If you hang around steampunks enough, or read much discussion of the topic online, you will probably hear the term "steampunk lifestyle" or "steampunk lifestyler." But what in the world does that mean?
Sometimes the latter term is used to describe someone who wears steampunk dress every day. Now, I'm a cynic, and I think most of the time the term "steampunk lifestyler" is used by and for men who dress slightly more formally than usual. Wearing vests and maybe hats is considered by some sufficient to be a lifestyler. It's certainly a much more complicated issue for women, since bustles aren't generally considered appropriate office wear.
But regardless of whether that particular term is gender biased, I think that's a pretty shallow definition of a steampunk lifestyle. Although steampunk is an aesthetic most often expressed through clothing and costume, I don't think it's all about what you wear.
I think steampunk is also an attitude, a philosophy, and a way of approaching things. Steampunk celebrates DIY, remixing, reusing, and repurposing. Steampunk includes an appreciation for beautiful things, decoration for decoration's sake, and quality craftsmanship. Steampunk doesn't follow the rules and defies expectations.
And I think all of these ideals can be used to live a steampunk lifestyle, regardless of what you happen to be wearing.
I'll be the first to admit, if I'm not at a steampunk event, I'm most likely wearing a T-shirt and some form of pants. (I may also be wearing a corset, but that's not so much a fashion choice as a back-support issue.) I own skirts and more fashionable items, but most of the time I go for the easy and practical. I think it's neat when people want to incorporate a steampunk look into their everyday clothes, but I don't feel any real need to do so. If I worked an office job these days, particularly one where I needed to dress nicely, I might feel differently.
But I still feel that steampunk has affected my life on a deeper level. The number one thing steampunk has taught me is that I can do a lot of things. I can make things from scratch. I can learn new skills. If you take things step-by-step, do your research, and try your best, it's amazing what you can do.
And this knowledge has infiltrated my life in lots of little ways. My first instinct when I need something is no longer to go to the store and buy it. My first thought is "can I make it myself?" Which is why I now make my own laundry detergent, coffee creamer, and cleaning supplies. Recently I realized I really needed new underwear, but decided to try making my own. And I can make them in any fabric, exactly how I want them, in the exact right size and style! Almost all of my household DIY experiments have ended up with me making something that is as good or better than the corporate alternative, for a fraction of the price.
Now obviously DIY isn't unique to steampunk, but for me the two things are really all part of the same attitude. Steampunk celebrates the independent artist, the one of a kind creation, not the mass-produced. And part of that ties in with the original punk rock, anti-corporate ethos. There's no reason to let a corporation get rich selling you something you could easily make yourself, right?
I really do credit steampunk for making me look at the world around me in a different way. I look at my bland home and I want to personalize it. I want to do wild things to the walls and the furniture. And perhaps most importantly, I now have a voice inside me telling me that I CAN do all these things. Even things that scare me, like anything involving power tools or major home repairs, I know deep down I could it do if I researched enough and worked hard enough. I didn't have that inner confidence in my own abilities before steampunk. I was terrified of using a sewing machine! I never would have thought I could make a corset! I definitely never would have tried working with leather, or metal, or any of the other skills I've learned in the last 4 years.
So that's what I think of when I think of "living a steampunk lifestyle." It's about not looking at things in a conventional way, seeing the potential in the everyday, and not being afraid to try new things. It's about looking for ways to make your everyday life more interesting, more beautiful, and less normal. When it comes right down to it, THAT'S why steampunk is important, and it's not just about wearing brown clothes.