Steampunk fashion-wear is now all the rage
Steampunk is a subculture that encapsulates the aesthetic expression of a time-traveling fantasy world, one that embraces music, film, design and now fashion, all inspired by the extravagantly inventive age of dirigibles and steam locomotives, brass diving bells and jar-shaped protosubmarines of the 19th century. (Pics)
“Meet Showtime,” said Giovanni James, a musician, magician and inventor of sorts, introducing his prized dove, who occupies a spacious cage in Mr. James’s apartment in Midtown Manhattan. Showtime is integral to Mr. James’s magic act and to his décor, a sepia-tone universe straight out of the gaslight era.
The lead singer of a neovaudevillian performance troupe called the James Gang, Mr. James has assembled his universe from oddly assorted props and castoffs: a gramophone with a crank and velvet turntable, an old wooden icebox and a wardrobe rack made from brass pipes that were ballet bars in a previous incarnation.
Yes, he owns a flat-screen television, but he has modified it with a burlap frame. He uses an iPhone, but it is encased in burnished brass. Even his clothing — an unlikely fusion of current and neo-Edwardian pieces (polo shirt, gentleman’s waistcoat, paisley bow tie), not unlike those he plans to sell this summer at his own Manhattan haberdashery — is an expression of his keenly romantic worldview.
It is also the vision of steampunk, a subculture that is the aesthetic expression of a time-traveling fantasy world, one that embraces music, film, design and now fashion, all inspired by the extravagantly inventive age of dirigibles and steam locomotives, brass diving bells and jar-shaped protosubmarines. First appearing in the late 1980s and early ’90s, steampunk has picked up momentum in recent months, making a transition from what used to be mainly a literary taste to a Web-propagated way of life.
Having first emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s, steampunk has picked up momentum in
recent months, making a transition from what used to be mainly a literary taste to a Web-propagated way of life.
To some, “steampunk” is a catchall term, a concept in search of a visual identity. “To me, it’s essentially the intersection of technology and romance,” said Jake von Slatt, a designer in Boston and the proprietor of the Steampunk Workshop (steampunkworkshop.com), where he exhibits such curiosities as a computer furnished with a brass-frame monitor and vintage typewriter keys.
That definition is loose enough to accommodate a stew of influences, including the streamlined retro-futurism of Flash Gordon and Japanese animation with its goggle-wearing hackers, the postapocalyptic scavenger style of “Mad Max,” and vaudeville, burlesque and the structured gentility of the Victorian age. In aggregate, steampunk is a trend that is rapidly outgrowing niche status.
“There seems to be this sort of perfect storm of interest in steampunk right now,” Mr. von Slatt said. “If you go to Google Trends and track the number of times it is mentioned, the curve is almost algorithmic from a year and a half ago.” (At this writing, Google cites 1.9 million references.)
“Part of the reason it seems so popular is the very difficulty of pinning down what it is,” Mr. von Slatt added. “That’s a marketer’s dream.”
Devotees of the culture read Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, as well as more recent speculative fiction by William Gibson, James P. Blaylock and Paul Di Filippo, the author of “The Steampunk Trilogy,” the historical science fiction novellas that lent the culture its name. They watch films like “The City of Lost Children” (with costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier), “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “Brazil,” Terry Gilliam’s dystopian fantasy satirizing the modern industrial age; and they listen to melodeons and Gypsy strings mixed with industrial goth.
They build lumbering contraptions like the steampunk treehouse, a rusted-out 40-foot sculpture assembled last year at the Burning Man festival in Nevada and unveiled last month at the Coachella music festival in Southern California. They trawl eBay for saw-tooth cogs and watch parts to dress up their Macs and headsets, then show off their inventions to kindred spirits on the Web.
And, in keeping with the make-it-yourself ethos of punk, they assemble their own fashions, an adventurous pastiche of neo-Victorian, Edwardian and military style accented with sometimes crudely mechanized accouterments like brass goggles and wings made from pulleys, harnesses and clockwork pendants, to say nothing of the odd ray gun dangling at the hip. Steampunk style is corseted, built on a scaffolding of bustles, crinolines and parasols and high-arced sleeves not unlike those favored by the movement’s designer idols: Nicolas Ghesquiere of Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and, yes, even Ralph Lauren.
