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Arts & Culture

Steampunk Carousel Outing Cut Short By Security Guards

Kim Keeline and her husband James in their steampunk outfits on Feb. 9, the day they were denied entrance to the Carlsbad mall. Keeline said, "This is what caused the scare."
Colleen Burks
Kim Keeline and her husband James in their steampunk outfits on Feb. 9, the day they were denied entrance to the Carlsbad mall. Keeline said, "This is what caused the scare."

Did Mall Overreact To Steampunk Meet Up?

When I chose my long floral skirt and the matching puff sleeved Victorian top, and put the green feather in my hair, I didn't realize I would be seen as a threatening figure. I just chose the outfit because I thought it was pretty. With my husband, in his brand new top hat, and the rest of my family, I was looking forward to a fun and slightly whimsical day, with a short ride on a carousel and what I hoped would be some flattering photos. It didn't have to turn into a run-in with police.

Sunday, Feb 9, 2014

A group of people in Steampunk clothes gathered to ride the carousel at the Westfield Plaza Camino Real (in either Carlsbad and Oceanside, depending on whom you talk to). This was the third such gathering to ride a carousel. In October the group had been at Westfield Parkway Plaza (now no longer a Westfield, but it was at the time) and in December they were at Seaport Village.


Before 1pm, as a few of the Steampunk fans were walking the mall to shop and eat lunch before the carousel ride, security stopped them and insisted that they leave because of their “costumes.” They also called the Oceanside Police, who sent two cars.

As I was one of the carousel riders, I want to clear up a few facts about this event.

The steampunk group from a carousel ride they took without incident in October at Parkway Plaza.
Laura Lusk
The steampunk group from a carousel ride they took without incident in October at Parkway Plaza.

What is Steampunk?

For those of you who do not know, Steampunk is often thought of as Victorian fantasy or science fiction. It is a literary movement, an aesthetic, a fashion design, an artistic movement—it’s a whole bunch of things.

If you ask 12 different people who participate in Steampunk what it is, you will get 12 different answers. For me, you can picture it as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells taken to a slightly fantastic level. It’s literature with airships, mad science, and a Victorian backdrop. It’s clothing that is Victorian, usually with some extras like goggles and gears. It’s a culture filled with artists and makers who are playing with the past.


It is also a very welcoming and fun group of friends. San Diego has a very active Steampunk community, with Gaslight Gathering (a Steampunk convention) and many activities every month.

Why ride a carousel?

This was a fairly informal Facebook-arranged meeting of people who know each other from other events. Carousels are Victorian. They are also beautiful works of art and there are only so many left in the world.

San Diego is lucky to have several carousels, including two particularly beautiful historical ones, so one person thought it would make a fun outing and a good excuse to get dressed up and talk to people. Others obviously agreed because people came.

This was the third gathering of the group and 41 people said they were coming on Facebook, although only about 25 ended up showing on the day of the event (most of them after we had been told we were not welcome in the mall).

What happened?

My family (four of us, three dressed in Victorian clothing) arrived early to eat lunch before riding the carousel. We parked near the entrance with the carousel and began walking down the mall to find a restaurant. We saw two other people from the group walking the other way. We found a McDonald’s and since the choices at the mall seemed rather limited and 1pm would come up soon, we ordered our food and sat down to eat. It was only a minute or so later when we were approached by a security guard who said we had to leave. You can imagine our surprise.

Jeff Vaca at the first steampunk carousel ride in October at Parkway Plaza.
Laura Lusk
Jeff Vaca at the first steampunk carousel ride in October at Parkway Plaza.

I should note that I have worn these clothes to many public places. On the way to or from different events I have shopped at the grocery store, eaten in numerous restaurants, and otherwise interacted normally with people. I was in a floor length dress and had a feather in my hair. The outfit wasn’t that different from a wedding or a prom, except it was more modest than most prom dresses are today. My husband and father were both in Victorian morning suits--basically a suit (with tails and a vest) with top hat—a very common style for formal weddings today.

