All Aboard The Steampunk Train

By Emily Donahue

Amongst bustle skirts and corsets, top hats and tails, brass-rimmed goggles and time-traveling arm bands, it was me, in a black tank top and jeans, that received the most stares in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. I was at the first day of the Dances of Vice festival, an evening that also served as my first taste of Steampunk, a wide-reaching subculture that lately has been, well, picking up steam. Yet people are still hard-pressed to define what is, on the surface, an embrace of the neo-Victorian, but deeper than that, a keenly felt reaction to the stark modernity that has come to homogenize a generation with iPods and Ikea.

Over the course of shooting two separate Steampunk events — Dances of Vice, which spanned both Brooklyn and Manhattan; and SalonCon, a two-day event held in Somerset, NJ — I was exposed to a mix of concerts, fashion shows and lectures. Vendors sold handmade corsets, jewelry made from clock gears and even wings. People’s imaginations were on full display in their clothing and accoutrement. I expected to simply observe from a distance, but the more I learned, the more the Steampunk artists and their philosophy began to appeal to me. Musicians I knew and liked were mentioned, such as Tom Waits, Smashing Pumpkins, the Decemberists and even Sufjan Stevens; “Edward Scissorhands,” “The Prestige” and “Wild Wild West” were a small handful of the “steamy” movies that I had seen.

I sat in on an interview with Voltaire — a regular on the Steampunk festival circuit — as he broke Steampunk music down into something that, while using classical instruments, can be anything, and is just sort of “old-time” and “anachronistic.” I began to realize that between the costumery, the music and the movies, Steampunk is really about stepping away from our everyday lives and having a good time. And I can get behind that, even though I may not wear a corset anytime soon.

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