Originally posted May 14, 2008
This is the last of the Summer Re-Runs. I'm back on terra firma Brittania, jet lagged and in need of a shower. I look forward to being lucid in the near future.
Love your iPOD and flat-screen TV but have fantasies of gearing up in Victorian corsets and crinolines, maybe throwing on some old aviator goggles? If that mix of antiquity and cutting edge feels incongruent, don't shy away just yet - you don't have to make a choice for fear of appearing hypocritically ingenuous. You may in fact be an ideal recruit for the Steampunk movement.
Steampunk is, most simply defined by one enthusiast, as 'the intersection of technology and romance.' A more encompassing description according to Ruth LaFurla of The New York Times, states it is "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." Wow. I love my tea dresses but now realise they are sadly devoid of protean context.
Hmmm, one of these groups seems a bit cooler than the other...
Steampunk arrived on the scene in the late 1980s and now thanks to the internet is seeing its popularity increase exponentially. Using the web as a show-and-tell venue, steampunk inventors are taking the technology of today and by adding elements of the past, creating new/old hybrids that are taking design aesthetics to an exciting new level. One especially impressive specimen is a computer with a brass-frame monitor and vintage typewriter keys, built by Jake von Slatt (shows sleek and minimalist isn't the only way to move forward):
Giovanni James steampunked his LCD television by wrapping it in burlap:
While steampunk fashion draws on the styling and detail of the Edwardian and Victorian eras as well as pre-20th century military uniform, some of today's most exciting and respected designers are supplying inspiration for the steampunkers' DIY approach to dressing. Nicolas Ghesquiere of Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and even Ralph Lauren (falling into the 'respected', rather than 'exciting' category) make for worthy idols with their interpretations of period-costume elements such as bustles, crinoline and puff sleeves, figuring prominently in their designs.
These references are clearly visible in Alexander McQueen's exquisite, British colonial-inspired collection for Fall 2008 RTW (said to be his greatest collection in his 14 years of shows):
If you're interested in hearing what the influential von Slatt has to say about the movement, you can read this interview at Bostodelphia (try not to be hypnotised by his intense portrait - look quickly, then look away).
Altogether I find steampunk quite endearing: its love for treasured items from a distant past, the celebration of craftsmanship and detail not universally cheriched in our time, and its inclusiveness - the capacity to not only avoid shunning modern advances but find room to embrace what our technology provides us.
von Slatt sums it all up beautifully when asked to compare the cultures of steampunk and cyberpunk: "In many ways I think Steampunk is a reaction to Cyberpunk, its a desire to inject an element of humanity and passion into something cold and virtual." We too, welcome that.
Photos of Steampunkers: Robert Wright for The New York Times