We asked to see the policy and were told we could not. We asked to see the manager (either go to him or have him brought to us) and were told no. We were also told that they were calling the police. We were allowed to finish our lunch but the guard had to stand over us and escort us out.

While we were finishing, the other two people whom we had passed earlier returned, followed by their own security guard. They had gone through the same procedure and had asked the guard if they could come see us before leaving. Having now finished eating, we all left for the door by the carousel.

When we got there, we found more people had arrived, and a guard at the door was not letting them beyond the entrance to the mall. The security guards said we had to wait outside for the police.

The next twenty minutes were spent outside, waiting to see who else in our group would arrive so we could tell them the carousel ride was cancelled and arranging to meet at a location where we would be welcomed, Oceanside’s steampunk shop Dr. Watson’s Odditorium. It had been part of the plan to go there after the ride so now we were letting people know as they arrived that we would go straight there.

The Oceanside Police did show up while we were waiting. We explained what we were doing and, while the police officer was very nice, there was nothing that could be done.

Malls are private property. They have the right to determine who shops there. We are not denying this. However, state law also restricts how they can determine who can or cannot shop on their property.

The mall’s “Code of Conduct”

The code of conduct which was eventually handed to one of the attendees after numerous requests to see the policy indicated a few rules which they pointed to as being the problem. We were told these rule were needed to keep out the “riff raff.”

Costumes: The policy we were given stated “failing to be fully clothed, or wearing apparel that disguises, obscures, or conceals the face, including but not limited to costumes, hoods, or masks, other than those necessitated by a medical condition or worn for religious reasons, or wearing apparel or gesturing in a manner which is likely to provoke a disturbance or embroil other groups or the general public in open conflict.” These rules are obviously made to avoid having masks (a threat of robbery being the issue there) and to avoid gang colors and signs that would start a fight.

Our group had no masks. There were a few hats, but that is all. We didn’t even have any fantasy weapons. Steampunk sometimes involves ray guns and other weaponry, but our group used common sense and realized that this would not be popular at the mall. Most of the people were in simple Victorian dress because it looks so good on a carousel animal for a photo.

Groups: The code also stated “congregating and loitering in groups of three (3) or more which hinders or interferes with the flow of other shoppers or obstructs entryways or walkways.” It seems to me that many families are greater than the number 3, and I can’t say how many malls I’ve had my walking hindered by a group of friends or parents with kids who walked slowly in a line down the mall and I had to go around them.

This code is clearly there to be ignored most of the time or everyone would be kicked out. The code is so broad so they have an excuse when they want someone out. In this case, my family was 4 people but we were sitting at McDonald’s and not hindering the flow. Even when we were gathered as a group, after we had been kicked out, we tried to make sure we didn’t block the doors so that others could get by.

Photos: We were also told we were expelled because of photos. Photos are not allowed in the mall. Their code prohibits “photography or videotaping any individual or entity on the Center’s property without prior consent of the subject or Center management.” I am sure that many parents take photos of their kids riding the carousel. We were going to be the subject of the photos and gave ourselves permission.

The photography rules are there because they don’t want someone filming a movie on their property or a professional photographer using their mall as a set for a shoot--or reporters using their mall or a store in it for background in a piece. Normal people take photos all the time of themselves and friends and don’t have a problem. Besides, we were kicked out before the photography began.

I’d also like to point out that we had already been to one Westfield mall before and nobody approached us the entire trip. None of us expected this to be any different.

The Aftermath

Kim Keeline describes this photo in the aftermath of the Feb. 9 incident: "This is in front of Dr. Watson's Steapunk Odditorium an hour after we left the mall.  We crowded in to get in the shot and it is hiding some people, including James who is invisible in the back."
Laura Lusk
Kim Keeline describes this photo in the aftermath of the Feb. 9 incident: "This is in front of Dr. Watson's Steapunk Odditorium an hour after we left the mall. We crowded in to get in the shot and it is hiding some people, including James who is invisible in the back."

