Monday, January 28, 2013

On the Subject of "Gluing a Gear On It"

I spent this past weekend sewing (and gluing) decorative brass gears onto my Steampunk Cleopatra costume.  And this morning I ran across yet another opinion piece that derides anyone who attaches non-functional gears onto their steampunk pieces.  I've known that I needed to address this aspect of my costume, so let's do it.

Pretty, pretty non-functional gears.  These may give an
ILLUSION of functioning,
but that's all it is. (From this store.)
I really, really hate when people bash the use of decorative gears.  The attitude assumed by the basher is always one of superiority: they are preserving steampunk's purity from the untalented who can't use any tool but a glue gun.  They almost always throw in a derisive comment about steampunk going "mainstream" or being co-opted by corporations or people just out to make a buck.

This attitude just really pisses me off.  It's elitist and actively discourages newbies from trying their hand at steampunk crafting.  Look, I am in awe of makers who have metalworking skills who make these functional works of steampunk art.  But I also know that I cannot do what they do, and have no desire to learn the skills they have.  That's not my thing.  That's their thing.

Here's the big thing that gets me about this attitude: it is seeking to define and limit what's "real steampunk."  Real steampunk crafting, by their estimation, involves a workshop and heavy machinery. It involves skills that take years of training to achieve.  It's also, by the way, an attitude that elevates traditionally masculine skills above traditionally feminine skills.  When it comes down to it, I don't want to be part of any conversation that seeks to define "real steampunk" over "poseur steampunk."

I adore the embroidered gear designs on this outfit.
Moreover, the people who express these opinions are often incredibly hypocritical.  They will snark about people who "glue a gear on it" one minute, and the next they admire some steampunk object with non-functional gears the next.  Many highly admired steampunk projects feature TONS of non-functional components; they just are better at giving the impression of functioning than some others.  Gears, gauges, turn keys, locks, vacuum tubes, keys...these are all items frequently used in steampunk design and they are very rarely functional.

But I also want to be clear that I have chosen to attach decorative gears to my steampunk creations not because I wish I could do more with them, but because I really, really like the look of decorative gears.  Gears are PRETTY.  I like them as objects in and of themselves, not just for their utility.

The Victorian period was the height of decoration for decoration's sake.  Every object was OVER decorated.  They used sometimes strange motifs in their decorative arts, like the plethora of pineapples they put everywhere.  So I believe that in an alternative Victorian period, where technology is elevated to a higher level within the estimation of society, that the Victorians might very well have started embroidering gears along the borders of their clothing.  In my mind, the fictional steampunk world that we all have created is a world in which people wear goggles as a fashion accessory and use gears to decorate things.

My Steampunk Cleopatra is a partial recreation of a historical fancy dress costume.  In a steampunk world, I think that this costume may have very well been made with decorative brass gears in addition to Ancient Egyptian style jewelry.  And finally, I just like the way it looks, and I don't have time for anyone who wants to take an elitist attitude about it.


  1. I completely agree! I've always thought that (while I'm very impressed with functional steampunk) the purely decorative makes sense as well. Googles and gears WOULD become fashion accessories! The only thing I demand in my steampunk is that it makes sense to me.

  2. I, too, love the look of gears and use them as accents on my creations - I love my little treasure box full of gears to paw through, looking for just the right one to use. My only reservation is using those 'stamped out' fake gears that were originally made for use in scrapbookking . . . And yet I have trouble really defining WHY I don't like them. Real vs. counterfeit? Artisan vs corporate? Hmmm...

    1. I have used those gears when I couldn't find anything else. For my Cleopatra I used stamped raw brass gears because I wanted a bunch the same, but they were from a maker, not a corporate company. I do prefer real gears, but the problem with using only vintage gears is that large gears are so darn difficult and expensive to find.

    2. True, and the ones I do find I tend to keep for a special project :)

  3. You're my new hero!

    In the last few months I've come to realize that I've been steampunkish practically all my life. That is, I've loved all things victorian since I was old enough to know I prefered one thing over another. And I discovered science fiction very early, as well. I still remember the real, physical tingle of excitement when the school librarian handed me my first Jules Verne and explained it was like Wild Wild West, only better because it was a book.

    I'm reveling in this current pop culture fad for steampunk! I can fill my house and wardrobe with all the gears, cogs, keys, pocket watches, hot air balloons, velocipedes, bustles, corsets, steam engines, frills, furbelows, and space-going clipper ships I ever wanted! Plus, I've discovered unexpected delights like this blog and Jen at Epbot. I'm in gaslight geek heaven.

    Really, I should have predicted that some "pureblood" snotrag wants to come all over rightiously indignant because new kids have found his playground. I'm reminded of how the computers nerds threw hissy fits when the unworthy masses discovered the internet. You should have heard the b*tching back then!

    I've waited a half a century for the rest of the world to catch up with my imagination and no amount of churlish, ill-mannered dogs in their manger is going to spoil it for me. You're welcome to pass my response on to the original poster, if it pleases you.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to paste a few die-cut cardboard brass-colored clock gears to my tea cozy.

    1. :) Thanks! Steampunk is awesome and people are generally very welcoming. But in any subculture there are always going to be hipsters who want to dictate who is "authentic" and who is not.

