One could justifiably argue that my attraction to the Steampunk subculture was inevitable. Even before I knew what it was called, I was familiar with the aesthetic, and I liked it. Of course I did! I’m a costumer, former LARPer, I’ve had a love affair with the Industrial Revolution and all the history surrounding it since college, and I love British high tea. Steampunk was inevitable.
Now, I don’t think I need to reiterate how efficiently Steampunk costuming can be done on a budget. There are whole blogs dedicated to that topic, I’m sure. But it is worth mentioning that for those of us on fixed incomes, such as Social Security Disability Insurance, it helps that a lot of fantastic accessories can be scored at flea markets and thrift stores. Bonus points to the intrepid costumer who is able to upcycle some tidbit or mechanism and give their costume a one-of-a-kind feel. So this alone was a huge draw for me.
But the thing that made me stay, the thing that continues to make me seek out new Steampunk-themed events, wasn’t so much the fashion or DIY opportunities. It was the way it naturally seems to lend itself to being all-inclusive, particularly in regards to those with disabilities. Due to my Fibromyalgia, my ability to attend events has dwindled over the past years and I’ve really had to pick and choose where I spend my energies. Events that may potentially be too physically demanding, like concerts or anything to do with camping, are rarely worth it to me. So when I attended one of my first Steampunk events and found many of my previous obstacles were removed, I was over the moon!
One of the most immediately apparent differences about this subculture is the fact that there is a heavy emphasis social graces. At a typical Steampunk event, most of the people in attendance are employing Victorian manners, which is to say: they’re respecting personal space and not being overly touchy. If you’re a person with chronic pain, sensory overload, a skin condition, or any other ailment that might be exasperated by being touched, it is invaluable to know that you can attend an event without having to worry about too much physical contact, OR needing to explain why you don’t wish to be touched. Sometimes all you want is to feel like you fit in, and for me, the Steampunk community allowed me to do that with minimal effort or obfuscation of the truth simply by virtue of the time period it was emulating.
Another great plus was that almost every event I came across was indoors with air conditioning and seating. Perhaps it’s the extraordinary costumes that people don’t want ruined, or the fact that all those skirts and formal waistcoats get hot and heavy, but it seems like most Steampunk events are either indoors, or outdoor events are timed during mild weather, and all of them have places to sit down. Fanning oneself and taking a seat isn’t melodramatic, it’s being in character.
But it goes deeper than mere manners and climate control alone. If ever there was a subculture that afforded its patrons a dignified way to not hide, but incorporate, and in some cases even celebrate, their physical disabilities, it’s Steampunk. With many other subcultures there is a canon that, whether or not it initially meant to, excludes others. Comic book character cosplay is probably the greatest, and perhaps cruelest, example of this. After all, how often have we heard someone say a person can’t dress as such-and-such character because they don’t look the part? It’s an ugly truth about the fandom world that if a person in a wheelchair wants to dress as Superman, some yahoo is probably going to make a tactless joke at their expense. Not cool.
When it comes to Steampunk however, one isn’t restricted to that sort of rigid rule set. Rather than being a predetermined cast of characters, Steampunk is an artistic style. While it can stand alone, it can also be added to other things to make them Steampunk. You don’t have to be someone else; you can create your own character. What that means to a person with a physical disability who relies on a device is that their device – be it a wheelchair, cane, oxygen tank, leg braces, or even glasses – can be dressed up and blended into a costume, or even made the centerpiece of it. A quick search on Google will show you some truly remarkable costumes people have created incorporating their wheelchairs, and I’ve personally known lots of women who use corsets to support bad backs. Many people use lovely polished canes to both enhance their costume and assist their mobility. Within the world of Steampunk, those things don’t make them stand out as “others”; they’re merely smart, fashionable accessories. And one can easily imagine that were someone brave enough to dress up a prosthetic limb with Steampunk flare, they would most likely find themselves the belle of the ball at any event, and for all the right reasons.
The importance of being regarded as cool and clever instead of feeling singled out cannot be understated. Whether a person was born with a disability or acquired it later in life, at some point most of us are made to feel less-than or embarrassed by our limitations. Especially for anybody who relies on conspicuous pieces of equipment. Steampunk allows the opportunity to not just incorporate, but really turn something that used to be a source of embarrassment into a +20 Show-Stopping Prop of Awesomeness!
There are a lot of fandoms, a lot of subcultures, a lot of different places you can go to get your geek on. For those of us who are slightly more delicate than the rest though, Steampunk has much to offer where other subcultures may prove too challenging. In a world where our parking place can reveal that there’s something “wrong” with us, Steampunk sets the bar a little higher.