When Steampunk Became a Stylish Protest to the Digital Age

By May 15, 2018Lifestyle

yesterday in styles

Percolating since the 1980s, this underground style, which mixes Victorian style with Jules Verne retrofuturism, served as a pointed protest to smartphones and social media in the early aughts.

The original story as it appeared on May 8, 2008.

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.”

From left to right, steampunk enthusiasts Meaghan Fluitt, Geoff Falksen, Evelyn Kriete and Christine Yoo, photographed for the 2008 story.CreditRobert Wright for The New York Times

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).

Giovanni James with his burlap-wrapped TV and walnut-encased phone in 2008.CreditRobert Wright for The New York Times