21st-Century Veganism Meets 19th-Century Style: Only In Steampunk!

I know that imposing a concept like animal rights on the 19th century — a time when slavery was still alive and women couldn’t yet vote — might be a tad unrealistic. But that was the quandary at which I arrived when my producer Andrew Rowe asked my vegan self to be a part of his piece on the steampunk scene and wear authentic steampunk garb when we shot our standups.

Not that I have a problem with playing dress-up: One look at the annals of VMA history will remind anyone that I have never been sartorially shy, and frankly the whole Victorian thing — the stovepipe hats, vests, long coats, pocket watches — is kind of cool, in the right time and place. No one really dresses up any more, so why not?

Well, here’s why not: since moving from vegetarianism to veganism a few years ago, I wear no leather at all (I try to avoid wool, for the most part, as well), ever. If you know anything about the steampunk aesthetic, you know that could be problematic. Because besides the cutaways and cravats and cummerbunds, there is plenty of cow in steampunk land: leather straps, braces, leather trim on coats, leather boots, leather and metal accoutrements. Now, I realize that it’s a period look, and that for the purposes of this piece I was doing a little bit of what amounted to acting. Still, I really didn’t want to give in on the leather thing, and I didn’t think they would be able to accommodate.

How wrong I was! Our stylist Karen contacted Thomas Willeford at Fallen Angel Fashions & Brute Force Leather (yikes) and, despite the company name, he was more than willing to create non-leather pieces. In fact, Thomas told Karen that the material was durable and easy to use, and that he liked working with it. Who would have thought? Cruelty-free steampunk!

He sent over a cool three-strap “arm shield” with what appeared to be a push-button teleporting device, and best of all, I thought, a pair of brass goggles with a mini Gatling gun on the side (I’m not into guns either, but trust me it’s cool), plus a beautiful pocket watch and pin. (Check out Thomas’s stuff at corsetshop.net.)

Add to that an eye-catching Albanian crest necklace from Rock Love and the clothes, including an awesome side-cutaway jacket (they call it an “aristocrat military drape shirt”) from Retroscope and I was good to go, like a Jules Verne character come to life. All I needed was a hot air balloon or a George Melies rocket ship — or a part in the “Golden Compass” sequel. It was outfits like this that won the Smashing Pumpkins a VMA for “Tonight, Tonight.”

With the right look all we needed was the right place — something properly retro and yet the sort of place from which a Victorian aristocrat might teleport himself from century to century. We got that and more with the Frick Collection — the gorgeous mansion-turned-museum on New York’s Fifth Avenue that houses an impressive art collection amassed by the industrialist Henry Clay Frick. It turns out it also served as the inspiration for Stan Lee of Marvel Comics to create the “Avengers Mansion.” So art fans, comic fans, steampunk fans — visit it next time you’re in New York!

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