“Yesterday in Styles” is a regular column that looks back at Styles stories that got people talking.
Original headline: “Steampunk Moves Between 2 Worlds,” published in May 2008.
Spinning the dials of the time machine: O.K., Mr. or Ms. Retro. You thought you were pretty cool back in the George W. Bush years for rolling the cuffs on your selvage jeans and spinning Grizzly Bear’s “Yellow House” on vinyl. Little did you know that you were actually making a statement of Jetsons-level futurism compared to the real antiquarian cool kids of the era: the devotees of steampunk.
This underground style looked back not just decades, but a century or more, blending high Victorian and Edwardian style with a fantastical, Jules Verne-era science fiction sensibility. As the article’s author, Ruth La Ferla, defined it, steampunk was (and remains) “a subculture that is the aesthetic expression of a time-traveling fantasy world, one that embraces music, film, design and now fashion, all inspired by the extravagantly inventive age of dirigibles and steam locomotives, brass diving bells and jar-shaped protosubmarines.”
Laying low: Steampunk took inspiration from mainstream fashion designers, including Nicolas Ghesquière of Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Ralph Lauren, as Ms. La Ferla wrote. But like goth, its spiritual cousin, it was an underground movement that tended to remain underground, at least in the early days. Devotees in full retro regalia gathered at tea parties and time traveler’s balls and scoured eBay and Etsy for costume-worthy vintage clothing. They also kept tabs with magazines like Steampunk, The Willows and Weird Tales, as well various enthusiast websites, and built the occasional mega-sculpture at Burning Man.
Style cues: Despite its reliance on 19th century fashion flourishes like bowler hats, corsets and Victorian-era military tunics, steampunk’s gaslight chic pushed far beyond Sherlock Holmes into fantastical “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” territory. The look was equal parts Merchant Ivory and “Mad Max,” as devotees mixed a little post-apocalyptic warrior ethos into their “adventurous pastiche of neo-Victorian, Edwardian and military style,” as Ms. La Ferla wrote. They often blended in “crudely mechanized accouterments like brass goggles and wings made from pulleys, harnesses and clockwork pendants, to say nothing of the odd ray gun dangling at the hip.”
The steampunk syllabus: Despite the name, steampunk was more “steam” than “punk.” Unlike many other retro-oriented subcultures (rockabilly, Mod and, of course, punk), steampunk did not tend to draw on music as primary source material. Sure, those who were heavy into it would eventually find their anthems, like “Brass Goggles” by Steam Powered Giraffe or “Steampunk Revolution” by Abney Park. But generally, Ms. La Ferla noted, it drew inspiration from books (Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, William Gibson and Paul Di Filippo, the author of “The Steampunk Trilogy”) and film (“The City of Lost Children,” “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “Brazil,” by Terry Gilliam).
Fashionable Luddites: Steampunk had been percolating since the 1980s, but it is hardly surprising that it flowered in the aughts, with the rise of social media and smartphones. For the perma-connected who worried about becoming digital slaves, steampunk made for a stylish way to protest the “Black Mirror”-style technological abyss that yawned before us. Even when the initiated allowed 21st century tech into their daily lives, they did so grudgingly. Take Giovanni James, then a “neovaudevillian” musician and magician interviewed for the article. He owned a flat-screen television, sure, but he hid it in a retro-looking burlap frame. His iPhone? It looked like something Artemus Gordon of “Wild Wild West” might carry, thanks to that walnut case.
Fast forward: It’s not like steampunk took the culture by storm, but it certainly outlasted the fad phase. Google Trends shows that searches for the term grew steadily since Ms. La Ferla’s article was published, and at more than a few style influencers seemed to take notice. Steampunk style popped up in music videos by the likes of Panic! at the Disco, Justin Bieber and David Guetta, in stage shows by Lady Gaga and Rush, and runway shows by Jean-Paul Gaultier and Joseph Abboud. In 2011, a writer named Jeff VanderMeer published the “Steampunk Bible,” and a couple of years later, steampunk fashion was still inspiring look books on BuzzFeed. Even now, steampunk is not dead: Check out those crazy armored outfits and velvet tunics in Terry Gilliam’s new film, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” which is set to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival later this month.
Keeping the faith: Giovanni James, it seems, traded brass goggles for ripped T-shirts as he morphed into a pop singer specializing in “futurist soul,” in the words of Rolling Stone. But others in the scene are still doing their best to take steampunk to the next level. “When MTV filmed us playing a steampunk festival back in 2008, there were maybe 50 people watching,” said Robert Brown of Abney Park, when contacted for this story, but he said the band now performs for thousands in Moscow, Leipzig, Paris and Amsterdam. “Even your grandma knows what steampunk is,” he said. The steampunk movement got big enough to inspire themed cruises to the Bahamas, but true believers would never want to see it become too mass. “The clothes, the art, they are heirloom quality,” Evelyn Kriete, a steampunk-loving book editor and film producer, said recently. “You’re looking at stuff that isn’t mass produced; 99 percent of the clothing is handmade. It’s basically neo-vintage haute couture for the masses.”