Steampunk: Culture and Couture with Bells and Whistles

eComicCon, DragonCon, TwiCon. No matter the conjured image — from an ideal way to spend a weekend dressing up and role-playing with other comic, fantasy or “Twilight” fans, respectively, to a socially-awkward gathering of costumed misfits — conventions and the fashion, hobbies and passions behind them are a growing trend. And one recent addition — Steamcon, a symposium celebrating steampunk — signifies an even bigger movement in both culture and couture.

Steampunk is a whimsical return to a more romantic, deeply enthusiastic, Victorian view of technology; a subculture that says there is plenty of room for old-fashioned wonder and creativity in even today’s widget-racked world.

Steampunk is behind Johnny Depp’s towering tophat and outlandish bowtie in the fantastical forthcoming “Alice in Wonderland” film. So are handmade gizmos, gadgets and thingamabobs, detailed waistcoats, brass monocles and leather-framed goggles, and renowned designer Alexander McQueen’s 2009 “Highland Rape” collection. All of them are inventions powered solely by a remarkable combination of human ingenuity and steam.

Unlike goth, emo and other punk genres, steampunk is not unified by music, but by the clothing, gadgetry and philosophy that defined the Victorian era. Cindy MacLeod, director of the Alternate History genre at Dragon Con, the 20,000-person fantasy convention, notes that it began as a literary offshoot of cyberpunk. “Briefly, it became the genre du jour,” she says. “For a while it was the exclusive province of role-playing games writers, with the occasional release of such films as ‘The Wild Wild West’ or ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ to great fanfare but ultimately little acclaim.”

Today, however, MacLeod says, the genre is best known for its detailed costumes and technical design.

Borne in the 1970s out of science fiction and a subgenre known as cyberpunk, steampunk picked up speed with the advent of the Internet’s ability to connect communities on and offline dedicated to dressing, acting, or simply appreciating the part of a veritable Victorian. Steampunkers may attend the same conventions — Steamcon started in Seattle last year, but steampunk has a presence at Dragon Con, ConDor and other fantasy conventions. Interpretation varies, from Candy Keane of Jacksonville, Fla., who likes cosplay, or dressing up and acting the part of a historical or fictional character, to Andrew Anissi, a New York City lawyer who dresses conventionally but is simply fascinated by the era.

The skirts, corsets, three-piece suits and hats costumers design and cosplayers flaunt at conventions are old-fashioned, but with a twist. Keane, a costume designer and member of the steampunk group The Cowford Society (Cowford is the original, steampunk-era name of Jacksonville, Fla.), notes the detailed differences: “Go the wrong way with steampunk and you just look like an average Victorian, or even goth. What makes the outfit steampunk is the embellishments and accessories. It’s the handmade gadgets with gears and cranks, clothing embellished with studs, rivets, hooks and ties and an air of adventure and science. And of course,” she adds, “Goggles. You’ll see lots of goggles.”

Some, like Anissi, an arts and intellectual property attorney based in Brooklyn, love the grandeur, quality and do-it-yourself aspect of steampunk design. “Steampunk,” he says, “prefers the era when everything was built with the best materials. Steampunk loves things like the Brooklyn Bridge. How come every later generation, everything is built worse and worse and worse?” Take cars, he says. “Cars from the early 20thcentury were huge and beautiful.” Today, they are “smaller and smaller, less sophisticated. Disposable.”

An element of do-it-yourself ingenuity is a pivotal part of the steampunk lifestyle for fashionistas and design aficionados alike. Jake Van Slatt runs Steampunk Workshop, a popular site that chronicles his many creations, from a foundry furnace to a retooled 1972 VW bug, complete with “STMPNK” vanity plates, that he tools around town in during warmer months. Van Slatt doesn’t dress in costume, but is interested in the scientific and technological aspect of steampunk.  He calls science-historian James Burke’s “Connections,” a documentary series chronicling the development of science experiments and technology, which aired on the BBC in the late 1970s, “a big, big influence” on steampunk culture.

The optimism of the age, and its enthusiasm for a future filled with beneficial technology, is another draw for fans. Anne Toole is a creative writer based in Los Angeles who recently designed a steampunk-themed war game for X-Box. The force behind steampunk, she says, is “more adventuresome. ‘The world is our oyster!’ It’s the gilded era where everyone thought ‘The future’ll be grand.’” It is, she says, rooted in “the innocence before the two world wars, before we discovered how horrible technology could be.”

Though inherently optimistic, to the casual observer steampunk might be read as a response to the demands and disappointments of modern technology. “It’s based on a deeper need people have,” says Anissi, the lawyer. Today “people are looking for spirituality, where they’re inspired by not just nature, but things that are manmade.” These seekers, he says, “look at the path of human history and see the amazing things humans have achieved.”

Steampunk doesn’t seem to have much outside resistance, such as the natural friction between Goths and preps and hardcore and straightedge.

“There is a snootiness from people who like real science fiction,” says Toole, the steampunk game designer. “They don’t like ‘soft science fiction,’ which is ‘Oh, it’s a love story and, oh, there’s an alien!’ They think sci-fi can only exist if the real science behind it exists.”

Jim Ware owns a graphic design firm in Atlanta, Ga. (aka Terminus, the city’s original name) and first got involved with the culture when his family visited Dragon Con.

“Some believe that it’s purely a British thing, as if the rest of the world wasn’t part of the Victorian Age,” he says. “Others believe you can’t do this or that, but it’s just stupid seeing as how can you give people rules about a time that never was?”

Though steampunk is far from a household name, elements of the genre’s style and substance are crossing easily into mainstream culture. Director Tim Burton, as Ware says, has “embraced ‘the look’ but not so much the name, as it’s never come across his lips that I’m aware of,” throughout his film career — though steampunk band Abney Road plans to fete the release of the director’s forthcoming “Alice in Wonderland” remake with a themed swing ball in Brooklyn, N.Y., this month. The Museum of the History of Science at Oxford University in England recently opened a months-long exhibit, devoted to the fanciful gadgets and contraptions of 18 international steampunk artists.

“Steamed: A Steampunk Romance,” has climbed the New York Times, USA Today and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists.

Steampunk’s core values — a vision of a time long past marked with enthusiasm and wonder, filled with handcrafted clothing and thoughtful technology — persist among its fans. “The most beautiful things, the most spiritual things, have permanence. How come the future’s not as grand and glorious as they were imagining it back then?” asks Anissi, the lawyer from New York. “What happened to all the glory and romance of that era?”