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Negotiating the Punk in Steampunk: Subculture, Fashion & Performative Identity

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The term ‘punk’ has become a highly contested and problematic label since its appropriation in the 1970s, when it was commonly used to describe music produced by many anarchic and irreverent bands. Subsequently, the term has been used to describe genres of fiction that juxtapose punk attitudes with cyberspace (cyberpunk), extreme gore (splatterpunk) or anachronistic technology (steampunk). Although originally coined ironically, steampunk is a particularly interesting case of the wider meanings of punk in terms of a DIY ethos and a rejection of social norms. Drawing on surveys and analysis of online discourses and presentations of self on the one hand, and the responses collected from in-depth interviews with steampunks on the other, we set out the ways steampunk has evolved into a performative style subculture associated with recognisable fashions and lifestyle accessories. Focusing specifically on fashion and music, we analyse steampunk as a subcultural constructor of identity, articulating complex discourses concerning gender and class. The pleasures of steampunk lifestyle are associated with the rejection of contemporary lifestyles and social mores, and a return to ingenuity, craftsmanship and invention, and a real-world acting out of imagined histories. Whilst the steampunk ethos revealed in the desire to reclaim clothing and technology is organized bricolage as opposed to the chaotic anarchy of punk, steampunk, like punk, rejects the norm, and makes a display of difference. The activities of the steampunk community not only intersect with punk and alternative music subcultures, but also exist in the intersections of subculture and fan culture.
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Keywords: class; fan cultures; fashion; gender; identity; music; performance; punk; steampunk; subculture

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: St Mary’s University College 2: Croydon College of Art and Design

Publication date: 08 September 2011

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  • Punk & Post-Punk is a journal for academics, artists, journalists and the wider cultural industries. Placing punk and its progeny at the heart of inter-disciplinary investigation, it is the first forum of its kind to explore this rich and influential topic in both historical and critical theoretical terms.
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