Quaint to some eyes, or outright bizarre, steampunk fashion is compelling all the same. It is that rarity, a phenomenon with the potential to capture a wider audience, offering a genteel and disciplined alternative to both the slack look of hip-hop and the menacing spirit of goth.
The elaborate mourning dresses, waistcoats, hacking jackets and high-button shoes are goth’s stepchildren, for sure, but the overall look is “not so much eyeliner and fishnets,” said Evelyn Kriete, who sells advertising space for magazines like Steampunk, The Willows and Weird Tales, and who manages Jaborwhalky Productions (jaborwhalky.com), a steampunk Web site.
Ms. Kriete and her eccentrically outfitted cohort of teachers, designers, writers and medical students, drew stares last week at a picnic at the Cloisters in Manhattan, but provoked no shudders or discernible hostility.
“As a subculture, we are not the spawn of Satan,” Ms. Kriete said. “People smile when they see us. They want to take our picture.”
Robert Brown, the lead singer for Abney Park, a goth band that has reinvented itself as steampunk, echoed her sentiments. “Steampunk is not dark and spooky,” he said. “It’s elegant and beautiful.”
Even heroic, if you like. The movement may have a postapocalyptic strain, but proponents tend to cast themselves as spirited survivors. Molly Friedrich, an artist and a jewelry designer in Seattle, approaches steampunk, she said, “from a perspective of 1,000 years into the future, after society has crumbled but people have chosen to live in Victorian fashion, wearing scavenged clothes.” In keeping with her vision, Ms. Friedrich has devised an alternate identity composed of petticoats, old military storm coats, goggles and aviator caps with an Amelia Earhart flair.
She takes her emotional cues from scientists and inventors like Nikola Tesla, magicians like Harry Houdini and soulful spies like Mata Hari, each of whom injected a spirit of enterprise, intrigue and discovery into their age.
Contemporary fictional parallels in film include the wildly ingenious scientist played by Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man,” who hopes to save the world by retooling himself as a flame-throwing robot made of unwieldy scrap metal parts.
If steampunk has a mission, it is, in part, to restore a sense of wonder to a technology-jaded world. “Today satellite photos make the planet seem so small,” Mr. Brown lamented. “Where is the adventure it that?” In contrast, steampunk, with its airships, test tubes and time machines, is, he said, “sort of a dream , the way we used to daydream. It’s like part of your childhood’s just bursting forward again.”
For some of its adherents, steampunk also offers a metaphoric coping device. “It has an intellectual tie to the artists and artisans dealing with a world in turmoil at the time of the industrial revolution,” said Crispen Smith, a Web designer and photographer in Toronto, and a partner in a steampunk fashion business.
Now, as in the late 19th century, “we have to find a way to deal with new ethical quandaries,” Mr. Smith said, alluding to issues like cloning, the dissemination of information and intellectual property rights on the Web.
Steampunk style is also an expression of a desire to return to ritual and formality. “Steampunk has its tea parties and its time-travelers balls,” said Deborah Castellano, who presides over salonconvention.com, which organizes neo-Victorian conventions. “It offers an element of glamour that some of us would otherwise never experience.”
And an enticing marketing hook. The Bombay Company is selling steampunk-style brass home accessories, instruments like astrolabes and sextants. A steampunk fantasy game, Edge of Twilight, will be introduced by Xbox 360 and PlayStation next year.
And steampunk fashion, which until now has been a mainstay of craft fairs and destinations like eBay and Etsy, the online market for handmade clothing designs and artifacts, is finding its way into the brick and mortar world.
Gypsymoon.com has begun offering its cream and umber petticoats, an Air Pirate ruched tunic and Time Machine bloomers at boutiques. Abney Park is selling swallowtail tuxedos, antiqued flight helmets and airship pirate T-shirts, like those it wears on stage, at abneypark.com and at concerts across the country.
Mr. James, who performs with his troupe at the Box, the music-hall hideaway on the Lower East Side, has just leased space for a steampunk shop in NoLIta. He plans to offer brass Rubik’s cubes, riding boots, early-20th-century-style motorbikes, handmade leather mailbags and brass or wooden iPhone cases, all under the label TJG Engineering.
There will, of course, be a clothing line with vintage and new looks modeled on Mr. James’s own neo-Edwardian sartorial signature. “I’m so sick of baggy pants hanging off your bottom,” he said. “This is more refined. It goes back to a time when people had some dignity.
“It’s a new day.”
Via NY Times