I was greeted by a church-bell in Victorian dress. As I took my information packet from her, I looked around the atrium of the Sheraton Hotel. There were many other people in different shades of afternoonified Victorian getup, there were a lot of gears, more than a few fanciful weapons, a decent amount of leather, a couple of fascinators, there was even a Snow White. And then there was me, in jeans, my Patagonia bag slung over my shoulder, and feeling as if I did not have a chuckaboo in the world.
On April 18th and 19th, the Sheraton Hotel hosted Alaska Steamposium 2015: The Arctic Expedition, Alaska’s first steampunk convention. For those not in the know, steampunk emerged as a literary sub-genre, sloppily describable as science fiction or fantasy that is informed by the Victorian period. Steampunk takes the industrialization, the cheerful outlook that the future could be improved through the imaginative use of technology, and the strict social sensibilities that characterised the Victorian period and twists them, offering an alternate history. Stories might take place in another world or in another time, but they maintain a strong link to the Victorian period.
While steampunk began as written stories, in its current manifestation, it is more about living tales. At the Alaska Steamposium, local steampunk aficionados could listen to and watch entertaining performances by local musicians and dancers; participate in costume and facial hair contests; attend classes on writing, tea etiquette, armoring, and creating a steampunk persona. They could visit vendors selling steampunk-themed items ranging from board games to jewelry, modified guns to art. Perhaps most worth the cost of admission, though, was the palpable sense of community that pervaded the event.
Admittedly, to an outsider like myself, that community can seem a bit daunting. People were walking around with fancy welding-type goggles atop their heads, swinging canes, crunched into corsets, and all I had was the provided pamphlet of Victorian slang and insults. Do not tip your hat to a man, got it. Do not call anyone a shirkster, right. Certainly there had to be more to know.
Fortunately, I met Akira Merrick, one of the convention managers. Akira is a watch and watch gear enthusiast. When she discovered steampunk six years ago, she was excited to find a group of people that had similar interests. Akira emphasized what she called the “historic-scientific” aspect of steampunk, the imagining of a world that did not move past steam power. Newbies, she said, should read history.
But you get to dress up, too. The aesthetic is a big part of steampunk, using dress and appearance to suggest an alternate reality. Akira usually puts her own outfits together, raiding thrift stores and combining different pieces to get the looks she wants. Even when she is not wearing her best convention garb, Akira often wears items that are “funky” and suggest a steampunk style.
In that sense, Akira could be considered a soft lifestyler: she does not wait for conventions to unleash her enthusiasm for the olden days. Others, she explained, lifestylers without the qualifier, might go so far as to learn to make their own clothing or historical items or they might make a practice of having tea times.
Others, like Beatrix McCormick. McCormick got into steampunk because she did not see herself represented at the anime conventions her daughter frequented. As she put it, there are “not a lot of middle-aged, large women in anime.” Steampunk felt more comfortable to her. (It felt pretty comfortable to me, too. I was happy to note that the crowd at the Steamposium was fairly diverse. There were people of a variety of ages, shapes, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations, and every outfit was evidence of a unique take on steampunk ideals.)
McCormick describes steampunk as “looking at the Victorian with rose-colored glasses.” It does not reflect reality, but she does not want it to. For her, steampunk is an escape from the doldrums of daily living. Beatrix McCormick is not even her real name. Rather, it is the name of her steampunk persona, a time-traveling cash curator. “I travel through time and I deal with peoples’ treasures,” she said with a smile.
As if time-traveling was not enough of a skill, McCormick is what you might consider a maker. By that I mean, she can sew really well. I saw her in a couple of different outfits, but the one she was wearing when we met was a neo-Victorian dress, dark teal, with burgundy and gold accents, and a matching hat. McCormick created the outfit from $7.00 curtains she found at a thrift store. And it looked good.
For McCormick, sharing skills and experiences is an important part of steampunk. Her whole family enjoys dressing up and McCormick creates all of their outfits. Her daughter primarily enjoys lolita cosplay, her son primarily enjoys steampunk, and her husband wears whatever she makes him. Together they go to conventions. They do not just dress up at conventions, though — they also dress up and go out to tea.
This was the second time that tea had been mentioned, so I decided to go to the tea etiquette class and see what the fuss was about. It turns out that there is a lot of fuss when it comes to drinking tea. The instructor of the class covered how long to brew tea, how to serve tea, how to stir milk or cream into tea, how to balance a teacup and saucer, how to hold and eat the obligatory biscuits (break off pieces of the biscuit instead of raising the entire thing to your mouth and never eat the crumbs), and what typical teas might have looked like depending on the social classes people were from.
As fascinating as the tea class was, I found that I was not thinking about tea as I rejoined the rest of the convention, but about people and the ways that they interact with the past, the ways they interact with steampunk. I was sharing space with a group of people playing with history and I wondered if, implicitly or explicitly, that has meaning.
December Fields-Bryant, another organizer of the Steamposium, thinks that it does. While she acknowledged that there are many people that simply enjoy the act of dressing up, Fields-Bryant sees a lot of possibility in steampunk, if one is interested in pushing through the aesthetic, the paraphernalia, the bands, the books, and seizing the opportunity for dialogue. For instance, she said, steampunk can be used as a way of talking about current issues, such as gender issues.
“Women who are dressed militantly, carrying weapons, and saying, ‘Yes, I’m an airship captain, I’m the boss.’ That’s a huge statement. Even if they don’t mean it to be a statement, that’s a huge statement. Because they never could have been that then.” She continued, “Women are walking around, flaunting their sexuality in fun, new ways…. Girls are flaunting their stuff and no one is touching them.” Part of this, Fields-Bryant believes, has to do with Victorian gentility. But it also has to do with the steampunk community’s commitment to being a culture of consent. One of the rules at the steamposium was that pictures could not be taken without the express permission of that person. “Cosplay is not permission,” Fields-Bryant stated.
It is not just women that get to push the limits. “Men can dress up, they can have tea, and they can sew, and they can do all these things that are feminine and not be called a sissy.” Even if it is just for the duration of a convention, for a few moments, some men might experience with Field-Bryants calls, “freedom through fantasy.”
If one can gain freedom through fantasy, gatherings like the Steamposium are magical events. You can reinterpret history according to your own vision, put on clothes you might otherwise never want to be seen in, travel across time, learn new skills, and interact with people who understand your interests. And, this year, you did not even have to travel out of state to do it. Alaska steampunk fans, your convention has arrived.
As for me, I am still pondering a question Fields-Bryant posed: “Is [steampunk] the fantasy? Or is when you put on normal clothes, do your normal job, and go through your normal day — is that the fantasy?”