Nearly every youngster growing up in the new media age has been exposed, through requiredÂ educational novel reading assignments or merely for literary enjoyment alone, to the fantastic works of the immortal Jules Verne and the engrossing story-weaving of H.G. Wells. From Verne’s amazing Nautilus of Captain Nemo to Well’s diabolically efficient tripod killing machines in The War of the Worlds, the technology of what has become known in modern parlance as pioneering examples of Victorian SteampunkÂ has captivated and enthralled many with an appreciation for the true melding of art, design and “biomechanical” function.
The term Steampunk was at first used as a tongue-in-cheek variant of the popular 1980’s-period Cyberpunk era. Aficionados and their over-the-top, technologically-inspired jewelry, clothing and furniture designsÂ were in large part inspired by the apocalyptic and sinister look and feel of certain films such as the Terminator series and perhaps even more-so by Swiss artist H.R. Giger and his extremely popular Necromonicon and Alien artwork. A pop-culture American author by the name of K.W. Jeter seems to have been the first to actually coin the term, who was trying to find a general term to describe the speculative, retro-technology so prevalent in the Verne and Wells books. In a letter to a popular science fiction literary magazine (Locus), he exhorted his (and colleagues James Blaylock and Tim Powers) current and future works to be collectively standardized under a single moniker, and suggested the term Steampunk as somewhat of a whimsical and appropriate term.
Whimsical or not, the term stuck – and immediately not only gained a staunch foothold but an equally immediate, massive following. Soon, at fetish events across the United States in particular, costumes depicting characters from the old Robert Conrad television series The Wild, Wild West – incorporating elements of steam-powered Victorian-style, ingenious devices with the romantic (yet harsh) backdrop of the old American frontier – began to make startling, appreciated and permanent impressions. It has been said that the relatively poorly-received 1999 feature film version of the 1960’s television series was the first contemporary motion picture dedicated completely to the Steampunk design element, and has since been followed in turn by other efforts such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing and The Golden Compass. An earlier, nearly-forgotten film, The City of Lost Children and an even earlier,Â brilliant Terry Gilliam effort called Brazil could also certainly lay claim to being the true genesis, in celluloid format, of the visual style that “modern” Steampunk relies so heavily upon.
Today, even the casual admirer can be treated to images of laptop computers, entire desktop computer systems and peripherals, home entertainment modules (like plasma televisions, DVD players and stereo systems) and even laboriously designed automobiles with a simple click of the mouse (Note: the author’s own bedroom suite,Â pictured here, was custom-designed and built incorporating the Steampunk theme by Toronto filmmaker George Willis). While furnishings in copper sheeting, wiring and piping certainly could not be considered an “affordable option” for many admirers and consumers of the Steampunk artistic style, there are certainly several apparel, accessory and jewelry designers concentrating on the medium that are offering their wares at more than affordable prices.
One of the best Steampunk design firmsÂ to showcase their talents is Reno, Nevada’s Facing Costumes. Operated by Tyson Tabbert and supported handily by fellow artists Shane Mahon, Sara McCoy and Laurel Weil, the company has built a solid reputation and following – especially amongst live action role play (LARP) enthusiasts. Tyson describes their clientele as “generous” and “passionate”, and while he’s had opportunities to work in the high-demand world that is prop and costume design for Hollywood films, he remains loyal to his core audience. “I was really able to continue this passion thanks to cos-players and LARPers,” he said. “It’s their commissions that allow me to explore replica and original design work from a lot of different genres.”
Tyson recalled watching episodes of the old Tom Baker Dr. Who television series (“Episodes probably from before I was even born,” he said), and marvelling at the richness of the ornate brass fixtures, wood grains and vacuum tubes. “I always appreciated the mixture of Edwardian elegance and technology,” he said, “but of course back then there was no Steampunk movement and no terminology to attach it to.” While he appreciated the style and beauty of the design then, he had no idea the art-form would find such a broad appeal. “Now that there is actual name to this style, and a strong, consistent following, it is a region that is recognizable and thereby marketable. This is the great part, because now artists who are attracted to this style really have an opportunity to have their creative and beautiful works financed, and Steampunk can drive into new diverse areas.“
Tyson’s work is a perfect compromise of “retro-futuristic” reproductions based on existing film, television and literary imagery and his own unique, richly detailed one-of-a-kind designs and creations. While the company has become known for their exquisite corset constructions, their unbelievably detailed collars and accessory pieces are rivalled by none. Anything the Steampunk enthusiast could hope to adorn their body with, from replica sidearms and weapons to arm bracers, head pieces and even entire suits of armor, can be designed and built within the Facing Costumes walls. In addition to a brisk direct online business from their website, Tyson and his staff do an equally profitable service selling their pieces on eBay. A large part of Tyson’s success he attributes to the fantastic, artistic photographic efforts of one of his business partners, Jamais Vu.
“My exploration of the construction of these type of items really began with my interest in the process of wardrobe and prop construction for some of my favorite staples such as Star Trek, Dr. Who, and more contemporarily Xena: Warrior Princess,” Tyson said.Â “Replicating certain pieces from these shows became a drive of mine. I once attempted to assemble a line of props, classic Star Trek props such as communicators, phasers and tricorders, but with those same wood grain accents, brass tubes, engravings and rich deep baroque styling.Â Again, it was a style that I appreciated then, but I didn’t think it would have that broader appeal.Â I wish now that I would have made them. Perhaps I would now be known as one of the first individuals at the inception of the Steampunk aesthetic movement.”
Just across the Nevada border and due South there is another artist starting to make a name for herself within the Steampunk genre – but from a very different and contrasting viewpoint. Lauri Archer of Los Angeles, California is the sole designer and operator of Victorian Love, a service that specializes in hand-crafted Neo-Victorian and Steampunk unique and exceptionally-detailed jewelry pieces. “I am in love with Victoriana and am an ex L.A. punk from the old days of growing up with the Circle Jerks and Black Flag. When I first saw Steampunk it just clicked big time,” she said. “Victorian Love Jewelry is all about the feeling of the Victorian Era. Nature, beauty and timeless love. I designed each piece to feel magical when worn. After all, feeling beautiful is truly magical!”
According to her website, Lauri has “had a love affair with an era where humanity, kindness and compassion was coming into fruition. The Victorians love of Nature and Beauty truly has shaped our world today. Women were coming into their own beings, and we were to taught to be kind to the earth and all its living creatures.” While the usual vision of Steampunk tends to have the harsh, colder edge of various woods and metals, Lauri has managed to take the same elemental materials, combine them with precious and semi-precious stones, enamels and old-fashioned cameos and porcelains, and create appropriately themed pieces that eminate a certain warmth. “I design and create each piece with love,” she said. “I want everyone who wears one of my designs to feel beautiful.”
While it truly is impossible to do justice to the plethora of fantastic new designers and manufacturers currentlyÂ servicing the demand for Neo-Victorian and Steampunk accessories and accoutrement’s, new ventures such as Facing Costumes and Victorian Love are doing their very best to rise to the occasion and provide exceptional quality pieces to everyone with an appreciation and passion for the art-form.
Old Jules Verne himself, assuredly, could never have dreamed the aesthetic that sprung from his fantastic mind would continue to be so popular – and fashionable – over a hundred years after his death.