Why “Steampunk” is NOT “Cosplay”

Ok, before I begin here, I guess I’ll be fair: SOME steampunk costumes are cosplay. Meaning that a person can dress in a steampunk style in order to represent a character… while cosplaying. However, steampunk does not EQUAL cosplay, and I think that’s the purpose of this short, informative article.

I was inspired to write this after searching etsy.com last night for “cosplay.” As we all know, I’m getting a bit crafty in my old age and am starting to think it might be a good idea to sell some work. I was rather surprised to find, however, that what passes for “cosplay” on Etsy is mostly, in a word, “steampunk.” Page after page of gears, leather, and copper stared back at me, when all I was hoping to find was a simple cosplay costume… or weapon prop… heck, even an anime-inspired anything would have been nice.

Now here’s where I’m about to be a bad little English major and go against everything I’ve been taught to bring you… Wikipedia. I could sit here all day and begin to type my own definitions of each art form, but I think that Wikipedia, in this case, actually does a good job of defining each.

So let’s start with what they have to say about cosplay:

Cosplay, short for “costume roleplay”, is a type of performance art in which participants don costumes and accessories to represent a specific character or idea. Characters are often drawn from popular fiction in Japan. Favorite sources include manga, anime, tokusatsu, comic books, graphic novels, video games, hentai and fantasy movies. Role play includes portrayals of J-pop and J-rock stars, Taiwanese puppet characters, science fiction characters, characters from musical stories, classic novels, and entertainment software.

True cosplay! (Naruto group)

If you read through my “About the Project” tab, I basically say the same thing. True cosplay is dressing up to represent a specific character through the use of costume, props, and actions. For example, when I dress up as Saber from Fate/Stay Night, that is true cosplay. When my boyfriend, Griswold, dresses up as a Ghostbuster with a name tag that bears his true-to-life last name, rather than the last name of a Ghostbuster from the actual movie, that is not true cosplay–just a derivative.

Now let’s move on to what steampunk is, again utilizing Wikipedia:

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction, that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes fictional works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era Britain — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, often featuring futuristic technology as the people of this historical period would have envisioned it to look like, i.e. based on a Victorian perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, art, etc. This technology may include fictional machines like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer, but occurring at an earlier date.

Fake cosplay... yet awesome costumes

If you translate all of that into convention terms, that basically means dressing up in goggles, corsets, and leather, while decking yourself out with mining gear, random assorted junk, and gorgeous (yet odd) jewelry made of everything from antique skeleton keys to broken watch parts. This doesn’t mean that you are necessarily dressing as a specific character (as dictated by cosplay standards). Rather, you are just making a fashion statement by shunning modern technology and dressing to represent yesterday’s future today… or something.

Ok, now this is the part that will really blow your minds. So I’ve just proven that steampunk does not equal cosplay. Yet, some cosplay equals steampunk. As in, there are some animes (or sci-fis, or movies, or what have you) which are clearly derived from a steampunk universe, and thus, dressing in a steampunk outfit as a character from that anime (or show, or movie….) would be perfectly acceptable as cosplay.

Consider, if you will, acceptable sources of steampunk cosplays, including (but not limited to!):

Fullmetal Alchemist, Steamboy, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, Disney’s Atlantis, Howl’s Moving Castle, Wild Wild West, Metropolis, Van Helsing, etc.

So the next time you decide to put on a monocle, strap a gun to one thigh and dynamite to the other, and don a corset and tulle, remember: You are NOT cosplaying. Unless there really is an anime character out there who wears all of the aforementioned costume pieces, in which case… then you ARE cosplaying.

Ok, I think you get it. Rant over.

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4 Responses to Why “Steampunk” is NOT “Cosplay”

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  3. Anonymous says:

    And yet, there is a flaw in your reasoning. If we look back into your quote of what cosplay is, “Cosplay, short for “costume roleplay”, is a type of performance art in which participants don costumes and accessories to represent a specific character or idea.” The key word there is IDEA. Steampunk is an idea, and when in the context of cosplaying, it fits the parameters. Another quote from the wikipedia article is, “Characters are often drawn from popular fiction in Japan.” Does that limit what you can cosplay? No. Although it does say characters, it doesn’t mention who the characters are and whether or not they’re original or canon of any sort.

    I’m not trying to bash your idea, because it seems like, to me, that your idea of cosplay is a bit elitist and puritan instead of all-encompassing and they pure enjoyment of representing an “idea.” I just want to say stop being so nitpicky about that, because who are you to say what’s right and what’s wrong? Who am I to say that same thing? Rather, just enjoy cosplay for what it is.

    • paladinari says:

      No, your points are valid, and I appreciate some reasonable feedback!

      Again, it’s not as though I don’t appreciate the Steampunk genre for its design aesthetic. And, according to the Wikipedia article, Steampunk should be considered cosplay for, as you pointed out, the “idea” (in this case, a fictional, Victorian-based world which is powered by steam and imagination).

      I like the word “puritan” to describe my cosplay ideal. However, it’s not like I’m going to go to a convention and rail on a completely awesome costume just because it’s not canon. People should be given credit for what they achieved and for what they decided to turn themselves into for the day (whether it be pure character roleplay, Steampunk fashion, full lolita regalia, fur suit…). So it’s not like I don’t like Steampunk, but you’re right, I’m personally a bit wary of considering it cosplay, just for the fact that it does not represent a specific character; specific idea aside.

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