A steampunk comes looking for an appropriate fragrance. (Well, doesn't come to Basenotes looking, but to one of the most prominent of steampunkery devoted websites,

But...“steampunk?” “Steampunkery?” Huh?

Would you ever think Jules Verne and H.G. Wells could be topical again? Maybe you've heard the 1980s are back in fashion, but have you heard about the 1890s?

No? Well this will be a fun column then, and I'll explain, but bear with me for a few crazy paragraphs.

Not too long ago, in an Internet forum galaxy far far away, comes a steampunk, Prof. Vincent “Goggles” Langstaff, as he self-identifies, to ask: “Here's an interesting topic I thought up today in the car... If you were to make a steampunk perfume/deodorant smell, what would it be? I for one think that freshly cut wood would make a nice smell... How about you?”

Steampunk is an aesthetic and fashion movement focused on the rational part of the brain--on civil engineering, on the visible power of one gear turning another and converting energy from one place to another in a visible way. Steampunk likes gears, cogs, sprockets--brainchildren visible that fit together and show the mastery and magic of construction over the raw elements. Steampunk has the ideals of the industrial revolution in a sense, a new global expansion through a new technology; and that new tech is...(wait for it)...steam. Steampunk aspires to a time similar to our own when there were new geographical explorations to make, new mixes of chemicals that hadn't been blended before, new mighty machines to launch things, all because of a new technology that made the world smaller and more interconnected. An aesthetic movement of what-would-it-be-like-if-steam-had-made-science-fiction-like-the-Victorians-thought-it-would?

Besides an appreciation for Internet usernames like Phineas and Wigglesworth, and love of objects like zeppelins, steampunk ponders what if the power, social class structure, benevolent aspirations, and aesthetics of the Victorian era could have worked after all? But really, anyone of us who marvels at all the things made to fit together at a hardware store has a streak of steampunk running through the spine.

What fragrance is right for round-the-world-in-eighty-days acted out thanks to what's in your garage?

Steampunks get to come in different varieties too. “Sky pirate” is the fashion of a steampunk who is a pirate on huge zeppelin airships, raiding the passenger zeppelins on the transoceanic trade winds approaching Brazil, say. (Sky pirates are daring, dashing, and demand the jewelry from the ladies aboard captured zeppelins.) You can be a “rivet head” steampunk for your fashion too, and to my regret I have no idea what sets a rivet head apart from any of us walking into the hardware store, but it's a category for you. You can also make your style that of the “mad scientist” steampunk, and use Dr. Frankenstein as your fashion muse.

If you've got a particular love of britches and high leather boots (an upright collar too) then the “explorer” steampunk aesthetic is for you. Or maybe the “elegant gentleman” style for men apparently popularized in Japan, since it appropriates top hats and stripy pants. For women the steampunk fashion options are like in a Joseph Conrad novel; women aren't entirely fleshed out as truly full characters. Steampunk ladies can apparently adorn themselves in Japan's distaff to the elegant gentleman, and pick something called the “sweet lolita” style for their statement.

Don't ask me what those fashions look like (you've got a keyboard and the Internet after all) but what's the smell, what's the scratch 'n' sniff, what's the odor to augment fantasy reality?

Steampunk reflects the military aesthetic of the period too, so you might choose fitted dress uniforms with shaggy epaulettes for your steampunk self-made vision, and pin on any handy medals as well. It would be very steampunk to pick this style, because of course the reality is that it was neat, idealistic, hopeful, “white man's burden fulfilled” and all that, until the Zulus and Boers kicked your colonial rear end and all your childhood friends went to die in Verdun, The Somme, or the Western Front, depending whether you're with the French, British, or Germans, respectively, the principal steampunk zeitgeist powerhouses.


We today live in a newly interconnected world--all the developed world can read this thanks to electronica, to “chips,” to giga this, and mega that. Information passes invisibly because of this technology--hit your keyboard and for invisible reasons the letter stroke appears on your monitor. Think of the rise of steam power and how that created a similar, also newly created, interconnected world. Where all power and movement was visible. Hit your typewriter key and see the metal striker hit the paper. It happens we can learn today about our own scent hunts by a look at how the steampunks go about it. As they envision their world, so do we with ours, and cast ourselves a spell with making a smell.

Does that seem ridiculous though? To be thinking of mad scientist scents or explorer scents, much less rivet head or sky pirate ones? In some ways Professor Vincent Goggles Langstaff is just thinking of the same one-of-a-kind identity we all want to have from a scent. He doesn't want recommendations for a visit to the fragrance counter, he says, “I don't mean something that exists, I'm saying make up your own smell. Describe what a steampunk smelly product would smell like!”

And the descriptions pour in. His fellow academic, “Professor Lidenbrock,” says the steampunk smelly product would be “A subtle blend of Brandy & Pipe Tobacco. Smells like Steam Spirit.”

Miss Goves adds, “For me it'd be a blend of lavender, silver solder and sewing machine oil. Hang on...I smell like that anyway...”

Michaelbeeman says, “Hmmm, gotta go with brass, leather, old paper, all steamed together!”

