Steampunk: should we be worried?

For those of you who don’t know what Steampunk is, here is Urban Dictionary’s definition:

Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.

Essentially, anything that looks like it has cogs and airships added for no reason. The entry goes on to list Steampunk films including Wild Wild West and Van Helsing (though, strangely, it misses League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).

Let’s be clear here, steampunk is counter-factual history par excellence. It’s what would happen if you took the past, cherry picked the bits that appealed to you, and left the rest behind. Take, for example, Phillip Pullman’s best selling ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. The only film that came out of it managed to massively miss its estimated target audience, explaining why the next two books didn’t follow (and you just know that third one would have been split into *at least* two more films).

Golden Compass's take on London

The still above is from that film, ‘The Golden Compass’. It is modern-day London (yes, there is a brass zeppelin and a steam train – you’re beginning to get the point). The whole story was so in love with the idea of steampunk that it invented an alternate steampunk universe, and spent the entirety of the first book there. The second book went a step further and got a normal lad from Earth Prime and gives him a magical knife so that he can cut his way into steampunk universe any time he damn well pleases.

As someone whose friends include a guy who regularly wears a top hat just because it’s a Wednesday (I’m looking at you, Spindles!), I am wary of pissing off the steampunk community. So let’s not pick on the ones that are beyond our remit and set in the ‘modern’ world.

…just randomly spinning the roulette wheel of rage here…

…one moment…

Wild Wild West!

Wild Wild West Spider

What’s that? It’s too easy to be scornful of a film with a giant mechanical spider set in the American west? Well screw you. I’m not going to go easy on a subculture that emphasises visual aesthetics over… let’s be honest, it just straight raises two fingers to functionality. On Earth Prime, giant mechanical spiders wouldn’t exist, not because they were impossible to build, but because the logistics of refueling, or just coordinating the movement of eight limbs is not worth the effort.

So, is steampunk a threat to the portrayal of history?

No.

To a lesser extent, this is because steampunk has had its moment (for now at least). The late 90s and early 00s were the heyday of the trend, with Hellboy: The Golden Army being the last high water mark. And if that’s not a screaming indictment, I don’t know what is.

But more importantly, the steampunk community isn’t really interested in history for its own sake. Yes, they may be some of the most well-read people you’ve met, but that’s predominantly because they want to have cool historical things to Show and Tell.

Steampunk is a distraction, but a harmless one, and for that we can forgive it its willful ignorance of basic engineering.

Things We Did To History In 2014

Dracula Untold

This was the year I started this blog and, looking at how popular it has been, I think it was a good time to do so. 2014 has been a very interesting year for history. We really won’t just let it stay in the past. We insist on bringing it up again and again, and we don’t mind distorting it for our own entertainment. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to run down the top 12 posts of the last year for your consumption.

#12 American food in Lord of the Rings

This February blog argued that, if Middle Earth is supposed to be set in prehistoric Europe, the tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins are completely out of place. What’s more, strictly speaking, it probably should be cannabis they are smoking, not tobacco.

Radagast the Brown gets high
If ‘Old Toby’ was really just tobacco, would it have this affect?

#11 Counterfactual histories are *so* hot right now

When it comes to history in popular culture, counterfactual histories (which did not happen, and would’ve changed the course of history if they had) are pretty damn popular. Don’t be surprised if we revisit this topic later. Hat tip to Alternate History for linking to this article.

Assassin's Creed I's Altair
Assassin’s Creed I’s Altair

#10 Chatting with Brick to the Past

2014 has also been the year of the Lego brick, with the franchise releasing a major blockbuster this year. In much the same spirit, I had a conversation with James Pegrum, who specialises in building historical Lego models. Since that conversation, he has set up a group, called Brick to the Past, and they go from strength to strength.

I’m a firestarter by James Pegrum
I’m a firestarter – courtesy of James Pegrum – the Great Fire of London begins

#9 Interviewing Mr Happle Tea: Scott Maynard

We are very lucky to have spoken to a large number of creative history fans this year. One man who embodies this trait is Scott Maynard, the illustrator behind the Happle Tea web comic. If you’re into crude humour and interesting historical facts, this is the place for you.

Horus gets The Talk
With a back-story like this, who needs childhood trauma?

