Inside a ranch house duplex on a sun-baked Burbank street, a woman dressed in prairie dress and bloomers serves tea in her drawing room, surrounded by bonnets, goggles, pocket watches and a half-empty bottle of absinthe. She's Donna Ricci, steampunk. Formerly the owner of a goth girl modeling agency and now proprietor of online emporium Clockwork Couture, Ricci celebrates Victorian-inspired finery with all the fervor with which she once championed jet-black hair and pierced nostrils.
Her guest is Jeff VanderMeer, author, with S.J. Chambers, of "The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature" (Abrams Image). Offering VanderMeer a plate of scones, Ricci explains her newfound fondness for 19th century decorum. "I get grandmothers calling me on the phone with their granddaughters on the line, and they're talking about what outfits to buy together. I love that. I love it when the mother isn't frightened that her daughter is going to walk out of the house with her … hanging out, because for once, she's dressed like a respectable lady."
VanderMeer chimes in: "That's your rebellion right there." Ricci: "'Yeah. 'Mom, I'm going wear granny boots that are 2 inches taller than you said!'" she pauses. "Also, people are a little depressed right now because of the economy. Steampunk is a good distraction."
Ricci may be onto something: As set forth in VanderMeer's book, steampunk fast-forwards Victorian sensibilities as if World War I, Bauhaus Minimalism and the atomic bomb never happened. Grounded in fiction, fashion and contraptions, it's the rare subculture that places a premium on politeness.
"Steampunk doesn't have that dark edge you might expect from a movement," says VanderMeer. "It's been criticized for being too cozy, but I think it's just getting started because steampunk people get down to the business of actually making things."
Bored with digital technology's smooth surfaces, steampunk "tinkers" take their cue from the submarines and flying machines popularized by 19th century French science-fiction pioneer Jules Verne, among other figures. Retro-technology restores to a place of honor gears, cranks, springs, tubes, pulleys and bolts, the more the merrier. VanderMeer says, "Whether they're artifacts or working machines, you've got these makers who build amazing things either by modifying existing technologies or by building stuff from scratch that's sparked by the Victorian or Industrial Revolution."
The fruits of this antiquarian aesthetic creep into mass media from a variety of sources. Japan's enchantment with Victorian-styled mechanics yielded a slew of mid-decade anime films including 2004's "Steamboy." The 2009 animated feature "9" envisioned a "stitchpunk" showdown between animated rag dolls and smoke-belching robots. Syfy cable adventure series "Warehouse 13" costars Rube Goldberg-like gadgets. And this summer's newest "Pirates of the Caribbean" borrowed title and storyline from steampunk writer Tim Powers' fantasy novel "On Stranger Tides."
But for unadulterated blasts of steampunk spirit, VanderMeer recommends the half-a-dozen conventions — including Seattle's Steamcon — that draw up to 10,000 jewelry makers, inventors, designers, musicians, comic book artists and "cosplay" (costume-play) enthusiasts dressed up as Victorian ladies and gentlemen. The next Steamcon is in October.
Catering to this demo: The League of S.T.E.A.M. Self-described as "part magic show, part circus," troupe members produce a video series on their website and travel the steam circuit garbed as Victorian monster slayers who hunt their prey with whimsically convoluted hand-made weaponry.
League member Kate Walsh, convening downtown with her colleagues at the industrial-strength Edison nightclub, housed in the 1910 Higgins Building, says admiringly, "Victorians added pretty stuff to everything and anything." Wearing a corseted dress cinched with pouch-laden belts, an arm-operated chainsaw and a vampire-bashing cricket bat that's slung across her back, Walsh continues, "That's just the way they operated: gold and brass and lace, and just a lot of really cool little things that you don't necessarily need."
Derby-hatted Andrew "Baron" Fogel sports a tank of water strapped to his back containing baby eels. He offers a pair of prods to VanderMeer. Cranks are cranked. Mild electric shock ensues. "We don't take ourselves too seriously," he says with a smile. "One reason you're seeing this boom in steampunk culture is that the aesthetic can be translated to just about any artistic medium or lifestyle."
Be-goggled leader Nick Baumann, a movie and TV prop maker who formed the league two years ago, says, "Steampunk's community aspect really attracts us too, because so much of this is do-it-yourself. Eying his cast mates, Baumann acknowledges, "Steampunk is not a 24/7 lifestyle. We don't walk into the 7-Eleven dressed in funny hats."
Nor do steampunks reject useful digital technologies such as the Internet, which has served an essential role in connecting like-minded antiquarians. Un-sheathing a sleek iPhone inside of her hand-tooled leather pouch, League player Aubriana "The Russian" Zurilgen says, "I love Apple products, but they look boring. Steampunk is the exact opposite."
Ticking off a dizzying taxonomy of subgenres — boilerpunk, clockpunk, dieselpunk, gaslight romance, mannerspunk, raygun gothic — VanderMeer views steampunk as a conceptually flexible arena capable of absorbing multiple points of entry. "In Brazil," he says, "people interpret steampunk as alternative labor history movement. In England, anarchists at Steampunk Magazine truly believe we're heading toward a point of no return, so for them it's about learning survival skills."
Though rich in variants, the micro-movement's focus on ingenuity, etiquette, good-humored escapism and ornate visuals has yet to generate a galvanizing moment that would do for Victoriana-loving gearheads what "On the Road," the Sex Pistols, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and My Chemical Romance previously did for beat, punk, grunge and goth subcultures.
Clothier Ricci muses, "Punk and goth scenes grew out of music, and the fashion kind of followed. Steampunk comes out of a literary subculture, and we're trying to invent reasons to get together and define the scene. Unless we pull together and get that going, I think steampunk's got a lifespan of about another four years."
In the interim, those magnificent Neo-Victorians and their flying machines might just make a mainstream splash. VanderMeer's steampunk afternoon concluded with a visit to a Hollywood producer. Studio pitch meetings are expected to take place this month.