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Steampunks Raise the Costume Bar at Comic-Con

Above: Steampunks wait outside the conference room for Comic-Con's steampunk meetup.

It was Saturday at Comic-Con, historically the busiest day of the convention, and I was headed to the panel I'd been looking forward to all week. I was going to step back in time with a group of elaborately dressed guides known as steampunks.

Steampunks are members of a subculture that takes its inspiration from the late 19th century, primarily its Victorian-era dress, technology and spirit of invention. It is the period before electricity was invented and steam engine technology ruled the day, as did an attention to craftsmanship and innovation.

Steampunks are hobbyists and lifestyle enthusiasts dedicated to this period. They dress in period garb (corsets, goggles, gloves, hats, hairpieces, vests) and retrofit or "mod" items (like their computers) to look like they were made in the late 19th century. They invent things. They build weapons, pipes, instruments, and mechanical boxes in the period style. They often incorporate gadgetry, gears, and the materials of the period like brass and copper ("a time before plastic!"). There's a DIY philosophy behind the movement, with the costumes often assembled from thrift store items and recycled materials.

Real period items are prized and incorporated (like goggles), but the invention of something brand new but still distressed and period-looking, is widely praised. The fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are sources of inspiration, as steampunks often incorporate present day technology and reinterpret it in the context Victorian times.

As I approached the conference room for the steampunk panel, I was immediately glad I'd left early (the fact that I was early will shock some of my readers who know me well). The conference room held 100 people, and the line was at least 200 strong (it would grow to an estimated 400!).

Looking down the queue, it was as if everyone stepped out of a Victorian tintype and time traveled to Comic-Con. Steampunk culture is growing in popularity, and Comic-Con has long been a welcome home for its aesthetic and imaginary universe. Hollywood films and Comic-Con fare like "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (based on Alan Moore's graphic novel), "Steamboy", and the new Tim Burton produced "9", all feature steampunk aesthetics and themes. Steampunks show up at Comic-Con because of this affinity and the opportunity to show off their latest costumes, which draw photographers from every corner of the convention center.

Scott and Gail Folsom drew lots of attention for their attire. Scott, who goes by the name Professor Jager, is a founding member of the League of S.T.E.A.M. (Supernatural and Troublesome Ectoplasmic Apparition Management), also known as the Steampunk Ghostbusters. According to the website, they are "an organization comprised of Inventors, Scientists, Adventurers, Craftsmen, Monster and Creature Hunters, and Paranormal Researchers." Gail goes by R.O.S.E. (Reanimate Optimized Search Engine) and she was "created" by Professor Jager (Scott) as a weapon in their arsenal.

Scott and Gail Folsom at the Comic-Con Steampunk Meetup.

Above: Scott and Gail Folsom at the Comic-Con Steampunk Meetup.

Gail looked very constricted as she moved about, so I asked her if she was uncomfortable. She said she can only wear the dress for about four hours. I assumed it was the neck piece that was uncomfortable, but she said it's actually the corset and box strapped to her back that are the problem.

The "mechanical" box fastened to Gail's back is part of her character R.O.S.E.'s power source. It was built by her husband, Scott Folsom.

Above: The "mechanical" box fastened to Gail's back is part of her character R.O.S.E.'s power source. It was built by her husband, Scott Folsom.

The front of the box "powering" Gail.

Above: The front of the box "powering" Gail.

Check out the photo gallery of other steampunks at Comic-Con. I was mesmerized by the attention to detail and the little quirks in many of the costumes. I was also surprised to learn how big steampunk culture is in Southern California and San Diego. The San Diego group holds social gatherings throughout the year, like midnight croquet at Balboa Park, an absinthe tasting during the holidays, and has just started a club night featuring DJ's and steampunk bands, a growing facet of the culture. Now I can't wait to see what they're wearing next year.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Ewilensky'

Ewilensky | July 29, 2009 at 10:05 a.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

Great story Angela and as always great, great, pictures.

Noticed a lot more steampunkers this year and I'm finding more and more of it in pop culture - books (The Glass Books for the Dreameaters) comics (Girl Genius, The Squirrel Machine), movies (City of Ember, Hellboy 2, hopefully Sherlock Holmes), video games (Damnation, the unnamed Disney Steampunk game), etc...

Wondering if you had a chance to ask these steampunkers why they're attracted to this specific genre? I've always been fascinated by this.