#8 The time that cinema forgot

As someone who is interested in film and history, I can’t help but notice that some time periods just don’t get the same kind of coverage that others do. In this blog, I got all analytical and worked out exactly *how* neglected those periods are. Verdict? There’s plenty of scope for more films throughout our earlier history, but that imbalance isn’t likely to be fixed any time soon.

graph showing that recent history is far more popular as a film subject than older topics
Prehistory is particularly neglected

#7 Historical Honey tells us what historical figures would be doing now

Bored with modern celebrities? The lovely Historical Honey gave us a guest blog about what the heroes and villains of our past would get up to if they were around today. Would they slink to the shadows? Or are they more likely to grab the limelight, ever the attention grabber? What do you think?

What would Lucezia Borgia be doing now?
Is this what Lucezia Borgia would be doing now?

#6 Anne Boleyn is my spirit animal

One thing that I definitely needed to address this year is just why Anne Boleyn is so popular with the world of web historians. Because she is. If historians anywhere need a figurehead, this woman is, apparently, the one to go for. Thanks again to Historical Honey for the inspiration.

Anne Boleyn
Natalie Portman’s Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl

#5 Profiling the most influential wizard in the modern age

Alan Moore is, primarily, a graphic novelist. But he’s also a wizard, and a cult icon, and he really doesn’t like it when people get taken advantage of. So when he cropped up in the news twice in one week, in historically-related areas, I figured it was only fair we had a look at him, and why he matters.

This is Alan Moore in 2009. He's speaking at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, but I like to think he's rolling his lucky D20. Published under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0, courtesy of Matt Bidulph https://www.flickr.com/people/51035707449@N01
This is Alan Moore in 2009. He’s speaking at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, but I like to think he’s rolling his lucky D20. Published under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0, courtesy of Matt Bidulph https://www.flickr.com/people/51035707449@N01

#4 Vampires; what history wouldn’t say if it could speak

If there’s one vaguely-historical thing the public loves, it’s vampires. They’ve got that whole neck-nibbling thing going on. What with them being immortal, any film, TV series, or game that features them could quite justifiably see itself heading into the past at some point. But how helpful are vampires as a medium for history?

Dracula Untold
Dracula as he probably never looked

#3 That time I interviewed a YouTube sensation

Epic Rap Battles of History is an important part of modern culture, inasmuch as it teaches young people about important historical figures through the medium of confrontational music and aggressive posturing. With that in mind, I felt it was only appropriate to get one of the show’s creators in to discuss the hows and whys of the show.

 

#2 Someone we should all know more about

Janine Spendlove is a high school history teacher/US Marine/pilot/published author/mother/historical cosplayer. While all of those things are pretty impressive, and combined they’re are totally awesome, it was that last one that particularly interested us. We had a chat with the woman behind the outfits to find out how she does it.

Janine's Wonder Woman costume
Janine’s Wonder Woman costume

#1 When feminist satire ruled history

By far my most popular blog this year has been the time I interviewed Erin and Morag from Manfeels Park. The web comic combines quotes from actual comment threads and combines them with art from Jane Austen films, to highlight just how silly they are. Further comment threads ensue.

Mansplaining Manfeels Park
Real-world comments, in the mouths of Jane Austen characters

And that’s about it. It has been a busy first year for History Mine, and of course, we’ll be back next year. I’d like to end by giving further nods to people like Jamie (of History Behind Game of Thrones) and Kelly (of The Archaeology of Tomb Raider) for their support. Happy New Year everybody!

Europeans reinvent historical art

There have been a few really interesting galleries on viral sites over the last week or so. It seems that photographers from a number of different European nations have been thinking about novel ways to re-imagine historical art. Since there seems to be a bit of a trend going on, I thought it might be interesting to share some of my favourites here:

First up is Swiss Italian, Christian Tagliavini, whose photos recreate the angular weirdness of Renaissance paintings, but with photo-realism.

Christian Tagliavini’s Renaissance portraits in Berlin

Or there’s French photographer, Léo Caillard, who thought that  some of the worlds greatest classical sculptures could use an update for the modern era.

Léo Caillard’s re-imagined Jesus

And finally, there’s French photographer Sacha Goldberger, who felt that Snow White would’ve been better if she’d had bunny familiars with ruffs.

I’m a sucker for a bunny in a ruff.

Of course, if you like it when people put a historical spin on a modern thing, you might like this interview with retro-cosplayer Janine Spendlove, or this one, with ‘Shakespeare’s Star Wars’ writer Ian Doescher.

Four historical outfit ideas

Hallowe’en is a little over a week away, and for those of you who would like to reference their passion for historical costumes, I thought it would be interesting to throw some ideas out there, for you to use as you see fit. I, myself, will be going to the Egyptology Live Friday event at the Ashmolean as an unspecified early archaeologist. If you can get there, I totally recommend you go too. It’s free, and awesome fun. I wanted to be Carter or Petrie, but I just can’t grow the beard in time *sheds a single tear*.

