Steampunk: The new Goth
The retrofuturistic trend draws on a Jules Verne-like view of the world and Victorian-era technology.
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Ms. Vick adds that another appeal lies in its largely optimistic and romantic, not dark and cautionary, outlook. "We also embrace and foster good manners and dressing up, which are both sorely lacking in society today," she says.Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, dedicated steampunkers are lured by fashion. To dress up as a privateer and pilot flying machines powered by "lift-wood," or play a mad scientist who meddles in alchemy, the required accouterments include corsets, top hats, and lace-up boots; military medals, parasols, and aviator goggles.
Bruce and Melanie Rosenbaum aren't particularly into costuming, but when attending an event they will break out period garb. Their businesses, ModVic and SteamPuffin, offer home remodeling and design services for steampunking Victorian-era homes, an idea they applied to their own 1901 house in Sharon, Mass. They loved the turn-of-the-century fantasy but, Bruce says, "you don't want to live in the 19th century in terms of conveniences." So they retrofitted modern appliances or hid them behind facades of functional art. Combining old and new, their living room sports a plasma TV framed by an antique wooden mantel.
Upstairs, Bruce's attic office incorporates portholes, a bank vault door, and computer workstation made from an antique desk and pipes from a pump organ. You can almost see the ghost of Jules Verne hammering out a few e-mails.
"How much more fun is it to make something ornate and beautiful, rather than boring and unadorned?" asks Melanie. The couple is working on a book project, and recently curated two exhibits in the Boston area.
Tom Sepe, an artist exhibiting in one of them, the "Steampunk Form & Function" show at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham, Mass., shipped his "Whirlygig," a "steam-electric-hybrid motorcycle," from his workshop in Berkeley, Calif. The circus performer discovered steampunk via the Burning Man art community, and looks at his life as art. "Every choice we make is part of a performance," he says. "Every object we make or touch becomes an artifact of who we are and how we have been."
For Mr. Sepe, "three crucial elements" keep him engaged in the steampunkmaker culture: the "warmth factor" of its handmade materials, its functionality, and whimsy – "free thinking imagination and fun." Unlike other art forms, he says, "It doesn't take itself too seriously."
And whereas other genre fans can niggle over the small stuff, steampunk tends to be more open-ended. Jeff Mach, one of the partners behind New Jersey's Steampunk World's Fair, remembers Goths back in the 1990s sniping at one another for not being "Goth enough." No so with this latest, more inclusive cultural mashup. "It's not starting from a single point but many points," he says.
Many suggest steampunk is the next Goth, or even bigger. "I think this is the beginning of steampunk as a new sort of thing, as a pop culture phenomenon," says von Slatt. "I think it's the tip of the iceberg."