  4. It's sad that people insist on ruining everything for others. I'm glad to see that the other commentors are choosing not to be deterred by those who want to make Steampunk and other fabulous movements like it exclusive so they can feel superior.

  5. I couldn't agree more. Steampunk, after all, represents an alternative future of the Victoria era. As such, it allows for a wide variety of interpretations. For instance, I have this nifty lens for my goggles that has this cool LED targeting display. Is this really steampunk? Well it is if I use my imagination! And I really like how it looks. After all, it's not as if electricity was a completely unknown quantity in the Victorian era. Both Edison and Tesla were born and lived part of their lives in that era.

    As far as gears go, they are really the symbol of steampunk. Steampunk at least to some degree is becoming a fashion beyond costuming. I imagine this will involve much use of non-functional gears and even gear patterns in clothing.

    Having said all that, I find the following hilarious anyway:

  6. it is funny how there is the whole 'Be Splendid' thing, but many steampunks are very snobby. When I look back on my first outfits 5 years ago, they weren't great but not many people are good when they start out.
    Just yesterday I sewed a laser cut gear onto my new tricorn, and very nice it looks too!

  7. Thank you so much for posting this. I follow several steampunk groups on facebook and have been very discouraged lately by the rampant "I hate useless gears" response to any post picturing a non-working gear. It's just rude. And wrong. And I'm not just saying that because I love gears.

    Many years ago I was part of a baby name community, and when a name came up a person didn't care for, they would use the shorthand "NMS" for "Not My Style". It was a gentle way of saying, "I wouldn't pick it, but if you like it, go for it." I think the steampunk forumns would benefit from something similar. Perhaps "NMCOT" for "Not My Cup of Tea".

    1. I like your idea. Rudeness is unfortunately epidemic everywhere in society these days, and I mourn when it shows itself in the steampunk community. So, yes, I think "Not My Cup of Tea" is a perfect way of expressing oneself.

  8. I love the comments you make here. My best friend/business partner and I have spent time developing our own version of Steampunk jewelry, and we do a lot of "glueing gears." For example:

    I've been a closet Victorian for years, ever since a college thesis sent me down a research rabbit-hole. I made that transition to Steampunk pretty easily and love the look. Like you, I like how gears look. I like mechanical. I like the implication of use. I agree that Victorians made everything ornate, and used everything in decorations (hair jewelry, much?).

    There's some snobbery about how these things turn out, and I always wonder why. Not literally every single person in the Victorian era dressed "Victorian." Depending on your class, and your finances within the class, looks differed. Your home made a difference. Some people clung to older fashions. Some embraced the new. It's not that different from now.

  9. I am afraid I fall in to the category of people you hate, lol. I don't deride people in public for their choices, but in my head I just can't stand the "look! I put a gear and key on this! It's Steampunk now!" look of a lot of the pre-made stuff you can buy out there.

    To me, Steampunk gear should at least imply functionality. It doesn't need to actually work, but it should, for the sake of appearances, seem that it could. Wires that go no where...random keys to nothing...gears that are just "there"... I don't get it.

    I don't think people need to know how to costume with heavy machinery or be electrical engineers, I mean - who has time and money for that?? I just avoid anything that has gears thrown on or stamped on for the sake of making it "Steampunk". Everything on my costume has a purpose or an appearance of purpose.

    I think I am elitist or a snob. I think it is just my opinion. I love looking at everybody's costumes. Every one is unique.

  10. I'm sort of torn between loving the aesthetic of the random gears and really not liking it because ... well... the gears do nothing. I think there are ways of piecing together an outfit with all that as decoration to make it look beautiful. The gears don't have to *do* anything at all but I am very particular about the arrangement of them. I like a bit more effort and thought going into things rather than just "glue a gear on it". A friend of mine makes magnificent jewellery pieces which incorporates all that stuff. That's how I like to see it done. :)

  11. Thanks for this article, I couldn't agree more. The nice thing is, I actually know a Steampunk (Horatius Steam) who creates wonderful functioning Steampunk computers, MP3-Players, telephones and other things AND decorates them often with gears, because he thinks - like you - that the opposite attitude will discourage newbies from trying out steampunk crafting.

  12. This is an important point. The steampunk movement will be choked off if we can't be friendly to both newbies and a variety of artistic visions. We all have our own opinions on art and our own approaches to making and supporting art.

    Honestly, I have yet to see a great collection of steampunk inspirations that chooses to follow all of the guidelines. As we have more artists that choose to work in the genre, it's more likely to be possible, but purity seeking would be a sad sacrifice indeed. Are we going to stop loving Tesla because he used electricity, HG Wells because he wasn't a welder, or Charles Worth because he didn't love machinery?

  13. Love the post... and technically love Steampunk. It's that general "no, you're wrong, that's not steampunk because..." attitude I've seen in the community that makes it completely offsetting for anyone who would want to be a part of it. Not about to spend a lot of time and effort doing my best on an outfit, weapon, whatever, to have the first person who sees it shoot it down.

    I think that attitude among people in that community is a sure-fire way to kill any new blood in it. A shame.