For me, Steampunk represents a time when the future, and technology, still held all the answers. As our world has gotten more technologically advanced these answers have lead to even more questions, and there is dissatisfaction with technology, it doesn't make life better, just more complex and Steampunk is a revolt back to simpler times; a time when human ingenuity and muscle could control destiny; a time when mankind still had control of technology, when it could still be physically controlled with gears and cogs, pistons and steam as opposed to now where it is out of our control, bits of light spreading viral. Part of the personal appeal is that it also represents a time when adventure and discovery could be found in our backyard, our own planet – a civilized time when one could be exploring the depths of the ocean for the mighty Kraken but still stop for tea time no matter how wild and fantastical the situation.

Interested to hear what the real Steampunkers think. (I don’t have any brass goggles).

Thanks for the great reporting!

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Avatar for user 'zbrookes2009'

zbrookes2009 | July 29, 2009 at 11:48 a.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

Wonderful story Angela!

I admit to being a first time reader--a link to this article was sent to me because several friends of mine are shown in the article's photos. It's always fun to hear about the growing cultures and the incredibly creative means to which people can express themselves.

I have to recommend looking into the cultures/movements/holidays being generated by the students and the alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design, if you want a real treat.

Thank you for the great reporting and wonderful photos!

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone, KPBS Staff | July 29, 2009 at 11:56 a.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

Hey Ed-

Thanks for the kind words.

I hope some of the steampunks reading this will respond to you regarding their attraction to the genre, lifestyle, etc. I did ask a few people. Some referenced the civilized lifestyle you mention, one said it was "a time when gentlemen were gentlemen." Others were attracted to the craftmanship of the period, saying it was a time before plastic when things were made to last and they wanted to do the same. I didn't have a chance to delve much deeper since I had a short window of time, but am hopeful that some explanations will be give here in this forum.

I know I'm always interested in the drive to take on a persona, with a back history, etc. A lot of these folks do that - why? And why steampunk? What is it about steampunk and its qualities that fit with your personal desire to craft a new identity?

Lots to think about...

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Avatar for user 'Gail'

Gail | July 29, 2009 at 2 p.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

Thanks for this great article, Angela!
Steampunks have all kinds of reasons for being attracted to the genre. For myself and my husband, we love to make things and we love old-fashioned looks and objects. I have always been attracted to Victoriana because of the apparent compulsion Victorians had to make objects not only functional but decorative. Furthermore, Victorians seemed to be able to laugh at themselves and their society like no other era in English history.
The great thing about Steampunk is that it focuses on an era of enormous exploration, scientific discovery and industrialization, and in retrospect it is not only whimsical and a little naive, but there is also an element of the ridiculous about it that is very endearing. The Victorians were interested in EVERYTHING, from the occult to electricity, East to West, North to South! The first World’s Fair was put in motion and directed by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. Imagine all the odd devices, creations and inventions, scientific or otherwise, that were displayed but never pursued. Steampunks tend to make devices that ostensibly have a practical application...but like a Rube Goldberg device, they chose an impractical method of achieving it. Participants evoke the intrepid gentleman explorer of a Jules Verne novel, who we love and root for but find a little laughable in his un-scientific methods and conclusions. The villians of steampunk (a minority standing thus far) tend to have the bumbling megalomaniacal optimism of Jack Lemmon's Professor Fate, making their failures both spectacular and amusing.
The paradox of aristocratic good manners, parasols and starched cuffs combined with misfiring inventions, ectoplasmic goo and ramshackle pseudo-scientific conclusions is just too much fun to resist!
These are my own reasons for participating in the steampunk aesthetic. I hope other steampunks will put in their own two cents, because the term "steampunk" remains a little nebulous at the moment. I suspect a lot of people could name it if they saw it, but defining it is another matter.
- Gail Folsom

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Avatar for user 'CAKEette'

CAKEette | July 29, 2009 at 6:09 p.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

no mention of Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo's graphic novel STEAMPUNK: MANIMATRON??? #comiccon/graphicnovel/hello

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Avatar for user 'ProfessorGreyshade'

ProfessorGreyshade | July 29, 2009 at 9:49 p.m. ― 5 years ago

That was excellent introduction to the San Diego steampunk community. Comic-Con has been hugely important to the development of the community. I first became aware of steampunk as more than a genre of science-fiction at a little after party my friend Alexander threw Saturday night of Comic-Con 2007. That was the first steampunk event in San Diego. There were only about ten people dressed in steampunk style. Now I’m the organizer and DJ of the steampunk club mentioned, and my wife owns the Yahoo group linked to in the article.

