The Evolution and Cultural Impact of Steampunk Glasses
With their circular lenses, intricate brass gears, and leather straps, steampunk glasses have become one of the most iconic accessories within the steampunk community. But where did this retro-futuristic eyewear originate and how did it become such a staple of the culture?
The History of Goggles Leading to Steampunk Eyewear
To trace the lineage of steampunk glasses, one must go back to the origins of goggles themselves. The earliest protective eyewear date back to prehistoric Inuit tribes who fashioned snow goggles from carved antler bone, leather, and wood. The goggles featured narrow slits that filtered light and prevented snow blindness.
As technology progressed, goggles took on more scientific purposes. In the 1700s, furnace operators utilized dark smoky lenses to protect from flying sparks and debris. Lathe workers wore impact goggles as early industrial machinery emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Scientists like Alessandro Volta began experimenting with electrically heated goggles to study heat rays.
By the late 1800s, motorcycle enthusiasts adopted aerodynamic auto goggles for racing. Aviators and underwater explorers donned specialized goggles as they pushed new frontiers. The steampunk vision of retro-futurism has its roots in this late 19th century setting where science, industry, and adventure intersected.
The Origins of Steampunk Eyewear in Costumes and Fashion
Steampunk goggles first emerged in the late 1980s as fans crafted costumes to emulate their favorite retro-futuristic fiction. Science fiction works like The Difference Engine, John Carter of Mars, and early Jules Verne stories had sparked an interest in neo-Victorian science and technology. Readers drawn to this speculative aesthetic began attending sci-fi conventions dressed in costumes inspired by dimension-hopping, steam-powered technology and mad scientists.
Leather aviator caps, welding aprons, and most iconically, goggles were early costume elements. Makers crafted steampunk goggles from scavenged odds and ends like wood, antique lenses, clock parts, and brass to evoke the tinkering of explorers, engineers, and innovators of a fantastical past. The prominent protective eyewear represented a spirit of discovery, experimentation, and daring escapades.
By the 1990s, steampunk caught on more widely as movies, books, and games tapped into the aesthetic. Mainstream fashion and aesthetics drew inspiration from steampunk’s mix of sci-fi and history. Steampunk glasses transitioned from DIY costumes to accessories available for sale to the public.
Early steampunk goggles took design cues from antique pince-nez, monocles, and magnifying glasses to mimic Victorian-era frames. Designers added fanciful filigrees, clockwork details, and faux hydraulic attachments to evoke a sense of retro-futuristic engineering. While modern sunglass companies produced mass-market styles, high-end designers created bespoke steampunk eyewear featuring precious metals, custom ornamentation, and exquisite parts for avid collectors.
Functional Steampunk Eyewear as Fashion Spreads
In the 2000s and beyond, steampunk eyewear caught on beyond just costume wear. Mainstream eyeglass companies like Frances Klein Optical and Artsee Eyewear realized many customers wanted to incorporate steampunk flair into their everyday fashion. This demand spawned prescription glasses and sunglasses that blended neo-Victorian elegance with modern functionality.
The frames telegraph steampunk style with winding exposed gears, sprockets, and riveted metalwork, but the lenses are contemporary prescription suitable or solar protective. Companies like Neubau Eyewear, Cutler and Gross, and Jacqueline Nicholls create statement sunglasses incorporating subtle steampunk influences in handcrafted metals and intriguing shapes.
On the more utilitarian end, brands have optimized steampunk goggles for practical use beyond theater. Sky Optical, Arena, and BESO developed performance ski and snowboard goggles that protect eyes while exuding neo-Victorian flair. Motorcycle companies like Brutus, Twin Birds, and Veldt offer steampunk goggles for riders seeking protective road eyewear the encapsulates their personal style.
Some designers have leaned into the pragmatic origins of goggles by devising fold-down steampunk magnifiers. Models from William Morris, Eye Respect, and WeWearCrap feature hinged magnifying lenses perfect for close examination like a scientist, machinist, or investigator. Form matches function while still celebrating steampunk retro-futurism.
How Steampunk Glasses Embody the Subculture
Beyond a fashion statement, steampunk glasses are symbolic of the subculture’s hallmark marriage of fantasy, history, escapism, and boundless creativity. They encapsulate an idiosyncratic view of the past as a springboard for imagined possibilities.
Serious steampunk fans will meticulously hand-craft goggles as an act of passion and self-expression. Events like the Steampunk World’s Fair include contests recognizing the most elaborate and well-accessorized costume eyewear. Online groups like The League of S.T.E.A.M provide beginner tips on how to create your own steampunk goggles from scratch.
The glasses represent steampunk’s spirit of collaboration, whimsy, and welcoming eccentricity. Women find empowerment donning bold steampunk goggles in defiance of restrictive Victorian mores. The anachronistic eyewear lets the wearer inhabit exciting alternate worlds where adventure and romance intermingle.
