Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Is Steampunk the Next Big Thing?

If you have been following the Update for a while you may have witnessed the debate I and Sean had about whether alternate history would ever hit the mainstream. Well turns out we were both wrong. Alternate history will hit the mainstream...but perhaps not in the way Sean imagined.

Business News reported that IBM predicted steampunk will be the next major fashion trend in 2013. They based their prediction by having a supercomputer (presumably not a steam powered Babbage Analytical Engine) analyze "more than half a billion public posts on message boards, blogs, social media sites and news sources." I have to assume The Update is one of those posts based on all of the steampunk content I have reported on in the past. Turns out I am one of many because "[f]rom 2009 to 2012, IBM's researchers found, the amount of steampunk chatter increased eleven-fold."

Here are some of the most interesting data points from the IBM analysis:
  • 33% of online fashion chatter around steampunk can be found on gaming sites;
  • 2010 saw a year on year increase in chatter of 296%. This increase can be attributed to steampunk-inspired NYC ComicCon events in October of 2010;
  • Twitter is the #1 social network for steampunk chatter; hosts six times the number of discussions as Facebook;
  • 63% of fashion discussions around steampunk are initiated by individuals less than 30 years old;
  • 55% of social sentiment chatter for steampunk fashion derived by blogs.
So what can we expect? The fashion of 2013 “kind of looks like engineering work clothes meets Victorian high fashion,” said Dr. Trevor Davis, consumer products expert of global business services for IBM. Davis described "more metallic, more use of woods" in jewelry and "military uniform" like clothing.

Of course not everyone is excited about IBM's analysis. Gabriel Bell at Refinery 29 said "fashion is too big and steampunk too clunky and specific for it to become a dominant style genre. Steampunk is a definitive subculture with a set of aesthetic norms that flourish only within that subculture." She took a shot at IBM by saying it "has all the tools to accurately predict what the fashionable will be wearing in two years, but not the situational awareness to apply them properly."

Steampunk fans are also not 100% on-board with IBM's prediction. Austin Sirkin of Steampunk R&D warned of "a massive influx of people who know nothing at all about Steampunk" who will "rehash a lot of the same discussions and arguments that we've been having for years about what Steampunk is." Then there are "the bad parts of the Victorian era, such as slavery, colonialism, imperialism, sexism, etc." which will come under fire by the media. More importantly, with the greater numbers of kids joining the steampunk movement, expect parents accusing the movement of corrupting their children (i.e. Dungeons and Dragons).

Of course he ended his article by mentioning how much money steampunk artists can make with the expanded audience. Tee Morris, co-author of A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, agreed by pointing out the larger audience he will have for his books and podcast. Tee also tried to reassure by saying "SyFy Crap of the Week we’re thrown, we also get The Avengers, The Hobbit, Serenity and John Carter" (I read his defense of adding John Carter to the list but personally we didn't need another "white guys gets super powers by doing nothing and saves the natives" film, regardless of how influential the original story was on future authors).

More importantly, it is not just the film industry that has a lot to gain from the explosion of the steampunk into the mainstream. The literary movement will benefit from a whole slew of professional and amateur writers who want to take their shot at creating a steampunk universe. Hopefully some will do more then rehash the usual story of the British adventurer and corset-wearing female partner fighting some clockwork menace. Some might even tweak the history of their universe to create a plausible reason for all of the weird tech and fashion that appears on the page. Such alternate histories might encourage some young readers to seek out other worlds where history went off on a different track...

Alternate history and steampunk might be only distantly related now, but I think what is good for steampunk, is good for alternate history.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update, a blogger on Amazing Stories and a volunteer editor for Alt Hist magazine. His fiction can be found at Echelon PressJake's Monthly and The Were-Traveler. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. Chatter doesn't necessarily equal clothing purchases or hip-ness. SP is fun, but actually TOO retro to be hip. It will always be a niche market... not a Big Thing.

  2. Good point. So, the answer to the question is yes AND no. Steampunk has been all around us for quite some time, and most people don't even know that there is a name for the concept, which is well-represented in movies like 'Van Helsing', 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', 'Hugo' and even a movie that I once saw, 'City of Ember', which is full of steampunk and dieselpunk.

    It won't be so big that everyone will want to dress in steampunk fashion, but it will be big enough that architects and filmmakers will continue to embrace it. In 2 months (mid-March 2013), the video game 'Bioshock Infinite' will be on storeshelves and available for download, with a story that takes place in a floating city in 1912. Naturally the game will be full of steampunk art, design, architecture and fashion.

  3. Mind you, I can see some elements of SP making it into fashion: The brass and steel gears and gadgets, elaborate engraving and filigrees are naturals for accessories. And it has practical aspects, such as the large pockets and carryall bags for all your stuff; those could easily creep into fashion trends. And if we manage to destroy the ozone layer, perhaps even layering of heavy fabrics and wearing hats will come back...

  4. I can see the elaborate carvings and gears being a thing, but there will be no return to Victorian fashion, at least not for the foreseeable future.


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