Because Comic-Con and the entertainment industry, Southern California has some of the best steampunk costuming talent anywhere, but the movement as a whole is broader than that. Steampunk began as literature. The word was first used by K. W. Jeter, and James Blaylock in Locus magazine in May 1987 to refer to their own and Tim Powers’ Victorian-ish sci-fi stories. It has since been adopted to refer to similar works by other authors. More often than not steampunk fiction is set not in the past but in an alternate present or sometimes even the future. What is always true is that the culture and aesthetic of the stories feels like something Victorian or early twentieth century even though the technology sometimes involves space travel or computers in some form.

Starting about four or five years ago, steampunk began inspiring a variety of cultural forms such as fine art, music, street style, aspects of the Maker movement, and even a form of activism based around questioning why we use the technology we do and who controls and produces that technology. The Steampunk movement is a mash-up of the past and present that reflects the sense that so many of us have that our culture has reached a kind of dead end. Our standard of living, economy and ecology cannot be based on producing cheap disposable non-repairable things. Nor can it continue to be based around ideas thrust at us by a media dedicating to selling these same ideas of disposability.

Steampunk is not really about the past so much as reimagining the present and the future. This reimagining is based on visions of the future as it was imagined in the past. Steampunk is about a time that never happened because we took a wrong turn in our history. It’s about a more personal, permanent and romantic view of technology and culture, one that we are still longing to build.

For a growing list of links to steampunk culture in San Diego please see sandiegosteampunk.org

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Avatar for user 'Ingred'

Ingred | July 29, 2009 at 10:06 p.m. ― 5 years ago

@CAKEette, sorry no mention of Manimatron or any of the other steampunk graphic novels, webcomics, films, novels, music, etc. It's just too large & varied to try to list in a simple blogpost about the steampunk meetup at comic con. A nice overview of steampunk literature & film can be found on the Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk. Admittedly it mentions only the best known works and not necessarily the best examples. For better discussions on any steampunk arts, the forum on Brass Goggles should provide some good examples, including many smaller works that might otherwise go unnoticed http://brassgoggles.co.uk/forum/index.php.

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Avatar for user 'Ewilensky'

Ewilensky | July 30, 2009 at 3:10 p.m. ― 5 years ago

Thanks for the insight everyone. I appreciate it.

@Gail - your costume is stunning beyond words. Simple magical. How long did it take to make?

@ProfessorGreyshade - I gotta ask, what type of music is played at a Steampunk gathering? (I have an image of you winding up old Edison cylinder players and mixing from them).

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Avatar for user 'Gail'

Gail | July 30, 2009 at 5:39 p.m. ― 5 years ago

Thank you! The costume is the joint creation of my husband and I - I made the dress and leather accessories and he made the mechanical components - the heart box and the power source on the back. We came up with the idea last July, and it went through many evolutions before we got to work on it about 5 months ago.

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Avatar for user 'ProfessorGreyshade'

ProfessorGreyshade | July 30, 2009 at 9:43 p.m. ― 5 years ago

Actually early on in promoting Chrononaut (my club) used the phrase “the amazing duogramaphonium.” The reality is that I need something more compact and cost effective, i.e. a laptop. As to the music, unlike punk or goth there is no one genre of music that is steampunk. Instead there is an evolving consensus about music from various genres that steampunks like. Some of this music comes from bands that call themselves steampunk but most of it does not.

Rock and roll and related music has choked on its own clichés so badly that there’s now a Lego version of the Rock Band video game. There are a growing number of musicians escaping this trap by combining contemporary music with pre-rock influences and anachronistic instrumentation. This has spawned such genres as dark/punk cabaret, alternative folk/Americana, Celtic punk, Gypsy punk, Middle Eastern dance fusion, Chap hop, blues hip-hop collaborations, neo-classical, circus punk and more. My job as a DJ is to find it, put it into play lists, and keep it coming in a flow from ambient to various tempos of danceable throughout the evening. It’s a lot of work but the really fun part is that there are only about five steampunk DJs in the country so I’m really free to find my own interpretation and be a trendsetter.

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Avatar for user 'Ewilensky'

Ewilensky | July 31, 2009 at 11:34 a.m. ― 5 years ago

Sounds great Professor time to get out the brass polish and clean up my goggles.

@Gail. Five month!? Takes me that long mow my lawn...

Best,

-E

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Avatar for user 'Gail'

Gail | July 31, 2009 at 5:12 p.m. ― 5 years ago

Ha! I'm sure it would have taken less time if we didn't have those tedious dayjobs...

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Avatar for user 'CAKEette'

CAKEette | July 31, 2009 at 10:03 p.m. ― 5 years ago

Ingred // July 29, 2009 at 10:06 p.m.:
thanks for the article and the links. big MWAH to you!

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