Steampunk trend barrels ahead at Dragon*Con
September 5th, 2011
03:04 PM ET

Steampunk trend barrels ahead at Dragon*Con

Steampunk is really, really big here at Dragon*Con. It's just about everywhere you look. The costumes and contraptions are marked by an intricately elaborate design aesthetic and they are beautiful - goggles, gears, the romance of a time that never was.

Maybe it's because I recently watched the film adaptation of H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine," or maybe because Dragon*Con itself just has that effect, but in the midst of it all, I really do feel as though I've been transported to an alternate universe. And that's what steampunk is all about.

Imagine an alternate history where steam power is still widely used - Victorian era Britain is the favored setting - and add to that a healthy dose of sci-fi / fantasy and a whole lot of design thinking and craftsmanship.

It sounds like an oxymoron, but "retro-futurism" is a good way to picture it.

At Dragon*Con, steampunk falls into the "Alternate History" track. Activities include panels (e.g., "Applied Science of Steampunk"), concerts, a steampunk music roundtable and an exhibition of props, weapons, costumes and contraptions. Steampunkers also got to show off their costumes at the annual parade Saturday morning, as well as at the Grand Pirate & Time Travelers' Ball.

For Michael Vail and Tyler Althafer, both 24, it's about creativity and community. The two friends met freshman year of high school and have been coming to Dragon*Con together for the past nine years. For this year, the two built a big, magnificent steampunk airship that is getting a lot of attention.

Citing films like "The Golden Compass" and "Master and Commander" as sources of inspiration, Vail and Althafer created their vessel from materials including a moving skid, two-by-fours, plastic house siding and hula hoops. As a result of this project, Vail and Althafer have also started their own prop design company called Iron Zeppelin Productions.

For Vail, being part of the steampunk movement allows him to "build things that look cool." For Althafer, the appeal is "creativity. It's not copying anything else. It allows for a huge amount of individuality."

There's a pretty lively music component, too. Abney Park, a steampunk band (named after a London cemetery), has been around for fifteen years, according to founder "Captain Robert" Brown. Eight albums later, the band performs, records and tours full-time with its six members.

Back in the late nineties when they were starting out, they knew they had a "vintage futuristic" feel, but didn't stumble across the term "steampunk" until a friend's father, a science fiction writer, pointed it out to them. Then, on their tours as they began returning to the same cities, they saw more and more fans coming out dressed like themselves, and that's when they realized it was turning into a real subculture.

So what exactly does a steampunk band sound like? According to guitarist Josh Goering, it's about reflecting the idea of "a time that never was" in their music. Abney Park does it by infusing a combination of older instruments, music and cultures from around the world, as well as older styles like jazz.

This is the band's fourth appearance at Dragon*Con, and their performance Saturday night was "the biggest show I've ever played," according to Goering. "It's adventure-style storytelling. It's an escape from boring everyday life that everybody's used to."

In a funny way, steampunk is a subculture that's going mainstream: Just take the overabundance of steampunk here at Dragon*Con 2011. Also,The Guardian recently published an article including steampunk as one of Britain's next generation of subcultures. And the Simplicity Pattern Company (a popular manufacturer of sewing pattern guides) even offers a steampunk line of sewing patterns.

This year, steampunkers are attempting to break a Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of folks in steampunk costuming. They set the record last year at Dragon*Con, and by the looks of it, breaking it shouldn't be a problem.

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Filed under: Fandom
soundoff (57 Responses)
  1. Zyah

    Keep on writing and cghgiung away!

    September 22, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  2. Tyranna

    I love steampunk, it is creative and allows an outlet for people to be enthused with life. I am aware that the fiddlers surrounding Rome are playing on, I am also aware that there is not a snowball's chance in Hades of my correcting the economic problems in Greece, Italy, Spain, or Portugal or kicking the current pols out of office so they will quit spending money the country doesn't have.. I am also aware that by attending the con, I contribute to the LOCAL economy by dining out for four days, staying in a hotel, tipping bellhops, wait staff, buying product at the con, and do so while having a great time.

