A Civil Excursion to the Steampunk World’s Fair

Goggles symbolize steampunk culture.

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.

Clocks and pistons were a recurring theme.

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 band even had a belly dancer. Belly dancers were everywhere at SWF

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.

More photos:

The epic fiddle/sax solo-off.

They key in her back even spun!

...because if you have to wear pasties, why not make them moustaches?


One of the more awesome costumes we saw at the Steampunk World's Fair.

* All photos by HUSBAND (TM)

9 thoughts on “A Civil Excursion to the Steampunk World’s Fair

  1. Yep, it’s basically “let’s socialize while looking cool and/or showing how crafty we are”.

    I prefer to do my socializing without costumes and do “let’s larp while looking cool and/or showing how crafty we are”. But then again I may do “let’s visit someplace interesting while possibly scaring the mundies, looking cool and/or showing how crafty we are” at a Swiss steampunk get-together next week, so we’ll see how fun that is.

  2. Hey all, I’m the guy in the top picture in the top hat with the backpack chock full of gauges, gears, and shiny brass things. For me, the best explanation of the draw of steampunk gatherings is the ability to escape the mundane into a world of imagination and camraderie where anything from rayguns to clockwork time machines are possible. We live in a such a technologically prevalent society nowadays that rarely do we actually get to access and explore our true imaginations. Everything we are meant to imagine anymore is dictated to us by television, movies, video games, or the internet. Events like SPWF give us as adults a rare chance to tap into the wonderful playfulness that we inevitably have to let go of once we reach adulthood. It’s an opportunity to go back to the times before our loss of innocence where it’s okay to play dress up and pretend that life could be much more than taxes and mortgages…if only for one weekend.

    Great article!

    • Thanks for chiming in — from my look at larp, I definitely understand the appeal of escaping from the mundane into a fantastic and playful world; I think my confusion derives from the fact that the steampunk world doesn’t seem to have clear boundaries/a unified center the way a larp does? In a larp, everyone is escaping to a specific point — the world of the game — whereas in steampunk the boundaries of the world and the included activities are much broader. Anyway, I’m intrigued by steampunk culture and would love to explore it in greater depth sometime.

      Awesome costume!

  3. You’ve got most of our instrumentation right – the smaller of the low brass is a helicon, the larger purple one is a sousaphone 🙂 At SPWF we also had guitar and trumpet in addition to what you listed.

    Glad you had fun with us, we were certainly having a blast!

    • A helicon! How fun. So wait, is the thing that looks like a tuba really a sousaphone?

  4. I think it might be easier to grasp if you see it as a creative moment, rather then an aesthetic movement. The creativity is based around the aesthetic, but expressing the creativity is the central thingy?

  5. The helicon is the father of the sousaphone. It was a military instrument that could be played while riding horseback. Sousa took a look at it and some of the other members of the family and decided to add a few feet and put the bass in the audiences face instead of having the bell face up to the sky. Hellicons are derisively called “rain catchers” in the tuba community.

    hehe, tubers. I am a potato.

  6. I think Elin gave the best way to begin wrapping your head around Steampunk. The part that makes it confusing, the no central focus, is what makes it so appealing. There is so much you can do with it, and it’s all right!

    I’m the girl with the windup key and that is my version of Steampunk; a colorful windup clockwork doll. To others Steampunk is an airship captain, and explorer with tesla coil powered gun, or even “Steampunked” pop culture characters (There were My Little Ponies, Star Wars characters, Firefly characters just to name a few). It’s an open idea that people can run with in so many different directions and half the fun is seeing what other people do with it.

    By being a nebulous and undefined thing Steampunk has the advantage of bringing in people like yourself who are curious about it (and we welcome you!) and encourages people to bring their own special flair to it.

  7. lol dont be. Steampunk is mostly scinece? fiction and alot of it shows up in movies and games today. Ex: Final Fantasy, Gundam, Treasure Planet, Howls Moving castle, and Doctor Who. Sure its popular among Cyberpunks and Goths, but they are nothing alike. Plus, it’s pretty interesting. ;D -Akabari