A novice’s guide to dissent through clothing.

As an author of two published novellas in the Steampunk genre, I often get asked to define it.

There’s a few common elements:

  • Inspired by the period of history when England was ruled by Queen Victoria
  • Has a lot of gadgets, cogs, metal, and corsets
  • Mad scientists and airships are prevalent
  • Things are powered by steam
  • Electronics, and tiny objects that do huge things, never happened

What I try to include in my explanations, and what actually really interests me about steampunk, is the ‘punk’ part, and the subversion and social comment it allows.

The way individuals choose to express their identity within (or perhaps outside) of social norms fascinates me. In a world where there are a million sub-cultures, steampunkoffers much to someone like me.

So here’s the thing. In steampunk,I dress as a man – shock, gasp – yes, I do. That’s the way I feel comfortable. I like the suits. I like the accessories (especially the fob-watches).I like the flying helmets, the military-style knee high boots, the Victorian manners. And, let’s be honest, I like being accompanied by a woman in a corset (properly covered by a silk bodice, of course).

In the years I’ve been attending events, I have never once been spurned.In the mundane, non-steampunk world, I still find people who look twice, who glance sideways or comment to their neighbour, or who openly shun me. If I was dressed in steampunk garb all the time, I might understand this reaction, but I’m just in jeans and a t-shirt most of the time. But apparently not looking feminine makes me fair game.

(Image: Shutterstock – artist/ copyright Kiselev Andrey Valerevich)

In the steampunk world, not looking feminine makes me a gentleman, or at least, it makes me worthy of being treated like one.

Now, I can hear the outrage already. My mind is doing it too. But I’m not suggesting this is a patriarchal reaction that confirms the natural order of things – quite the opposite. In steampunk, I feel like it doesn’t matter what I choose to dress in, or what that suggests, if anything, about my sexual or gender identity. I am taken for who I am, and how I behave – nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

In steampunk, I feel like I am no more weird than the next person. The next person could be a barrister, a train driver, a teacher, or a writer. They could identify as male, female, gender-neutral, superhuman cyborg, or monster. Like me, they are part of a minority of people who like to dress up in pseudo-Victorian clothing and disguise their smart phone in a clunky cover festooned with gears, dials and levers. They don’t see me as any more dysmorphic than they are themselves.

So, no matter what definition I give for steampunk, it will always contain this idea of freedom – from societal norms and to express myself without judgement.

Rather like reading a book.


J-L Heylenis the author of five published works in the genres of Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction, Lesbian Fiction and Steampunk.


She lives in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, with her wife and three dogs, and writes commentary, blogs, short stories and novels. She also helps manage lesfic down under, with fellow speculative fiction author Kate Genet.

Links to books, contact details and other information can be found here, or through the links below.