    What is wrong with contributing to my LOCAL economy and having a great time? I buy Abney Park cds which makes it possible for the band to tour (and they also spend money when they tour) every little dribble helps the economy.
    For those into doomer porn, I suggest you find a survivalist group and join can sit around Rome, wring your hands, and commiserate together while reading "One Second After". Yes THEY are coming after you, You will be assimiliated, You will wail and gnash your teeth and spend every cent you have on prepping in case the SHTF.

    In the meantime, I and thousands like me, will enjoy a few days of pure fun, fantasy, fiction, costumery, good music, great ideas and forget that we owe thousands in student loans to become the new unemployed with a lifelong debt and no job. but we got that degree..woot!

    So doom away and we will play "Airship Pirates" and enjoy our cogs and wheels.

    September 7, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  3. mejazzbo

    Sounds like fun!

    September 7, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • RachelM

      My thoughts exactly!

      September 7, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  4. Jax

    I'm confused. Everyone keeps talking about Rome burning, but I've been all over CNN and other news outlets and there are no such fires in Rome or elsewhere in Italy.

    September 6, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Cecilia Long

      o_O Nero.. Rome... Fiddling...Burning....

      September 6, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  5. natalie

    White people are so very very boring.

    September 6, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • xxsevensxx

      I'm curious, what do you do with YOUR free time, natalie?

      September 7, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • mejazzbo

      Another racist heard from...

      September 7, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  6. Ron

    Talk about super geeks

    September 6, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  7. JX

    All I want to know is, are there any ladies who are into this stuff? If it's just the dudes, then I'm sorry to say I'm out.

    September 6, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Mel

      There are LOTS of ladies into steampunk. And I mean LOTS.

      September 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
      • Laneta

        Wow I must confess you make some very ternchnat points.

        September 21, 2011 at 3:17 am |
    • ringo

      Yes, and they're all wearing corsets.

      September 6, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Cecilia Long

      And if that is the kind of question you ask you are the kind of guy we dont WANT involved. If you are not enjoying Steampunk for Steampunk we gals into Steampunk arent going to enjoy or want you. It isnt a pick up service.

      September 6, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
      • Steamed

        Who is this "we" you speak of? Are you the official representative for Steampunk?

        September 6, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
      • Cecilia Long

        Well STEAMED since i cant reply to you directly I will reply in general. I suppose there could be a few girls simply turned on by the thought of someone just wanting to get involved merely to fornicate with them, and not really liking the genre.... but having met and knowing HUNDREDS, I cant say I have ever met any of them on here or any Steampunk Lists... If you are one, I will add you to that list and retract the statement to most, and direct all the above just wanting pick up service to you... Thanks!

        September 21, 2011 at 3:55 am |
    • MrBo

      Idiotic comment is idiotic.

      September 6, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Grimaulkin

      I got back from D*Con monday – and I'm a lady – AND I have picture of two hotties in nothing but body paint...SO yea – check it out!

      September 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  8. Elda

    'Retro-futurism' is already a style, so to call 'Steampunk' that is somewhat confusing. They are similar, but retro-futurism uses the aesthetic found in the fifties and sixties, occasionally adding in some art deco to the mix. Some examples would be the Space Needle or these types of stylized rockets –, or the world of the Jetsons.

    September 6, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  9. SixDegrees

    Interesting article. And I know it's part of a whole collection of articles devoted to this convention. But it never once mentions where the convention is being held – an annoying journalistic oversight that makes me wonder what else slipped past the author's notice. Do they teach the old standbys of reporting – Who, What, Where, When, Why and How – anymore?

    September 6, 2011 at 3:12 am |
    • turtlemaster4

      The con is held over Labor day weekend every year in Atlanta, GA.

      September 6, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  10. Sari in Vegas

    I like the idea of adopting a 19th century visual aesthetic to 21st century technology. Chunky modern design is, to be perfectly frank, dull and without artistic merit.

