Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Steampunk Personas

I had someone suggest this topic to me as something that people new to steampunk often have questions about.  Just what exactly is up with steampunk personas?

There are two basic directions to go with steampunk costuming.  There are the people who create specific steampunk costumes: steampunk robot, steampunk Doctor Who, steampunk maid, whatever.  These are "high concept" costumes and tend to be made by people who are already into costuming or cosplay.  These people aren't necessarily steampunk "lifestylers."  They just like to dress in steampunk costume sometimes.  (There's absolutely nothing wrong with this and I don't want to imply that there is.  Some of the most incredible steampunk outfits I've seen are made and worn by this type of steampunk costumer.  There's just a difference in attitude from someone who is a steampunk first and someone who is a costumer first.)

So the second direction is that chosen by most die-hard steampunks: developing a steampunk persona or alter ego.  That means that they have a steampunk character that they portray, no matter what outfit they are wearing.  They have a steampunk name, and a history for their character.

So, why?  Well, I find that character and costume tend to go hand in hand.  As you put together a steampunk outfit, you make decisions about that outfit.  Some of them may be based on pure aesthetics, but others will come down to "what kind of person is wearing this outfit?"  Are you an aristocrat?  A scientist?  An airship pirate?  A mechanic?  An academic?  Deciding those things is probably going to have to come pretty early in putting together your steampunk outfit, because the answers will drastically affect what you wear.

Of course, the character may not come first.  In fact, in my experience it's the costume item that comes first.  You find a certain item or article of clothing that you really, really like and you then have to come up with an explanation for why you are wearing or carrying that.  As lots of these details are added to your outfit, your character story becomes more and more fleshed out.

My own steamsona (get it?) is the Baroness Violet von Micklesburg.  But I didn't just wake up one day and decide I was going to create a steampunk character named that.  It started with going to thrift stores looking for pieces for a steampunk outfit for a con.  I found a black taffeta skirt and decided I would wear it cinched up over a purple skirt.  So I decided I was a widow (since widows wore black and then purple after a year of mourning.)  And I decided I had married a wealthy, older man.  And the details were added a bit at a time.  He was German, an industrialist, etc.

My husband, meanwhile, was coming up with his own character.  He was an airship pilot.  And we needed some way for our characters to come together.  So my late husband built a prototype small "coupe" style airship intended as toys for the wealthy.  And then the test pilot and the grieving widow stole the prototype after he died.  The Baroness thing came later as I searched for some sort of title.  Baron is the lowest level of German nobility, and Baroness just sounds awesome, so that's how that happened.

Do you HAVE to have a persona?

No, you don't.  I think it's fairly common for people not to have character names and stories all figured out at their first few steampunk events.  My husband's character didn't even have a name for about a year.   No one is going to be checking your steampunk credentials at the door.

If you don't feel like creating a character, well, don't.  You only have to interact with the parts of steampunk that you like best. If that is making stuff and then showing it off and you don't care about stories, fine.  Just accept that most people around you DO have alternate names and histories.

There's always an awkward moment when you have to decide whether to introduce yourself as your steampunk persona or as yourself.  I honestly don't even have this one figured out.  Some people in the community are only ever known by their character name, and some are never called by their character name.   This can also get confusing, for example if someone uses a steamsona on Facebook but goes by their real name in person.  Or vice versa.  (That would be me.  I only have one personal FB account, and it's under my real name.)  So I tend to introduce myself by BOTH names.  Which is probably extra confusing, but hey.

I would advise that if you WANT to be known as your steampunk name, you introduce yourself as such, from the beginning, consistently.

What's the point of a steampunk persona?
That varies by individual.  Some people participate in live action role-playing as their character.  Some role-play that character online.  Some people just like acting as a very distinct character in person. Personas can be important if you join or form an airship or other steampunk collective.  Often these groups will write stories about their members and how they all ended up together.  In that way, interactions with other steampunks can shape your backstory in new ways.

So, are steampunks always "acting?"  No, not usually.  I've only known a couple of people who are always in character.  Most people's steampunk personas have a similar personality to their own, if a different history.  So most people are being themselves, even if they go by another name.  Some people are only "in character" if they are performing or participating in a LARP.  Some people might never even talk about their persona, but it's still important to them personally.

I am most like that last type.  The Baroness has a very particular personality in my head.  But I rarely try to bring that personality out in public.  Mostly because it is either too subtle a change for anyone to notice, or because people just think I'm a bitch if I do.  (I've heard amusing anecdotes to this effect: "I can't tell if he's an asshole or if that's just his character...")  My persona is important for my costuming decisions, but not much more.   In that respect, personas can sometimes be limiting.  I can't just show up to a con one day in something the Baroness would never wear.  Because when I am steampunk, I am the Baroness.  Once upon a time I was planning a steampunk maid costume.  But as I got more involved with the steampunk community and as my persona became more developed I realized the Baroness would never, ever dress as a maid.  My Steampunk Cleopatra costume, on the other hand, is a fancy dress outfit, so it certainly might be something the Baroness would wear to a costume ball.

Ultimately, like most things in steampunk, the way you create your persona and the way you use your persona is entirely up to you.  I think personas are a great way to bring creative thinking into costuming.  I heard one steampunk say once that with the ideal costume, you wouldn't have to explain your character at all; anyone looking at the costume would just know.  It's something to shoot for, at least.


  1. Beautifully done, Baroness! Personally, I've experienced both situations. My first persona, Raven Assemble' (that' Awe-saum-BLAY :) came about as a result of my figuring out what the character would BE - a tinkerer or inventor; THEN came the costume. However, my second persona, Lady Ginger Raventree, came about AFTER I had decided I wanted to be an explorer and created a costume for that. Both were fun to figure out!

  2. Oh I really like that article!
    For me I think I am a mixture between both, "only" costume and persona. I have some outfits, that have a story for the figure I want to be while wearing them e.g. Mademoiselle AyraLeona de Loryva, Cultural Antropologist and Archeologist (which is also the character I use to play in chat rpgs and which is not that difficult because I study Cultural Antropology and Archeology^^) but others are only a nice outfit (e.g. the Steampunk Doll )

    I guess, I decided what to wear and thereby what/who to be by the type of event I go to. For something like the WGT I want to wear something eye catching (Steampunk Doll) but if there's a steampunk themed event I'm more into the persona thing because it gives you so much opportunities in acting and behaving plus most of the other steampunks have there personas, too.

    For the name I mostly use my real name for introducing myself but always add my nickname so people can find me at the forum or FB or whatelse^^

    (Sorry for the long text, I really find this theme interesting!)

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I LOVE your archaeologist outfit, very nice. (I nearly went into archaeology myself, so I appreciate it.)

      And I definitely think different types of outfits can work better for different events. I tend to be at events with at least partly the same group of steampunk people, so having a consistent persona makes more sense.

  3. Tamseer- as I said in another post I am less than five months old in the world of steam punk. I have so many totally different ideas for costumes in my head that they could never mesh into one persona without some dramatic intervention. I like to work on stories though and I have a character that could make it possible... I wish this were a live conversation because I just feel so inspired reading these articles that I have to talk it out with someone!

    1. Try writing down your ideas and then reading them back to yourself, make lots of notes and a big bullet pointed list.
      Once you've started to build up the framework of your persona, go back and look at some of the original ideas that you didn't use to see if anything complements what you've developed or inspires new ideas.

    2. Tamseer- Thank you for that idea. It's been a long time since I've been back here, but it's nice to see that someone actually read my post and answered. I'll try that out. I've been working on bits and pieces for my clothes so this could help me figure out where they fit.