Gary Oldman wearing PradaThe media has recently been abuzz about a statement from IBM that, according to analysis by one of their supercomputers, Steampunk style will be big in the coming fashion seasons.

(By “the media,” of course, I mean a few sci-fi and steampunk-centric blogs… full disclosure Steve)

IBM’s supercomputers apparently noticed a lot of steampunk-related chatter on blogs and gaming sites, and therefore made the prediction that steampunk was the next Big Thing, and we’d all soon be looking like Gary Oldman in his recent Prada photoshoot (left).

So, what’s the real likelihood that we’ll be checking out steampunk fashions at Target soon?

Let’s start with these points.  One: “Chatter” is a long way from “fashion.”  Steampunk is a fun genre to play in and talk about; it’s an odd mix of Victorian fashion and mostly fictional technology, combined with decidedly non-Victorian 21st century attitudes and mores.  It has a fascinating and visually distinctive look about it.  But so do many other popular themes, like, say, Star Trek.  And despite Trek’s decades-long popularity, we haven’t seen a Trek-inspired fashion invasion.  This is because Star Trek, like Steampunk, is a niche; and despite its popularity, a smallish one at that.  You need a healthy critical mass before any of the mass market clothing manufacturers are going to bother to make clothes they think you’ll actually buy.

Two: For a fashion to become “in” or “popular,” it has to have something about it that’s compelling to the public.  Steampunk will have a hard time managing that.  First, most of the clothing commonly referred to as SP, frankly, isn’t particularly attractive.  It’s mostly made up of layers of coarse materials that cover up almost all of the body… not something that the beauty-conscious youth are likely to embrace, and though it was great in Victorian England, probably not too comfortable in this globally-warming world.  And the palette is pretty thin, mostly browns.

The stuff that does look good… is expensive.  (There’s a reason Prada is experimenting with SP, but you won’t see their clothes at K-Mart.)  And there aren’t too many places where people can buy used Victorian clothing on the cheap.  The youth who would be the primary market don’t have a lot of money to spend on expensive fashions, and won’t be able to resort to flea markets and army surplus stores to balance out their wardrobe.  So SP won’t be a wardrobe choice; it’ll be a costume party choice, an assortment of a few items kept for a special occasion.

So: Steampunk becoming the next big fashion thing?  Not likely.  However… there are themes related to SP that could find themselves slipping into our daily fashion world.  SP is very utilitarian.  Part of its attraction is the inherent means to carry plenty of things with you, in bags, oversized pockets and attached to various parts of clothing.  In today’s world, where women are often seen using small rolling suitcases for purses, and guys carry around “man bags” to hold their gear, SP fashion provides plenty of ways to accommodate users.  We’ll probably see more clothing and accessories emulating the large bags and deep pockets of SP style.

Steampunk could also bring back the use of brass and steel, to contrast against the uber-elegant and uber-ubiquitous silvers and golds of today.  SP style is early-Industrial, and features large, highly polished appointments to go with the optimistic technological ideas of the period; but it also embraced the tail-end of the artisan’s period, known for highly decorative engraving, elaborate lace and imaginative design.  The decorative fabric patterns, lace and filigrees only available to the rich of that day can now be produced by any factory and bought by any class of consumer.  They will be added to existing designs as decoration and accent.

And maybe the coarse, heavy fabric styles will be emulated by lighter, even diaphanous materials that will recall the pious styles even as they expose skin and thereby deny those styles.  (Unless, I suppose, continued damage to the ozone layer forces us to cover ourselves with heavier materials and hats again…)

What we will end up with will be a hybrid of old and modern fashions that won’t be Victorian or even steampunk, it will be… something else.  A style that sort of bookends the Industrial Revolution and represents the entire era at once.  I’d call it Indion—Industrial Revolution—or Neovic—NeoVictorian, as I applied it to my latest novel—but then I’m hardly a fashion expert.

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