On a philosophical level, strapping on a pair of steampunk goggles shifts perspective and opens the mind to imagined possibilities. It represents looking at modern society through a lens that remixes old and new, real and unreal. More than a historical re-enactment, steampunk glasses speak to the freedom to re-envision culture.
Cultural Influences of Steampunk Eyewear in Media
Steampunk glasses have become globally recognized visual shorthand for neo-Victorian sci-fi thanks to their ubiquity across media. Books, films, animation, comics, and video games have all utilized goggles as quick visual cues.
In films like Wild Wild West, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Steamboy, steampunk glasses lend characters an air of retro-futuristic genius. Animated works including Fullmetal Alchemist, Last Exile, and Howl’s Moving Castle incorporate steampunk eyewear to suggest speculative fantasy technologies.
Steampunk video games frequently outfit characters in goggles to convey 19th century science fiction themes. In Bioshock Infinite, Dishonored, Skies of Arcadia, and Code Name S.T.E.A.M, elaborate custom googles signal players have entered a world of anachronistic technologies and neo-Victorian sci-fi.
Nods to steampunk have even entered children’s cartoons like Phineas and Ferb, which outfit the inventive protagonists in steampunk-inspired lab goggles and pilot glasses. Countless books, graphic novels, tabletop and video games continue to use steampunk glasses as visual shorthand denoting retro-futuristic technology.
Performers and musicians also frequently don steampunk goggles both on and off stage to telegraph their interest in the subculture. Thomas Dolby, Joyce DiDonato, Jada Pinkett Smith, Colbie Caillat, and pan flutist Zoe Keating have all accessorized with signature steampunk eyewear during public appearances.
While sometimes treated as kitschy shorthand, steampunk glasses still succeed in sparking interest and conveying an imaginative “what if” spirit that fuels design creativity.
The Evolution of Materials and Manufacturing Methods
The materials and fabrication methods of steampunk glasses continue to evolve. While brass, copper, leather, and wood remain ubiquitous, new technologies like 3D printing have allowed more elaborate designs.
Companies on Etsy like SteampunkGearsandGadgets use 3D printing to create affordable nylon goggles impossible to produce through traditional handcrafting. Dutch designer Jouw Bril specializes in 3D printed eyewear allowing very fine, delicate latticework. Other designers use 3D printing alongside metal plating to combine strength, intricacy and functionality.
Laser cutting and waterjet cutting streamline producing precision brass goggle adornments with complex patterns. Computer numeric control (CNC) milling machines can customize metal and wood components for precision fittings. The expanding digital fabrication options grant eyewear-makers more creative control than ever before.
At the same time, many artisans still employ traditional hand skills through metalsmithing, leatherworking, and carpentry to capture the neo-Victorian spirit. Companies like Nohns Handcraft focus on small-batch eyewear made start-to-finish by hand. The juxtaposition of modern manufacturing and old-world crafting mirrors the anachronistic underpinnings of steampunk style.
Possibilities for Smart and Virtual Steampunk Glasses
As augmented reality and virtual reality evolve, digitally enhanced steampunk goggles may lie ahead. Modern smart glasses already incorporate features like head-mounted displays in everyday eyewear. Devices like Google Glass and Vuzix Blade allow overlaying digital information and media in your vision.
Imagining a steampunk twist, companies like Anthropic are already developing AI assistants designed to mimic helpful companions from neo-Victorian fiction. One could envision a pair of ornate brass goggles with discreet ultrathin electronics enabling an interactive AI guide to a virtual steampunk realm.
Virtual reality companies have already partnered with steampunk clothing brands like Steampunk Outfitters to create digitally rendered environments compatible with VR goggles. As VR technology improves, it’s easy to picture donning fantastical custom headset goggles bringing you face-to-face with an impossible neo-Victorian metropolis.
Augmented and virtual reality offer exciting possibilities to extend steampunk glasses beyond fashion accessories into functional devices bringing virtual worlds to life. But even digitally enhanced, their anachronistic brass and leather designs will always keep wearers grounded in imaginative escapism and retro-futuristic possibility.
The Enduring Popularity of Steampunk Glasses
Steampunk glasses have evolved from a niche costume prop to a widely recognized emblem of sci-fi possibility. As eyewear, they fuse utilitarianism with creativity and self-expression. As a cultural symbol, they embody adventure, nonconformity and embracing the past to re-envision the future.
New followers continue discovering steampunk’s welcoming ethos and community every day. For them, donning a handcrafted pair of goggles serves as a rite of passage. It represents abandoning scepticism, embracing wonder, and daring to dream of thrilling possibilities. No matter how far virtual reality hardware evolves, steampunk glasses will always represent choosing to view life through a perspective of imagination.