Take note: the consistent idea Lidenbrock, Goves, and Beeman offer is that a steampunk should smell of the things in the steampunk's imagined environment. The world around you defines what is, so to speak, and defines your own proper smell. Sort of a belief that figuratively we're all in thick woolens that absorb odors around us, and the imagined world imbibed by our woolens sends us home from the steam-stage of the mind like bringing coal to Newcastle.

But that's not the way we go about it in today's visits to fragrance counters.

We live in a plastic world. An HVAC/forced air world (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning, “HVAC”). You've clicked to read this by touching plastic, and if you're as lazy as I am your hands are probably still touching those click-clacking tools right now. Ever smelled a burning car interior? If you need a reminder of what constitutes today's developed world, that's all you need to be reminded: black burnt plastic smoke, melting vinyl, foam with cinders boring into it and hissing with steaming smoke. Noxious puffy black smoke all around. It's no wonder that the cops tell you to get away from a burning car. If you got a whiff it would reveal the false, computer program generated Matrix world of illusion that is plugged into our heads.

Do we search out scents to smell like our times? Just the opposite; we seek out “nature” smells. Woods, waters or oceans, citruses, florals, and I'd say many scents available today fall into a “pastoral” category. We live in the developed and constructed world, but in the scents we apply we want the opposite--bygone eras of simpler times where the smells are connected to the firmament. The opposite of how we really choose to live today. We don't sniff the fans blowing out of our CPUs and say, “Holy smokes! The true smell of our times--where can I get a bottle of it myself?” Unlikely that you shop that way, dear reader, so it's unlikely that you take the perspective that a person today should be an olfactory reflection of the world around you. Would steampunker-timers exclaim, once they've moved to the industrial city, “Make us smell like oil and dust or we'll strike!”?

There's certainly another way steampunkers can get out of smelling of our times and find a way to smell of their time of choice. Wear what was worn before the slaughters in the trenches, for example. Kitten Brigadier thinks this is the way. “I was thinking along the lines of this thread the other day when I was putting on my perfume. I'd imagine for a female, herbal/floral smells would be most attractive.”

Atterton doesn't like that idea: “Yes but there wouldn't be much steampunk/Victorian about herbal/floral smells in themselves.”

But nuts to you Atterton, Professor Lidenbrock replies. “As a child I knew some old ladies who had been born in the Victorian era. My recollection is that they could be divided into those who smelled of Lavender & those who smelled of Lily of the Valley.”

And then there's packaging which makes people think the identity of the juice inside is perfect. Zeppelin Admiral Jarod20 spots a bottle: “I smelt the new Diesel [Fuel for Life, which says “Use with Caution” on the bottle wrap] at Macy's. Pretty hot, and a very industrial/steamy bottle/satchel.” Drake White, a zeppelin captain, agrees. “It smells great and comes in a pre-steamy package.”

Some scent makers make a line of scents to fit the available subculture's aspirations. Take the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab perfume oils company in North Hollywood, California, for example, from which you can select ten fragrances in the “Phoenix Steamworks” line. ( For the work ethic you can pick their scents “No. 93 Engine,” “Aelopile,” or “The Antikythera Mechanism,” but for after hours you can wear “Ether,” described by them this way: “Glass globes fill with sweet vitriol, and the gas passes lazily through slim tubes. A misty fog veils the senses, and the world fades to hazy, opaque nothingness.”

And from the same Web site, for the maidens, here's the titty-show copy for “Violet Ray,” apparently made of white mint, purple musk, violet, lilac, ylang ylang, lavender moss, and sandalwood: “As the machine hummed to life, her misgivings were dissolved in a haze of unexpected pleasure. Warmth, contrasted sharply with a million white-hot pinpricks and a strangely cooling blast of electricity, surged through her thighs. The metal electrodes secured beneath her corset flared as the electrical current swelled through her nerve endings.”

Ooooo, steamy sweetie-kins, please let me punk with you. And bring a wrench for the spanking too please!

But all this aside, here's the second most important thing in this column (the most important comes further below): these steampunks are refreshingly and delightfully “into it.” While at first it seems contradictory to imagine picking a scent to duplicate the steampunk environment, that's really the delight of the escapism we're all looking for when we pick a scent. Maybe it's industrial instead of pastoral, but it's the same substitution: another time, another world, another environment in place of today's CPU/HVAC and fruity gumball celebrity fragrances at the local shopping mall. How in the world could there be any fault in that?

Then there are the really wonderful thoughts, which are just the further reaches of the Twilight Zone that everyone shopping at a fragrance counter is shooting for: a fragrance that is an empowerment. A fragrance that's an entry into a different sphere, a new projection of the self, a new display of taste, and good taste at that. A projection that makes one better, a better show of self, and a better...ease. A better way to feel good saying “here I am, and here is how good I am.”

It's said Cleopatra slept in beds of fresh rose petals, or sailed in a boat strewn with them everywhere on deck, or some similar fantasy (don't fact check me). That's the joyous instinct and self-realization/projection scent seekers want. And what the steampunks ache to find.