    September 6, 2011 at 1:41 am |
  11. well

    Steampunk is a puerile and naive re-imagined 19th century. Steampunk is a picking-and-choosing: The Victorian Era, sans the bloody code. Advanced technology, sans the threat of its (hypothetical, of course) appearance to the masses due to (again, hypothetical) high costs associated with the assumed precise machining and pure materials required for analog forms of digital technology. A caricature of the industrial revolution that somehow ends up even more grotesque than the original, because steampunk posits the aristocrat as its subject, the man of wealth. It's the Victorian Era if socialist and/or liberal upheavals did not continue, if colonialism in its least-obscured form remained acceptable.

    In short, it's an internet subculture that seeks to imitate the wealthy, but does not want to face the stigma of imitating wealth, so it places it into an antique science fiction, where workers are still exploited, but we can safely ignore them even better, because look at these brass cogs on my cufflinks. It's imagination and re-imagination without having any concept of forward thinking; it is a culture created just to be co-opted.

    September 6, 2011 at 1:26 am |
    • CatharticusX

      "In short, it's an internet subculture that seeks to imitate the wealthy, but does not want to face the stigma of imitating wealth, so it places it into an antique science fiction"

      That's cynical, ignorant and incorrect. I steampunked an old Darth Vader outfit just because it was there. I got the idea from looking at an old diving helmet. He's a dirigible racer now. I'm a pilot. It has nothing to do with "imitating the wealthy." It's all the cool stuff from the HP Lovecraft/Jules Verne/Edgar Rice Burroughs era, without the poverty, depression and wars that followed. Don't worry; they won't hurt you.

      September 6, 2011 at 3:30 am |
    • Chris

      You are the one who is naive and short sighted as you take life too seriously. You forget the FICTION of Science Fiction. Adopting an aesthetic from the past doesn't mean you have to strictly adhere to the politics of said period. Of course many Steampunks make this mistake as well assuming that everything "steampunk" has to mimic the Victorian Era, failing to understand that anachronism can and should exist in Steampunk. Time machines? Hello!?!?

      September 6, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Andrea Smith

      I'm afraid you're thinking too hard about this; it's a pop culture FASHION trend, not a social movement!

      September 6, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • EmptySkull

      I can see you throwing a fit watching Snow White, or even just the weather channel

      September 6, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • ringo

      Not emulating the rich – emulating that era's *geeks*. You know, the inventor in his garret with the brass and glass contraption, or the pilot with his new flying machine. Technology today is ubiquitous, but you can't make your own without a chip etcher and an injection-molding machine. Not so in 1890.

      September 6, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
      • kepod

        To be fair, having access to the education, materials, and free time necessary to be a geek back then pretty much required being rich in the first place. The mad scientist in the lab is not likely someone who is spending 60 hours a week working in a factory and tinkering on the side.

        I appreciate some parts of the steampunk genre. It's neat to see people re-imagining retro visual styles and including a celebration of technology. Celebrating a spirit of curiosity, adventure, science, and discovery is also pretty neat.

        On the other hand, viewing any historical era through overly rosy glasses can be problematic. I get that steampunk is about a playful fiction, not an actual recreation of the eras from which it draws style elements, but I share the poster Well's concern that people may lose sight of the real horrors of history when borrowing history's cultural components without their context. If steampunk is really a celebration of geeks and thinkers, shouldn't it include celebration of critical thinking and analysis?

        The steampunk world seems to have embraced the flavor of writers like Verne and Wells, with expeditions and time machines and adventure and all (though of course there's plenty of variation in individual preferences). But science fiction isn't just about the flavor-text; the ever-popular H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" itself sets up a far future society with a thought-provoking outcome. Science fiction has a pretty strongly established tradition of using alternate histories or worlds just a touch different from our own as staging grounds for reflection on society and human nature.

        That's the challenge of the future... Technology is still blossoming around us. Women can vote, slavery is long gone, we understand the importance of sterilizing medical equipment to prevent disease, labor movements have won us laws against child labor and inhumane work environments. That's old news. In our rapidly changing world, so much is old news. Social networking allows us to be ever more connected with our peers. And yet, meanwhile, the US has outrageous levels of inequality.

