“Steampunk is what happens when Goths discover brown.” This quote, attributed to the writer Jess Nevins, has been floating around the internet for some time now. However, I find the quote to be misleading and a rather reductive view of both subcultures. First of all, I am a Goth. I have discovered Steampunk and the color brown, and still find black to be a vastly superior color for expressing the darkness of my soul. But more importantly, these subcultures are about so much more than just the colors they wear.
Goths and Steampunks have a strikingly different aesthetic. While some branches of Gothic subculture share Steampunk’s interest in Victorian clothing, the two groups approach their style from different directions. Goth is about embracing the taboo and seeing beauty in darkness. For this reason, Goths are especially fascinated by Victorian mourning fashion popularized by Queen Victoria after the death of her husband. Other styles of Goth involve elements of fetish and punk as well as images associated with death or the occult. Steampunk, on the other hand, is characterized by its focus on creativity and its DIY mentality. Steampunk fashion often involves a mix of American Western and Victorian clothing accompanied by elements of machinery or other technology. Steampunk embraces the spirit of the Industrial Revolution and celebrates the potential of human intellect. Thus, Steampunks are especially fond of creating things with their own hands, often making elements of their outfits themselves.
I identify primarily as a Goth and less as a Steampunk. Despite this, I frequently enjoy participating in Steampunk events and engaging with Steampunk communities. Why is that? I find that although many of my personal aesthetics differ from those generally embraced by Steampunk, Goth and Steampunk culture have a lot of common ground. One of my favorite things about both subcultures is that they tend to be especially intellectual communities. Goths and Steampunks are generally well read and often highly educated. I attribute this shared trait mainly to the fact that both subcultures draw significant inspiration from literature.
While the Gothic subculture did not officially come into being until the 1970s and -80s, its name hearkens back to the Gothic literature of the 1700s and 1800s. Gothic fiction got its start in the Romantic period with authors such as Horace Walpole and Anne Radcliffe, but most of the works we are familiar with today come from the Victorian era. The almost full century of Queen Victoria’s reign brought us such gems as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and of course the various works of Edgar Allen Poe. From there, Gothic fiction branched out into a variety of genres from horror to supernatural romance that are still widely popular today. The works of Stephen King and other pieces of contemporary horror fiction have their roots in the Gothic. Meanwhile, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles created a bridge from Gothic romance to the modern vampire novel that has nearly taken over young adult literature in recent years.
While Goth arose from its eponymous literary genre in the Victorian era, Steampunk takes inspiration from the Victorian science fiction scene. Science fiction kicked off with the works of authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, writing in the late 1800s. These founding fathers of sci-fi largely account for Steampunk’s focus on the Victorian era. A somewhat later writer, H.P. Lovecraft, has become a favorite of both Steampunks and Goths alike for his clever blending of the horrific and the scientific. One could argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also bridges these two genres and subcultures. Traditionally labeled as gothic fiction, it also clearly contains elements of science fiction. Today Steampunk culture continues to grow through its literature. Many Steampunk conventions, such as Steampunk World’s Fair, frequently include contemporary authors as featured guests. This year, SPWF featured at least four authors and two publishing groups. The event recently announced that next year Gail Carriger, my favorite Steampunk writer and author of the Parasol Protectorate series, will be making an appearance. The Steampunk literary scene is clearly a thriving aspect of the subculture.
Overall, I find myself drawn to Steampunk as a Goth because the two subcultures share many overlaps in intellectual interests. Both groups celebrate a literary heritage arising from the Victorian era. Both groups embrace a love of literature as a defining characteristic of their culture. And best of all, both groups continue to have a thriving literary scene where readers and authors can come together and contribute to an ongoing conversation about what the subculture is and what it means. Whether your neutral of choice is black or brown, a love of books transcends subcultural boundaries.