“I recently took delivery of a box full of old brass cogs and other watch/clockwork parts,” GypsyGirl posted. “The smell when we opened it up was divine...So I am thinking a blend of (if you could somehow capture it...think book/movie Perfume) oily brass cogs, leather, pipe tobacco, sandalwood (love that woody scent) and perhaps just a touch of Patchouli and Bergamot for slight spice and sweetness...”

The Kilted Commodore says: “I'd say, at least for the gentlemen, a mix of black tea, bergamot, cedar, pine, and hints of ozone (due to various devices triggering and activating and whatnot) and grease.”

SteamKit adds, “Make something that smells like brass tastes. I'd personally, as a scent say...failing the brass smell, [want] something that makes the air smell damp, and oily. Like being next to a greasy machine.”

Scents are really ways we tell stories about ourselves and our aspirations. The scent we pick shows how we make our story, and what we want added to the story of our days, and how we make ourselves a different story from the stories of others. Go ahead, ask the story question your very own way: “What scent should I wear to the office?” “Which scent will be the perfect magnet when I'm out looking for tail?” “I'm a pretty shy but easy going nice college guy--what's the scent for my story?” Back on the steampunk forum thread, Cassandra says: “I've found that the easiest way to smell steampunk is to simply rub yourself all over (delicately) with old books. Have I tried this? Why, yes. Yes I have.”

Captain Briody believes “The true scent of steampunk is coal smoke! for full effect, sit in a locomotive smokestack for fifteen minutes. drives men wild- especially the firefighters!”

Rosel makes a recipe:
“Top notes- Rose & Coke (the fuel). Middle notes- old books & a touch of mildew. Base Notes- leather & Sandal wood. Abandoned libraries, gardens gone to seed, the smell of the industrial city and an opened trunk.”

Vision, smell, and thus the magic of inspired life: curiosity.


Now that we know about steampunkery and have seen its visions of a smelly city on the horizon, allow me to tell you the reason I wanted to write this column. I wanted to tell you what the steampunks have that you ain't got.

First though, go ahead, be dismissive. Face it--you're running the following line through your brain as you've been reading: “What a bunch of fools--the things people get worked up about! Steampunk? Now I've heard of everything. And to worry about picking a smell to project that? Insane! Talk about lightweights not worth a serious person's thinking time. Sky pirate, rivet head, mad scientist, explorer, and top hats with overcoats sewn to look like frock coats with tails--whatever, you fruitcakes.”

Sure, there are lots of steampunk scent categories, and each a fantasy, so they're easily dismissed as silly. But here's where the steampunks have you beat: Their door is open to different scent rides much more than yours is. Look at the stories that you worry about making when smelling scents: Oooo, this one smells like seducer, and that one would make me smell of 'cologne guy.' This one would make me smell like I think I'm 'fancy pants Mr. Cool', and that one would make me smell like a woman, and a grandmother-woman at that.

Those are the categories most men seem to think a scent will put them into. An utter paucity! It's a goddamn shame too.

Here's the best proof. On the steampunk forum the fragrance thread goes on for 90-some replies, and in those ninety NO ONE belittles the question or the respondents. In those ninety, no one replies, “Oooo, a fragrance for you? You must be one of those 'steampunques' then.” No one says fragrance puts you into a “you're less than” category.

In contrast, go to a dinner party, let a conversation about your recent fragrance shopping come up, and it won't be long before someone around the table makes a comment to distance himself or herself from the idea: “Well I was only interested in that stuff when I was trying to find the missus”; “I've always been a smell-clean-and-basic kinda guy”; “Hmm, I just wear whatever the missus gives me”; “I'm just a put-on-the-deodorant-and-never-think-about-smell fellow”; or “I'd never notice that stuff;” or the unspoken “what if they think I'm gay?” category.

Limitations like those are really sad.

The imaginary sky pirate categories the steampunks exercise kick ass on the categories you've got. Who actually is the vain one, the one who's really concerned about silly appearances?

Today we ask: “which one will put me into 'office time' smell category?” “Which one translates into 'weekend fun-loving guy' category?” and “Which one is in the 'get da laydeez' category?” Those over ninety steampunk replies don't need to show their industrial machismo in the face of imaginative identity seeking. That's something to be jealous of.

Think of the reward of finding a scent like the steampunk imaginings. Maybe smelling of coal, metals, steam, and gasses wouldn't bring direct pleasure--but clearly the chance to have the fulfillment of such a smell is an indirect pleasure. A participation in the imagined atmosphere. A closer entering into an envisioned sphere, the universe as one wants to bring the brain to see it. Cleopatra saying the roses with me make me the real me. At least for now. And at least it's fun that I am the roses. And at least I'm not afraid.

Chris Peterson is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC.

Special thanks for critical advice go to: Robin, Dimitri, Jock_With_Scents, foetidus, Vibert, an_oud_girl, and a couple others I'm kicking myself for not noting down (no doubt I'll remember who when I need something else advance reviewed). Apologies to whose who know they deserve it and thanks to all.

image: masekesam / istockphoto