Steampunk & Disability
Here is why I think Victorian-inspired steampunk disability is a fit for me
Anyone I know basically knows me for not growing out of my pink princess stage. I’ve never stopped loving ballgowns, sparkles, and all things girly. My childhood obsession with Barbie and American Girl dolls turned into a love for history, with a special emphasis on the Victorian era. And I’m not the only one. There’s a whole subculture of people who make historical or historical-inspired dresses and host balls where everyone shows up in period clothing.
Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that yes, I’m aware that the past was really sucky for disabled people. Historical style, not values. Seeing all these women in gorgeous gowns, both in old portraits and modern recreations, I wanted to do the same. But there’s one major thing: I have a big, black wheelchair.
I know, I know. We’re in 2021 and everyone is beautiful and can wear whatever they want, no matter the body. But c’mon! Sometimes, medical equipment just looks, well, medical. We all have different styles, but our most important accessories don’t always express who we are.
As a teenager, I discovered the Victorian-inspired world of steampunk and immediately fell in love with it. It’s whimsical. It’s beautiful. And most importantly, disability is a major element of it.
I remember looking through my coloring book and one of the first images was a man wearing goggles with a bionic arm. In my college writing club, I wrote a short scene with a man who had a jeweled eye and another girl said how steampunk it was. I also spent hours on Goodreads admiring the covers of books about girls with clockwork hearts. Having two steel rods in my back, I began to feel steampunk myself. And it felt badass.
The interesting thing about things such as prosthetics, artificial organs, machinery, and other such things invented to help disabled people is that they’re a major element in steampunk culture. Many able-bodied cosplayers transform themselves into characters with fabricated body parts and elaborate mobility aids. When you think about it, just about any inorganic part of your body can be steampunk-ified. Us disabled people are pretty much halfway there with minimal effort. All we have to do is don our tophats and goggles and we’re set.
Growing up, I wondered how on earth my dream wedding would look elegant with my wheelchair. In my fairytale princess fantasies, I would imagine myself as abled because in my mind, disability aids and ballgowns just didn’t mix. And my orthopedic braces or whatever else I had just made me feel like I was more different from everyone else.
Now, I look forward to getting new devices. When I used to see them as ugly, I now see them as one step closer to becoming a super powerful steampunk queen, even if all I’m wearing is a baggy t-shirt.
Okay, but I will admit, many manufacturers still put function way too much over form, but progress is being made in the aesthetics department. While the things we use out and about are cool, a lot of our home equipment is still all the same. Seriously, they’re somehow all the exact same shade of blue. With how creative the steampunk community can be, I’d be so excited to see them partner with manufacturers. They could make my dream of living in a Victorian home to life without having to make sacrifices to how it looks, as I’m sure many other disabled people feel, as well. How pretty our space is affects our mental health, after all.
Unfortunately, I see steampunk kinda starting to die out. Or, at least, it wasn’t as big as it was ten years ago. I’d like to see it become more mainstream because it doesn’t view disability through a medical lens. It makes our condition who we are, part of our story. And it makes corsets and tophats ten times awesomer!
August Pritchett is a disability advocate, a young adult historical fiction writer, obsessed with the 19th and early 20th centuries.