Curious Trends


DIY gothic and steampunk style and entertainment

A gallery talk at the Barbican by Catherine Spooner, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Lancaster University and author of Contemporary Gothic this week coincided with a presentation by London steampunk club, White Mischief, whcih organises steampunk-themed events. Their alternative, Victorian-style view of the future includes ‘bustles, top hats and clockwork innards jostling against sci-fi visions such as ray guns and steam cannons’.

Retro style is a key feature of post modern society and modern culture in general. The origins of contemporary goth style are found in the Victorian cult of mourning. Goth fashion is noted for its black clothing, ruffled Regency style shirts, stovepipe hats, lace-up boots, fishnet stockings, laced corsets, leather garments, fob watches, religious accessories and macabre jewellery like bone earrings, rosaries and skulls, usually made form silver – as well as the ubiquitous black eye liner.

The roots of gothic style go back around 2000 years, but the main gothic revival in Europe (and Britain, in particular) came in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This pre-dated the Victorian period and is reflected in the empire line dresses seen widely in contemporary gothic horror films – for instance the Dr Who episode, Vampires of Venice.

Rather than directly copying Victoriana, steampunk’s retro-futurism is a creative re-interpretation of old styles, based on the antiquated technology and ideas of the likes of Jules Verne and HG Wells. The garments are usually brown and sepia in colour, like old photographs and aficionados wear retro-style tend to wear goggles in place of memento mori jewellery.

The inspiration for steampunk fashion is lighter and more nostalgic than that associated with the goth lifestyle. Steam technology, antiques and clockwork mechanisms feature highly in the designs for clothing and accessories alike, with more than a whiff of 19th century Baudelairean dandyism. Masculine styles prevail and garments give off an air of practicality, even if that is far from the case.

Above all, steampunk style is all about DIY design, with a friendly competitive spirit amongst regular partygoers as to who can create the most unique and unusual clothing and accessories. The event at the Barbican included a ‘make your own steampunk look’ section, along with a selection of steampunk clothing and accessories for sale, plus an expert on handcrafted historical clothing from the Victorian era. However, one person admitted to buying his costumes and quirky antiquated accessories, including goggles, online rather than making them himself.

Some of the most curious outfits were the audience-interactive suits worn by perfomers Aste Amundsen and Nathaniel Slade in their Sonic Sideshow. 

“An array of body patches across both suits…trigger sound samples via a wireless link to a computer program. In a live setting the custom-built program also allows us to record ourselves, or members of the audience, simply by touching a patch and speaking into a microphone. The suits can be used either as a stage show, by plugging into a PA system, or by wearing our special Sonic Sideshow headgear - rigged with lights and speakers for free-range performance and walkabout.”

One of the visitors to the event explained that he’d become bored with going to clubs, but dressing up steampunk-style offered a new interest, so now he only attended steampunk events. There’s certainly an element of installation/performance art in steampunk, as well as the obvious historical and retro influences, which makes it especially appealing to those seeking to show off their artistic talents at the same time as expressing their individuality.

As well as being adapted for streetwear, both gothic and steampunk style have also been re-worked by fashion designers and seen on the catwalk in recent years.

For further information see Steampunk Magazine
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