        So... Celebrate science, celebrate ingenuity, celebrate creativity, yes, but... it does seem in rather poor taste to parade in the trappings of an era backed by colonialism and industrial exploitation of the working class without keeping some of that in mind. We have escaped many bygone ills, but we're not there yet: student loans and private insurance mean people enter the workforce practically in a state of indentured servitude if they enter it at all, and... nevermind. I'm rambling on.

        There is plenty of room for creativity in coming up with ways for our future to surpass our present in just how humane, civilized, ingenious, and splendid it can be.

        September 15, 2011 at 5:52 am |
      • kepod

        Sorry, got kind of off topic.

        It is actually possible to make technology as an individual nowadays, with tons of starter parts available on the market (Arduino, Gumstix). Local hackerspaces can help people pick up needed skills like soldering and programming. So yep! Another DIY community with plenty of steampunk overlap (I've seen homemade brass iPhone cases).

        I don't mean to be super harsh against steampunk, I'm just sort of divided about some of the cultural ramifications.

        September 15, 2011 at 6:06 am |
    • Goggles up!

      I have never met a person within the modern context who used the word "purile" without themselves being an utter tedious bore. Steampunk as a design movement has been been around for a while now and its only lately that mention of it has crept on to the mainstream outlets like johnny-come-lately CNN where you found it – on the internet – and decided you were an expert on it in the space of a tiny word count. Or did you read three other websites and decided you knew everything then? The shallowness of your research and understanding is reflected in the dimness of your posting above.

      Of course Steampunk picks and chooses! It is a hobby and as such remains utterly accessible to those participating in it's ranks. I have had the honor of meeting as many people choosing to participate in the lower rungs of this faux-industrial movement as those who enjoy getting to add "Lady or Sir" to the front of their equally mythic monikers. And no, no one is choosing play the part of a Victorian-era pauper because, as hobbies go, that might be sorely lacking in the "fun" department.

      This activity is utterly comparable to saying anyone engaging in historical re-enactment "picks and chooses" their involvement sans the death and disease rampant in all such ages. Or like saying that people pretending to be super heroes opt not to have their parents murdered so as to give their participation that added "oomph."

      In otherwords sir or ma'am, it is you who are being naive. Unless you are somehow typing from some locale where you have indiviually conquered all your own industrial needs and desires and only exploit yourself (nice computer you have there – did you wire your ISP personally?) you are as guilty of the crimes of participation in the crimes you are accusing these people of.

      The grand difference is that these are people who are knowingly and consentingly participating in a fantasy – something you appear to have no qualified grasp of other than to demean its value as entertainment and mistake it for a replacement of real life.

      When done, these people go home to their real lives and worry about the same issues that everyone else who is not concerned about impressing the limited scope of the CNN commentary readership with their (again tedious) intellect.does. While there may be some small fraction who enjoy running around the house still in their bustle and pith helmets I think we can graciously forgive them their fun, because that is what this is all ultimately about.

      They are having fun, and you are not. This has apparently made you mad with jelousy and grief and you have chosen to lash out at innocents.

      For shame sir or ma'am for shame. I urge you to loosen up and partake in some consenual activity involving other people doing silly things because they look cool and make you laugh. I promise solemnly not to criticize you for your lapse in decorum and welcome you to the next tea party.

      Ray guns are optional, of course.

      September 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  12. Stevo

    Was wondering what all the Dungeons and Dragons nerds ended up becoming

    September 6, 2011 at 1:25 am |
    • CatharticusX

      Pilots, programmers, engineers, scientists, geologists and professors.

      At least mine did. Best of luck to you and yours.

      September 6, 2011 at 3:36 am |
    • Steamed


      September 6, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Mad Russian

      Ruling the world and whooping your behind everyday.

      September 6, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  13. tillzen

    The world needs you. From your local school to the world at large. We get that life stinks and that previous generations screwed things up but playing dress-up and inventing a world is just a drug to get you through the weekend. Rome burns and watching you fiddle is just plain sad.

