peg you as Steampunk to many people. Your beautifully made 18th century garment may not immediately have people thinking “Steampunk” without having some of those items on your person. However, in a genre that says that time travel exists ( H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”), who says you aren’t a Steampunk Time Traveler? Who says your outfit has to be the biggest part of your Steampunk experience? Maybe you have an amazing back story of a character you have created and today that character happens to be wearing this particular outfit. That still makes you and your outfit Steampunk.
I wanted to make a Steampunk circus performer, and wound up with a clown. There were several times I agonized that there was “not enough” Steampunk to my clown, and I had to keep reminding myself that the clown was MY vision of Steampunk. My vision involves tying in different eras to one outfit. It involves using various metals in unique and different ways. It involves learning new things, and re-purposing other things. There are gears on my outfit because it is a Clockwork Clown – essentially a big wind-up doll. But there are no modded weapons to it – just a slightly modded clown horn, heh. Once I stopped trying to fit my vision into someone else’s, I was much happier and the end result is something that I (and DangerKitty) are very proud of. It might not be someone else’s vision of a Steampunk clown, but it is MY vision of a Steampunk Clown and it is still Steampunk.
To sum up, everyone is entitled to their own opinion of Steampunk and what it means to them. And if something that someone is or is not doing does not strike you as being “Steampunk,” well, that is your opinion and that is ok. But what they are doing is THEIR vision of what Steampunk is, and that is also ok. There are no Steampunk Rules. I would rather have a big melting pot of Steamy fun than everyone dressing the same, all the time. Your vision may differ. But remember – there is no one creator of Steampunk (this guy came up with the word “Steampunk” but he didn’t invent the genre) and no one true way to BE Steampunk. Embrace your creativity. Do your own thing. And HAVE FUN. Because that is what this all about folks – HAVING FUN. Don’t let someone put you in a box of their own definition. It is all playing pretend, and there is plenty of room in the Steampunk sandbox for everyone to play.