I won’t be doing any ‘sexy’ female costumes, because as far as I can tell, you just cut stuff off the standard version. Also, as I understand it, the definition of a sexy has changed significantly over the centuries. Bring back ruffs, I say. They could be hot.

First up, Cave Person. For this, go all Macklemore and get yourself a second-hand fur coat. cut the sleeves off, and use them to hide your footwear. Lash it all together with a few old belts; BAM, you are ready to fight dinosaurs… or something.

One Million Years BC poster

Next on the list, Mummy. This is a strong choice for anyone on a budget, or who didn’t prepare anything earlier. Just head into the toilet, put one end of the loo roll between your ankles swivel on the spot. Yes, you could go higher budget and buy gauze bandages, but if you’re going to do that, you’ll just look like someone with no imagination. And considering you’re already looking on a blog for ideas, frankly, you could do better.

Then, the Classical Greek. Purists may prefer a toga, but a historically-accurate toga takes a metric shit-load of material, and is confusing as hell. To do this you will need a sheet, two safety pins, and a belt. Try to avoid fitted sheets, but if you get one, cut the elastic out and straighten out the corners. Fold it in half, put safety  pins roughly where your shoulders will be, then step into it from the open side. The belt will hold everything in place. I have rocked this look myself in my uni days.

Chiton
Myself, as Helen of Troy, with friends.

Word to the wise, it’s October/November, and frankly this outfit offers no protection against the weather. Even with shorts and a vest underneath, this was still DAMN COLD. Take extra scarfs, or a coat, or something. Or just don’t go with this outfit.

Roman / other armoured individual. The crucial part of this costume is metallic duct tape. N00bs will go for tin foil, but this is a mistake. Foil will not stand up to an evening’s wear and tear. Either layer it up by taping it to a top you already own, or fix the tape back-to-back. When you finish, it will just look like a metallic top, so you’ll wanna embellish with additional decorations, heraldry, etc. Consider taking your collander along and decorating the hell out of it ’til it looks like a Roman Gallea. Job’s a good’un.

This outfit will also work for knights and their ilk. Needless to say, taping an entire outfit up can get a bit tiring, so you can mix things up with a colourful tabard. Girls! I fully support the idea of an armoured woman. If anyone asks, you’re Joan of Arc. None of this videogame armoured underwear.

And as far as I’m concerned, costumes get a lot more fabricy from here onwards. If you have any other ideas, or you actually try one of these out, please leave pictures in the comments section below. If you want more ideas about historical outfits (tasteful and tasteless) check out our clothing articles.

A Quiet Word With: Historical Cosplayer and Complete Polymath @JanineSpendlove

Janine's Wonder Woman costume

I have a new favourite person. She’s a high school history teacher turned US Marine/pilot/published author, but that’s not why I approached her. Her name is Janine Spendlove, and she designs historical versions of historical twists on iconic fictional costumes. One of the projects she has been working on is a renaissance-era Justice League of America. For reasons.

Janine's Wonder Woman costume

History Mine: How exactly did the idea for the Renaissance Justice League of America occur?

Janine Spendlove: At Dragon*Con 2009 our little group of friends all got together for our traditional Monday night dinner (since it seems we rarely get to see each other during the course of the weekend) and we were discussing all the cool steampunk groups we’d seen. We all liked the concept, but none of us were that into steampunk. My husband, Ron, had been trying to convince us to do a Justice League group for a while, but many of us were not keen on running around in skin tight outfits. So then, and I’m not sure quite how it happened, but Ron ended up jokingly saying “Instead of a steampunk JLA, we should do a Renaissance JLA.” And the idea caught fire.

By the end of the dinner we’d had a ton of people say they wanted to do the group, and claiming their characters (Ron and I immediately jumped on Superman and Wonder Woman, our favourites). By the next year many of the original people who wanted to do the group couldn’t, but over the years some people have added in, and others have left. It’s a really fluid group, and any one is welcome to join us. Honestly the only requirement is that you do a Renaissance version of a DC character costume (villains included) – we want to be as inclusive as possible with this group.

HM: How much research did you do?

JS: I knew next to nothing about historical costuming, so I consulted my friend Maggie at Costumer’s Guide, and she pointed me in the right direction. I narrowed down the era and the country I wanted to go with and then settled on a dress that was fairly historically accurate (I ended up picking an Anne Boleyn dress). From there I printed it out in black and white, and coloured it to get the looks and colours I wanted.

