The Substance Behind Steampunk Style
The emergence of steampunk as a genre and a style has arguably been one of the more significant developments of 21st century pop culture. Steampunk itself is difficult to define, due to the fact that there has never been any "official" organization present to provide those definitions or parameters. But this is the paradox of the steampunk movement itself-not having a specific set of criteria for what is or is not steampunk is one of the appeals of steampunk. Some people have even commented that steampunk is "whatever you declare that it is", but that's a little too loose of a definition to count for much.
Since we don't have any "written-in-stone" standards for what qualifies as steampunk, the least we can do is put on our detective hat (pipe optional) and determine what themes are common among images, movies, and art that are labeled "steampunk", and hopefully draw our clues from that. One of the most common themes we see present in steampunk imagery is a sort of fantasy world where past meets future; specifically Victorian-era or Edwardian-era fashion and sensibilities of the past meeting possible technological advances of the future. One of the most appealing aspects of steampunk to me personally is the emphasis on anachronistic machines that are "tweaked" in some manner to also appear futuristic. In the world of steampunk, many things are steam-powered and carry the look of the early Industrial Age, where corsets, handlebar mustaches and top hats abound, but yet they may be combined with clothing or devices that appear centuries later in history's timeline.
Steampunk (according to many definitions) falls loosely under the category of costume play, or "cosplay" for short. The reason for this is that steampunk enthusiasts will attend gatherings where they can wear their latest cyber-influenced monocle or necklace made of old watch gears and the like. Most of us who are somewhat fond of steampunk appreciate the combination of elements of early Industrial Age machinery and more modern cyberspace references. Some people refer to steampunk as cyberpunk for the same reasons.
What lends steampunk its strength is the emphasis on creativity, and on the process of using somewhat "ready-made" objects of the past to create something new and innovative. This provides substance to the style of steampunk. Although steampunk (along with practically every other thing in life) will have its detractors and critics, one thing that nobody can refute is that it is a great channel for creative expression.