Everyone in the group was stunned that we were being kicked out of a mall. While we eventually had a nice day visiting Dr. Watson’s Steampunk Odditorium and took a group photo, it was not the day we had planned.

One of the people in the group, Mercy Baron, writes for the San Diego Reader and did a quick piece online about what happened. The article and related social media received a lot of attention and led to an interview on ABC Channel 10 local news. We’ve also been interviewed by Pam Kragen for the Union-Tribune. The TV news piece also aired in Los Angeles, and one of our group was contacted by CNN.

We were surprised by the amount of interest in what happened. I guess it makes sense. Steampunk is gaining in popularity. It was announced last year that a computer chose it as the “next big thing” for 2014. Plus cosplayers, historical re-enactors, goths, and others who participate in cultures seen as outside the mainstream were interested in the discrimination we faced because of how we were dressed.

We were not judged by our actions but because our clothing seemed “different” than others. Somebody at the mall worried that “different” meant “dangerous.” It is too bad that this happened.

The mall had a code of conduct but many of us wonder if it should have applied to us. In addition, many people in the Steampunk community (particularly the men, since male attire isn’t that different from Victorian clothing) often wear all or part of their clothing on a daily basis. It isn’t a costume if it is your normal attire. While what I was wearing was not everyday wear for me, I know there were people in the group who were truly not in costume. That is simply how they look.

Besides, the state of California limits how you can determine who belongs on your property with the Unruh Civil Rights Act (CA Civil Code 51 and 52). In addition to the particular forms of discrimination specifically outlawed by the Act (sex, race, color, etc.), courts have held the Act “prohibit[s] discrimination based on several classifications which are not specifically enumerated in the statute. These judicially recognized classifications include unconventional dress or physical appearance, families with children, homosexuality, and persons under 18." While I am not a lawyer, I would not be surprised to find that kicking us out for “unconventional dress” was in violation of that code.

Ironically, two people in the group were wearing outfits made up almost entirely by items purchased in stores found at that mall. Fashion designers are using Steampunk as the latest fashion craze and there were probably several Steampunk items for sale at the mall when we arrived. But even if Steampunk was not enjoying popularity and acceptance in more “mainstream” establishments, are we really a society that says that someone who is a bit different or weird is not welcome in public establishments? Are we saying that everyone should conform to one style at all times and never be seen as even a little different or creative? Should we not be judged by our actions and not by the length of our skirts or the wearing of a top hat? If we were not harming anyone, should the mall have kicked us out?

The mall personnel have not apologized and in the TV news their statement was that they insist shoppers abide by their code of conduct, which implied that we had not. One person who was there that day did talk to the mall management by phone a few days after the event, and the manager has apparently offered to have us back by arrangement to ride the carousel.

However, the organizer who put out the original invitation does not want to return; he did not feel welcome there and he feels that the mall’s public response has been cold and implied that we were at fault. I understand his feelings on this and so do the rest of us who were there; at the moment there is no plan to take them up on their offer of a sanctioned (and probably guarded) ride on the carousel.

Whether they should have kicked us out of the mall or not, I am glad to say that the aftermath has been mostly positive. The Steampunk community has really pulled together in support of those of us who were there and the comments on the news pieces have been mostly positive.

The only negative thing to come out of it is that I now feel hesitant to wear my Victorian clothes outside of specific events. I have always felt free to shop or dine without stopping to wonder if they would mind what I am wearing. The mall has added that doubt to the back of my mind. It may take a while for that to fade--and that’s a shame.

Kim Keeline is a geek who loves history, steam trains, Shakespeare, and writing. A former academic who taught community college for 15 years, she now makes her living doing freelance web design, publicity, and editing while writing a novel.