In conversations and research, certain concepts, ideas, pop up repeatedly, as if they're core principles of How To Do Steampunk. Among them is customization, the idea that you can take something that may or may not have been mass-produced, tinker with it, and make it "your own", so to speak, fitting your taste and persona. Sometimes customization means ordering it made just for you, and paying for the service. Sometimes customization also means using something as it is, but in a way that is different from what it was originally made for.
We can call this knack any number of names. Pastiche, the bringing together of elements from many different places into a cohesive whole, in which the elements are recognizable, is one way. Bricolage, my other favourite, the twisting of elements from their original purpose into another cohesive whole, is another. Sometimes we go whole hog, and sometimes we just pilfer little things here and there.
What interests me is this intersection of customization and class privilege, which is another thing I've seen come up time again.... from people who would like to get into steampunk. They don't, because that entails the disposable income to firstly buy these things, and secondly, the further disposable income to customize them.
Even if you make your own things, or modify them yourself, you have to be in possession of a few other things that enable this: the requisite skills, and the requisite tools.
The skills one may be lucky enough to have learned, through exposure. Some of us do still grow up in families that preserve these skills. Some of us are lucky enough to meet others who are willing to share their knowledge (like me; I knew some basic stitching from Home Economics in secondary school, but without Wilma I certainly would never have developed past that).
The tools, one may be lucky enough to have inherited, or maybe one picks them up over a long period of time at the same time one picks up the skills.
But let us assume a lack of access to either--let us remember that most of us don't have the disposable income to buy the tools, nor the disposable time to learn the skills. What then? What are their options? Payment.
I hesitate to say that steampunk can only be exclusive as a result of this. I'm sure that there are ways in which working-class people are participating. It may be more accurate to say that they are living the steampunk life, not merely participating in the subculture.
At this conjecture, anyone who feels compelled to point to steampunk books in which working-class characters are strong, admirable protagonists---PUT. THE BOOK. DOWN. I am of course aware that many fine authors feature working-class protagonists, and have reviewed a few such books. I'm not talking about the literary imagination, I am talking about real life, and in real life, at our real-life steampunk cons, we would not openly open a conversation on our income background.
Mostly because that's not the function of these cons. These are escapist spaces where we move to get away from the real world for a bit.
This exists in tension with the fact that we have to support our artists, who are dedicating their time and often a lot of emotional investment in making money through their art. I've never really seen a discussion that honestly tackles the fact that we encourage the development of specific skill-sets and then also encourage the consumption of the production of these skill-sets. The idea is that the community has space for both: not everyone has the inclination to develop skills, so they buy instead. And this isn't necessarily contradictory, but I think it is worth interrogating how it is really working out for us and asking what dynamic our communities are supporting.
This sort of DIY personal expression is very appealing--that you could fit into the group and yet still maintain a unique look that you could wear to perform a role. I don't think there is any real tribalism going on in steampunk communities, but certainly like other aesthetics past, it's congealed communities around itself.