“Meet Showtime,” said Giovanni James, a musician, magician and inventor of sorts, introducing his prized dove, who occupies a spacious cage in James' apartment in Midtown Manhattan. Showtime is integral to James' magic act and to his decor, a sepia-tone universe straight out of the gaslight era.
The lead singer of a neovaudevillian performance troupe called the James Gang, 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.
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 (steampunkworkshop.com), where he exhibits such curiosities as a computer furnished with a brass-frame monitor and vintage typewriter keys.
That definition is loose enough to accommodate a stew of influences, including the streamlined retro-futurism of Flash Gordon and Japanese animation with its goggle-wearing hackers, the postapocalyptic scavenger style of “Mad Max,” and vaudeville, burlesque and the structured gentility of the Victorian age. In aggregate, steampunk is a trend that is rapidly outgrowing niche status.
“Part of the reason it seems so popular is the very difficulty of pinning down what it is,” von Slatt added. “That's a marketer's dream.”
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 build lumbering contraptions and trawl eBay for saw-tooth cogs and watch parts to dress up their Macs and headsets, then show off their inventions to kindred spirits on the Web.
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.“Steampunk is not dark and spooky,” says Robert Brown, the lead singer for Abney Park, a goth band that has reinvented itself as steampunk. “It's elegant and beautiful.”
Steampunk style is also an expression of a desire to return to ritual and formality. “Steampunk has its tea parties and its time-travelers balls,” said Deborah Castellano, who presides over
salonconvention.com, which organizes neo-Victorian conventions. “It offers an element of glamour that some of us would otherwise never experience.”
And an enticing marketing hook. The Bombay Co. is selling steampunk-style brass home accessories, instruments like astrolabes and sextants. A steampunk fantasy game, “Edge of Twilight,” will be introduced by Xbox 360 and PlayStation next year.
And steampunk fashion, which until now has been a mainstay of craft fairs and destinations like eBay and Etsy, the online market for handmade clothing designs and artifacts, is finding its way into the brick and mortar world.
Gypsymoon.com Gypsymoon.com has begun offering its cream and umber petticoats, an Air Pirate ruched tunic and Time Machine bloomers at boutiques. Abney Park is selling swallowtail tuxedos, antiqued flight helmets and airship pirate T-shirts, like those it wears on stage, at abneypark.com and at concerts across the country.