By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Steve Snodgrass.
Professor Adam Smasher describes some of the items he is loaning to the exhibit, Alternate Reality: Steampunk & the Victorian Age: proto-type goggles, a mad scientist costume “with buttons made from bolts,” canes, plus a custom-made top hat named after his persona.
“Heather Hutsell has her time jumpers’ dress,” he says of the fellow steampunk writer and seamstress. “It’s made out of a parachute, and there are pocket watches sewn onto it.”
Opening Jul 21 at the Meadowlands Museum in Rutherford, NJ, the professor will deliver his lecture “What is Steampunk–101”, which outlines “a basic history of the Victorian era, where industry made life a little easier, and gave people a little more expendable income to spend on items like clothing.” Hence, all the weird and wonderful sci-fi garments and accessories.
The Eternal Frontier with Professor Adam Smasher (left) and Baron Von Zipple (right). Photo by Ed O’Brien, courtesy of Professor Adam Smasher.
Noting that about 6,000-7,000 people turn up each year, producer Tom Sales describes the famous fair as the “largest steampunk event on the planet”–and perhaps the universe.
“We have guys that build rocketships, but they’re usually powered by imagination, and that can’t get you to Mars,” he says about the three-day festival. “But it can get you to New Jersey.”
He finds it weird that the “largest event for this culture” happens in Piscataway, “an obscure town in the middle of” the Garden State. Nevertheless, he goes on to describe its mammoth scale, in which they rent out two hotels and set up several stages that host “18 hours of non-stop entertainment.” Along with music, there’s burlesque dancing, film screenings, live readings, dueling contests, sword-fighting lessons, a “famous speakeasy electro-swing dance party with an open bar,” fire dancers, and freaky side shows.
The parking lot between the hotels is converted into a steampunk vendors’ bazaar where about 90-130 vendors set up (depending on the year) to sell custom items like handcrafted leather belts or metallic jewelry. There are also DIY panels on how to create these specialty items.
Getting geared up for the Steampunk Worlds Fair. Photo courtesy of Steampunk Family the von Hedwigs.
“Admittedly, steampunk is more grown out of cyberpunk than the Ramones or Sex Pistols, but one of the things from the actual punk rock movement is the commitment to DIY ethic,” Sales says, adding that long-lasting quality is something our products often lack in the modern age of mass-production.
This year, the Steampunk Worlds Fair also featured rare imported French absinthe plus a tasting session with the equivalent of a sommelier.
“Absinthe is one of the most steampunk things there is,” Sales professes of the strange, strong green alcohol. “The forbidden ‘what-if’ artsy drink, and an image of people, in Old Europe, in 1875 trying to look to the future for what they saw.”
Apart from this annual mega steampunk mecca, lots of local events happen in NJ year round, like Morristown’s International Steampunk City, which will take place in October. The northeastern state certainly serves as a central hub and center of steampunk happenings, however, it’s not the only place where the Victorian science-fiction culture persists.
Photo by Jake Von Slatt, courtesy of Floor.
Based in San Francisco is Unwoman, a cellist-singer-songwriter who plays at steampunk conventions all around the country. When asked about the local scene, she mentions Steam Federation, who put on the annual event, Clockwork Alchemy, each Memorial Day Weekend. The Burning Man festival’s noteworthy “giant Victorian moving house,” the Neverwas Haul, was also created in the Bay Area.
In 2013, Unwoman won the award for Best Solo Musician for the Steampunk Chronicle Reader’s Choice contest. Her serene music, she says, is considered steampunk because it’s influenced by classical, pop, and industrial.
“There are a few different types of steampunk musicians,” she explains. “I’m the kind that would fit into a ‘steampunk world.’ I’m not necessarily explicitly steampunk, but [I play] the cello, which was a very popular instrument in Victorian music, and the electronic production combines to make that kind of aesthetic.”
Unwoman mentions a song on her upcoming album called “Beauty Over Industry”, saying that the lyrics present a moral she considers integral to her involvement in steampunk: looking to the past to envision a better future. By revisiting history–like the Victorian era–the audience can gauge what was wrong about a particular time, but also what was beautiful, and reap important lessons from these elements as they move forth.
As such, certain morals persist through current steampunk literature. Print-and-web periodical Steampunk Magazine abides by ethics that are “anti-colonial, anti-racist, and pro-gender diversity” to deliver its Victorian-era stories.
According to their Managing Editor Katie Casey, the publication works “to challenge some of the oppressive shit that came out of the 19th century, and hear marginalized voices that history doesn’t usually give.” She adds that their style of challenging the norm is better because “the marginalized voices have ray guns and robots and kick-ass costumes.”
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
There are infinite avenues, aesthetically, musically, or moralistically, to celebrate, or develop, the culture of steampunk. Whether it’s curating your interior space full of past-but-futuristic English-looking furniture, admiring a costume at a large-scale or local event, or getting lost in sci-fi literary worlds, aspects of the Victorian age are adapted into many forms today.