I don’t get Steampunk. (yet)
There. I said it.
This weekend, husband and I excursed to the Steampunk World’s Fair in Piscataway, New Jersey to get a load of this thriving subculture, which incorporates Victorian fashion, anachronistic technology, and old-timey hobbies.
We dressed in some fancier-than-usual duds, in hopes that we wouldn’t stick out like a pair of ungloved harlots at an upscale tea party. He wore a suit and some exciting white shoes inherited from his grandpa. I wore a dress and a fascinator, because nothing says “costume” like a tiny hat.
The Steampunk World’s Fair seemed awesomely large — a guy in a security shirt told me there were around 3,500 ticketed attendees (though I don’t know for sure whether he was in a position to know, so take that with a grain of salt). There were loads of vendors hawking everything from goggles to corsets, tiny hats, drawings, pagoda parasols, and moustache pasties. In fact, there were so many vendors that many sold their wares from a large block of hotels rooms designated for that purpose. Since I am a nosy McGee, I overheard one vendor asking another, “Well, have you tried selling something other than ray-guns?” Only at a steampunk fair, my friends, only at a steampunk fair.
More than 90% of the attendees wore costumes — leather corsets, billowy skirts, military uniform, ruffled Victorian underpants worn as shorts, striped suits, and hats sprouting tall feathers like exotic birds. We saw everything from prim and proper Victorian dress to steampunk Darth Vader. They wielded props from piston guns to monocles. I especially liked the woman who had a large wind-up key sticking out of her back, motorized to turn as if it were fueling her every action.
I’m used to gaming conventions, where everyone gathers in service to a central activity — gaming. But at a convention like this, the core activity felt more obscure; I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it might be. I mean, steampunking? Initially, that common activity initially appeared to be shopping for gear. It felt strange to me, seeing all these people in their exotic and exaggeratedly idiosyncratic outfits, roaming around, milling, snapping pictures of one another in some sort of heightened, obscure hipster cool-off. But at the same time, I found all this idiosyncrasy intriguing — where else could you walk by a dude playing an accordion in a sailor costume and then get handed a flyer for a kink-themed Alice-in-Wonderland high tea? The everything-goes mentality, and the aesthetic — which seemed accepting of all body types and most fashion statements — felt pretty appealing.
I wondered: is that what steampunk is about, simply the aesthetic? Is this what cosplay conventions are like? Not questions I was likely to crack in only four hours. So husband and I moved on from the commercial wing of the convention, past the absinthe tasting, and in to the performance area, which got us right back on track.
We saw three performances, a trio of belly dancers who jiggled their disconnected hips — though that doesn’t do justice to their boneless gyrations — to dub step, while wearing bras and giant feathered hats; a Japanese singer/bass duo rocking out with enthusiasm; and the most awesome marching band I’ve ever seen, giving it their all under a tent in a courtyard that looked like some futuristic and yet anachronistic lawn party.
We’d discovered Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band, a small horde of musicians riffing on Klezmer music, disco, Sousa, and probably a whole lot of stuff I’m not familiar with. Their array of instruments included piccolo, several varieties of sax, fiddle, tuba, some sort of thing that looked like a tuba but smaller (sousaphone?), accordion, trombone, drum, clarinet and a lot of other things. Husband, who has very exacting and idiosyncratic standards for music — he likes abrasive atonal noise, gamelan, techno, and Satie — thought they rocked. And so did I.
The group performed like a truck of Funkadelic members on uppers; the fiddler had short hair with shaven sides in exciting colors, and she wailed during a solo duel with an saxophonist poised in an action-hero lunge. The picolo player did a back handspring in her lace-punk attire. The tuba player (tubaist? tuber?) concentrated super-fucking-hard as he bounced while rapidly breaking it down for the sake of the funk. I’m sure the clarinetist broke it down too, but I got too mesmerized by his accoutrement — he appeared to have a steampunk gun made out of an old clarinet! — to notice.The rest of the group exploded in a flurry of dancing, clapping, whooping, tambourine-shaking, and when appropriate, rhythmic shouting. The frontman delivered the set list by megaphone.
I still don’t get steampunk — I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that there’s no central activity, simply an aesthetic — so I don’t feel I understand precisely what draws people to places like the Steampunk World’s Fair. But the ride was fantastic.
* All photos by HUSBAND (TM)