Since we couldn’t see Wonder Woman’s iconic boots, I thought using the overskirt to call back to them would be good, so I went with red, lined with two thick white stripes on the outer skirt. This also minimized how much blue with stars there would be on the under-skirt, since I didn’t want to look like an American Flag. I also wanted to have her bracers, so called back to them by having the sleeves lined in metallic silver.

HM: What are your favourite touches from each of the JLA outfits?

JS: This is hard because I really love all aspects of all the costumes. But I’ll name a couple things. For Superman it’s got to be the red striped poofy pants. They make me laugh, and really remind me of Supe’s ‘manties’. For both Batman and Hawkgirl it’s their lovely leather masks – so perfect! The Wonder Twins… their entire costumes crack me up! Jimmy Olsen’s sketch pad so he can draw us is brilliant. Cyclone’s simplicity and focus on her gold logo is perfect, and for my own wonder woman, my favourite part is my lasso!

HM: There isn’t much of a convention culture here in the UK, so could you tell us about it? It seems like you’re changing outfits a lot!

JS: I’m usually at conventions as a writer now, so 99% of the time when I go, it’s to work. Because of my costuming background I do end up judging a lot of costume contests. But, 5-10 years ago there were days at Dragon*Con where I’d wear five different complicated costumes in a day. I honestly don’t know where I got the energy to make all those costumes and change into them and actually get some quality time in them!

Conventions like Dragon*Con have a lot of group meet-ups and it’s a lot of fun, and I wanted to be a part of as many of them as possible. These days, if I take a costume to a con, it’s usually something to compliment my daughter’s costume, or something subtle (like Disney Bounding). I do always take a big costume to Dragon*Con. Lately it’s been my Thor costume for my Avengers group. SO MUCH FUN!

HM: You based the ‘historically accurate Snow White’ outfit on Claire Hummel‘s cartoon. What was the particular appeal of that outfit for you?

JS: I love Snow White and she’s my favourite Disney princess. I took one look at Claire Hummel’s historical version and was like “I MUST HAVE THIS DRESS, LIKE; YESTERDAY.” It was a very visceral reaction. I loved it! This dress is actually my fourth different Snow White costume, so pretty much if you make awesome Snow White fan art, I’ll probably try to find a way to make a costume of it.

 

HM: How much wardrobe space do you need?

JS: HAH! When I was at my peak (sewing a ton of costumes and wearing 15 different costumes at a con) I had an entire room dedicated to storing my costumes and their accessories (in all fairness, like a third of the costumes were my husband’s since we like to do ‘couples costumes’). Then we moved away from the countryside and our large house to a tiny apartment in the city, and had to get rid of a lot of stuff, so I culled down my costumes. So I’d say that my costumes now fill up an entire hanging closet plus four to five large bins of accessories. And I haven’t even touched shoes…

HM: Could you tell us a bit about your books?

JS: I write all kinds of fiction, military sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and more. But what I’m best known for is my fantasy trilogy; War of the Seasons. It’s about a girl named Story who falls into a world filled with trolls, dwarves, elves, dryads, and really nasty faeries that try to kill her a lot.

My favourite part about writing is the research aspect of it, because whether I’m writing fantasy or non-fiction, I’ve always got to dig into history somewhere. For example, my War of the Seasons trilogy is deeply steeped in Celtic mythology, and that was an absolute blast to research not just the mythology itself, but the time period. My next book series will be based in Norse mythology so I’ve been studying up on Vikings; absolutely thrilling!

HM: How the hell do you fit the time in?

LOL! Well, I have written a blog post about that. The big thing is I prioritize my time. For example, with both my Renn Wonder Woman and Snow White I was in the middle of working on a novel I had to finish. There are only so many hours in the day and there was just no time to do both. So in this case, since no one else could write my books, I hired a friend of mine, Jess, to sew my costumes. She had the time, needed the work, and I knew she’d do an amazing job because I’d seen her other work first hand. Win/win for both of us. There are some costumers out there who turn their nose up at people who don’t sew their own costumes. To that I say I’m very sorry for them and their snobby, cliquey attitude. Costuming should be inclusive, not exclusive.

Thanks very much to Janine for chatting with us. The first book in the War of the Seasons trilogy is available to read for free on Wattpad. You check out Janine’s costumes here and her author website is JanineSpendlove.com. She is on social media as JanineKSpendlove or JanineSpendlove.

If you enjoyed this blog then you might also like some of the other interviews I have done, such as the one I did with the ladies behind Manfeels Park, or my chat with historical Lego modeller James Pegrum.