    September 5, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
    • dbcooper17

      Let Rome burn. What was so great about it anyway? Stupid breeder.

      September 6, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • Ryan

      I'll tell you what, I'll stop my hobby if you can convince every major sporting organization to stop wasting millions of dollars on over paying athletes who perform for millions of other people who pass their weekend in front of the TV while Rome burns.

      Actually, scratch that.

      September 6, 2011 at 8:09 am |
      • SteamSaint

        Ryan, i love you

        September 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
      • Lorena

        I could watch Schindler's List and still be happy after raiedng this.

        September 23, 2011 at 1:19 am |
    • anObservation

      What's sad is to live in a world without creativity. Maybe if you and your ilk had hobbies, Rome would not be burning.

      September 6, 2011 at 10:44 am |
      • Th Murgen

        They do. Its called fantasy football.

        Fantasy football is Dungeons and Dragons for the small minded brutes who used to pick on the kids who played Dungeons and Dragons.

        September 6, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • wtchkng

      ... and you do know that big cons like DragonCon, GenCon, etc., actually hold charity events that everyone can get in on, right? (CardHalla at GenCon is one that comes immediately to mind.) The world may need us, but it doesn't necessarily need us mopey and depressing. And believe it or not, you can actually help people without coming across as some bleeding heart who's trying to wring every last drop of enjoyment out of your (and everyone else's) life.

      September 6, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Charlotte

      My work in cosplay and steampunk has helped me develop my skills in industrial engineering and has also allowed me to become more socially outgoing (which is required for most of industrial engineering).

      September 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Ydnic

      Actually, reading your misinformed babble is what is 'just plain sad'. These folks ARE out there doing something. They are building a community. Many of the folks I know in this subculture ARE educators and community organizers who are genuinely trying to make a difference. On the other hand, you are sitting around typing misleading nonsense into a white box on your computer screen. Instead of complaining about something that others find fun and interesting, why not get up off your behind and practice what you preach?

      September 6, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • wisdomlivesinsilence

      Rome's burning for lots of reasons. But if you want people to stop being creative so they can escape their woes. Go down to the corner bar and get everyone to stop drinking for it. Or watching reality TV. Or buying overpriced brand name shit to feel better about themselves. Or going to sports events that overpay their athletes. Or doing ANYTHING enjoyable.

      Just because these communities attempt to bring something different into this world than the usual garbage people sink their time and money into means you'll knock it? Tell you what. You work from sunup to sundown, do nothing but charity work, never spend a single dime on yourself, and then come and talk to others. Otherwise? Get off your high horse and stop judging others before someone starts to notice that glass house you're living in and wants to toss some stones.

      September 7, 2011 at 4:47 am |
    • xxsevensxx

      You're absolutely right. I've been spending too much time on silly things like hobbies. I need to get back to watching Fox News and wringing my hands in despair.

      September 7, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • Goggles up!

      Why are you wasting time on here reprimanding everyone when you should be out personally fixing all the worlds problems?

      Could it be that those problems are so vast and hopelessly intertwined and complicated that is no realy way to "fix" them?

      Could it be that you are, yourself, an arrogant busy body who sees other people having fun and has decided they need your superior wisdom to "put them in their place?"

      The hobby above is a HOBBY. Did you miss that? The people who do this lead normal lives Mon-Fri. Some are nurses and doctors, some are activists or teachers. Some are first-responders having their first day of fun after 48 hour shifts of saving lives, or helping people die with dignity. What did YOU do today to make yourself worthy of judging any of these people?

      When did any of these people come into a public forum to criticize you?

      You are a hypocrite and a bore. We take our leave of you now sir. Good day.

      September 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  14. cool or

    September 5, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • Ion

      boukar souley Posted on Hello. I would like to apply for a Master in lggauanes and international relations option specialized translation and interpretation link.i have an A'Level in french general teaching; a university degree in English as second language and a master 1 certificate in translation and interpretation.thank you in advance for giving me specific information

      November 14, 2012 at 6:36 pm |