Crafting women’s narratives: the material impact of twenty-first century romance fiction on contemporary steampunk dress
Rollins, Shannon Marie
Science fiction author K.W. Jeter coined the term ‘steampunk’ in his 1987 letter to the editor of Locus magazine, using it to encompass the burgeoning literary trend of madcap ‘gonzo’-historical Victorian adventure novels. Since this watershed moment, steampunk has outgrown its original context to become a multimedia field of production including art, fashion, Do-It-Yourself projects, role-playing games, film, case-modified technology, convention culture, and cosplay alongside science fiction. And as steampunk creativity diversifies, the link between its material cultures and fiction becomes more nuanced; where the subculture began as an extension of the text in the 1990s, now it is the culture that redefines the fiction. As this shift occurs, women’s narratives have grown in prominence and the treatment of female characters has become more three-dimensional than those of Jeter’s initial cohort. This new wave of authors like Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest, Ekaterina Sedia, and Adrienne Kress write a generation of bold female leads that appeal to millennial readers; this body of fiction is balanced by the efforts of steampunk bloggers and academics like Suna Dasi, Diana M. Pho, and Jaymee Goh who challenge steampunk’s canon for representation, diversity and appropriate treatment of race, gender, and sexuality. As more authors, makers, cosplayers, and academics work towards intersectional creativity and balanced narratives, steampunk becomes more focused on personal storytelling and less anchored to a literary canon. In this thesis, I investigate in what ways – and with what tools – women craft their own narratives and cultivate representation inside the steampunk cultural space, thereby transforming it. I explore the symbiotic nature of women’s storytelling and women’s dress in steampunk culture, tracing the link between character descriptions and development in fiction with the material qualities of women’s convention looks, fashion designs, cosplay, ‘steampunk light’ (casual street-style looks), styled photoshoots, and social media content and interactions. In my study of women’s narratives, I place particular focus on the impact of steampunk romance and romantic fiction – and the expectation of women to write romance – as the cypher linking inspiration to creative practices. My investigation is an intertextual probe into the osmotic nature of fiction and fashion, analysing Anglo-American steampunk writing and dress practices’ interplay. This analysis hinges on two theoretical points: narratives of becoming and being gender performance (Butler 1990, 1991, 1993; Halberstam 1998; McRobbie 1980, 2004) and inverse ekphrasis (Heffernan 1991 and Domínguez et al. 2015), a condition where the literary inspires life. At the thesis’s close, it will have provided the first detailed academic analysis of steampunk women’s fashion and gender performance as they are both written and informed by the contexts – and connotations – of romance fiction.