What is an ‘Era’ exactly?

'The Amazons'  - characters from a play

‘The Amazons’ – characters from a play

I spend a lot of time on this blog discussing the Victorian and Edwardian eras.Yesterday, I was asked what an ‘era’ actually is. This is an excellent question, because I was making the assumption that everyone knew what an era was …and I had forgotten it was just a few years ago I was asking that very same question. At first, the answer confused me…

My first degree was in zoology, and the sciences have their facts and categories boxed up neatly. When I started my second degree, this time in the field of Arts, one of the hardest concepts for me was the fact that eras had no cut-and-dried definitions. Industrialization, Modernity and Postmodernity happened at different times for architecture, literature, the arts, music, philosophy, the sciences, and the zeitgeist with a culture; and this was happening at different times and at different speeds all over the world. I couldn’t look at a calendar and state with any certainty, “Postmodernism started on this date.” As a scientist, this left me bewildered for a while.

So, when I speak of the Victorian era, I am speaking of a rather inaccurate time period that happened world-wide, but really could – and possible should – be broken down into smaller eras. For example, fashions did not remain the same over Queen Victoria’s lifetime. What people were wearing in 1820 was quite different to what people were wearing in 1890. And this holds true to everything else.

A walking dress circa 1825-30; image from the Victorian and Albert Museum.

A walking dress circa 1825-30; image from the Victorian and Albert Museum.

House of Worth Wedding Dress, circa 1896.

House of Worth Wedding Dress, circa 1896.

So, when I speak of the Victorian era, it has to be understood I am basically talking about the mid-to-late 19th century and the start of the 20th century, but there is a lot of overlap with the earlier Georgian and Regency eras, and with the Edwardian era. These eras line up with the various reigns of British Royals; it is an arbitrary method for creating a timeline. The Age of Industrialization just happened to occur around the same time as Queen Victoria’s reign, but she had no real influence on industry other than making the use of technology fashionable and the use of anesthetics for childbirth; she made no technological innovations of her own (though it would have been ever so brilliant if she had invented something). Inventors were off making their own breakthroughs.

Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years  and Queen Elizabeth II catches up with her this year. Think about the amount of changes society has gone through since the modern Queen started her reign in 1952, and this helps put the length of Queen Victoria’s reign into perspective. From a geological point of view, this is an eye blink, but from a cultural viewpoint a lot can happen in 63 years!

An era isn’t a cut and dried category of time. So don’t think of Steampunk being too inflexible to colour outside the lines of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.


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Filed under Personal experience, Steampunk Genre, Victorian Era, writing

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