Wednesday, May 07, 2008

put that funky punk back in your trunk

WTF?! of the day, and I say that to you as a girl who used to dress in the style of the 1940s and then 1950s during that retro-period in the '90s swing craze, loves Firely, and whose only post-apocalyptic Zombie-takeover skill is knitting badly:


The lead singer of a neovaudevillian performance troupe called the James Gang, Mr. James has assembled his universe from oddly assorted props and castoffs: a gramophone with a crank and velvet turntable, an old wooden icebox and a wardrobe rack made from brass pipes that were ballet bars in a previous incarnation.

Yes, he owns a flat-screen television, but he has modified it with a burlap frame. He uses an iPhone, but it is encased in burnished brass. Even his clothing — an unlikely fusion of current and neo-Edwardian pieces (polo shirt, gentleman’s waistcoat, paisley bow tie), not unlike those he plans to sell this summer at his own Manhattan haberdashery — is an expression of his keenly romantic worldview.

It is also the vision of steampunk, 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. First appearing in the late 1980s and early ’90s, steampunk has picked up momentum in recent months, making a transition from what used to be mainly a literary taste to a Web-propagated way of life.

To some, “steampunk” is a catchall term, a concept in search of a visual identity. “To me, it’s essentially the intersection of technology and romance,” said Jake von Slatt, a designer in Boston and the proprietor of the Steampunk Workshop (, where he exhibits such curiosities as a computer furnished with a brass-frame monitor and vintage typewriter keys.

Devotees of the culture read Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, as well as more recent speculative fiction by William Gibson, James P. Blaylock and Paul Di Filippo, the author of “The Steampunk Trilogy,” the historical science fiction novellas that lent the culture its name. They watch films like “The City of Lost Children” (with costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier), “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “Brazil,” Terry Gilliam’s dystopian fantasy satirizing the modern industrial age; and they listen to melodeons and Gypsy strings mixed with industrial goth.

And, in keeping with the make-it-yourself ethos of punk, they assemble their own fashions, an adventurous pastiche of neo-Victorian, Edwardian and military style accented with sometimes 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. Steampunk style is corseted, built on a scaffolding of bustles, crinolines and parasols and high-arced sleeves not unlike those favored by the movement’s designer idols: Nicolas Ghesquiere of Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and, yes, even Ralph Lauren.

Quaint to some eyes, or outright bizarre, steampunk fashion is compelling all the same. It is that rarity, a phenomenon with the potential to capture a wider audience, offering a genteel and disciplined alternative to both the slack look of hip-hop and the menacing spirit of goth.

Robert Brown, the lead singer for Abney Park, a goth band that has reinvented itself as steampunk, echoed her sentiments. “Steampunk is not dark and spooky,” he said. “It’s elegant and beautiful.”

Even heroic, if you like. The movement may have a postapocalyptic strain, but proponents tend to cast themselves as spirited survivors. Molly Friedrich, an artist and a jewelry designer in Seattle, approaches steampunk, she said, “from a perspective of 1,000 years into the future, after society has crumbled but people have chosen to live in Victorian fashion, wearing scavenged clothes.” In keeping with her vision, Ms. Friedrich has devised an alternate identity composed of petticoats, old military storm coats, goggles and aviator caps with an Amelia Earhart flair.

She takes her emotional cues from scientists and inventors like Nikola Tesla, magicians like Harry Houdini and soulful spies like Mata Hari, each of whom injected a spirit of enterprise, intrigue and discovery into their age. Contemporary fictional parallels in film include the wildly ingenious scientist played by Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man,” who hopes to save the world by retooling himself as a flame-throwing robot made of unwieldy scrap metal parts.

If steampunk has a mission, it is, in part, to restore a sense of wonder to a technology-jaded world. “Today satellite photos make the planet seem so small,” Mr. Brown lamented. “Where is the adventure it that?” In contrast, steampunk, with its airships, test tubes and time machines, is, he said, “sort of a dream , the way we used to daydream. It’s like part of your childhood’s just bursting forward again.”

God, I love it when the Gothies grow up and have Gymboree-pink clad babies and other yuppie suburban trappings (but still! they rebel! look at their nail polish and piercings!), but I hate, hate it when they grow up, get some disposable income, and then go all pretentious and bourgie and start trying to brand and market themselves. At least the Goths kept to themselves. And at least keep it real, man. Positing it as art and curious humanistic inquiry just smacks of crying for legitimacy and then getting a little too serious about proving it, like those guys in high school who would make home movies a la Jackass and then by their senior year decide to slap on a production company name of dubious wisdom and call what they do "cinematography" and major in film studies the following year at college (before switching to psychology). See also that girl who reads bad poetry in local cafes, who then enrolls as a creative writing major and later decides to go to law school. No, that's not me, man. I never really claimed to be a serious artist. I was an English literature major!

UPDATE: TD informs me that I am late hopping on this little horse-drawn buggy (I suppose bandwagon would be just as appropriate a metaphor, but they aren't frontier folk, are they?), because he's seen elements of it on the internets, in art, anime, etc., for a while now. Once again, he says, he's a year ahead of the NYT in terms of trendspotting. To which I replied: "Heck, law professors are the last on any (non-legal) trend. Until it's filtered by the mainstream media and then further propagated by some legal blog, we don't know about it, and thus, it doesn't exist yet." Also, I said "well, lah-di-dah" for you!"

Hat tip to Paul Horwitz at PrawfsBlawg.


Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home