In the Victorian-style ballroom of the Columbia Club in downtown Indianapolis, hundreds of revelers will gather beneath the Gothic stonework and stained glass windows.
Begoggled men in bowler hats and knickers or top hats and monocles will converse with proper ladies in elegant dresses. Some will sit and enjoy cabaret shows or English tea, while others get down with contra dancing or parlor games in the Salon.
This year’s “Steampunk Through the Looking Glass” event is a centerpiece for the local celebration of steampunk movement. The goal is to re-create a retro ’80s look and atmosphere — the 1880s.
Steampunk brings the world of science fiction into the Victorian era. It blends robots and intricate machines with Industrial Age gears and technology from the imagination of authors Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
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For central Indiana steampunk fans, their interest combines literature, music, theater and fashion into an escapism that fits their personal style.
“It’s how in the past people imagined what the future would be like,” said Katrin Robinson, an Indianapolis steampunk enthusiast who goes by the name Kat Alyst. “The biggest stereotype is top hats, goggles and airships, which is why people were attracted to it, and that’s fine. But there’s a lot more to it than just Victorian England.”
By definition, steampunk is a form of retro futurism, Robinson said. The name refers to the late 1800s reliance on steam for power.
Though typically it focuses on Victorian English culture, people from all over the world have adapted it, Robinson said. People have adapted it to colonial India, China and frontier Australia.
American steampunk often centers around the Old West, mixing cowboys and pioneers with steel contraptions running on coal.
More people may be steampunk fans than even realize, Robinson said. The Will Smith and Kevin Kline blockbuster “Wild Wild West” had elements of the style in it, as did TV shows such as “Firefly.”
‘Sense of fashion irony’
The style falls into the punk aesthetic, with steampunks deconstructing the mass-produced, fancy Victorian culture and making it their own.
“People take any time period and punk it,” Robinson said. “Punk is not Mohawks. It’s a sense of fashion irony that was rebelling against the status quo with a strong (do-it-yourself) ethic.”
Because of that DIY mindset, many steampunk enthusiasts sink hours of time into creating their outfits and gear.
As a trained textile artist, Robinson was skilled in creating elaborate costumes. She also was a fan of Goth culture — the dark fashion, music and other art that closely align with Victorian elements.
“There was this fascination with taking very fancy things and deconstructing them to make them gritty and dirty and their own,” she said. “That steampunk quality of taking something apart and using it to make something very unique really appealed to me.”
Robinson is one of the founders of the Circle City Aerodrome, an Indianapolis steampunk-appreciation organization. The group was founded in 2012. Members travel around the Midwest to take part in steampunk conventions and events and realized they wanted to do something of their own in their home city.
Because Indianapolis is near steampunk hotspots such as Chicago, Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky, they suggested that they call their group an aerodrome.
“Much of the steampunk imagery revolves around airships; and since we’re at the crossroads of America, this is where the airships come to dock,” Robinson said.
What started as six people meeting at a pizza place has grown to include monthly Sunday social gatherings and special events. Often they’ll gather for group outings to see steampunk movies or concerts. Members have workshops to help create costumes and accessories for upcoming conventions.
Each summer, the group travels to Tipton to participate in the annual French Market event, where they serve Victorian tea and discuss steampunk culture.
On the grounds of Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery, the aerodrome hosts an activity called the Edward Gorey Epiplectic Bicycle Tweed Ride and Tea. Participants dress in their best tweed outfits and ride 1800s-style bicycles before enjoying croquet and tea.
“In Indianapolis, there’s a lot of Victorian events that we can go to. Our list of things we want to do is far longer than what we’ve done so far,” Robinson said.
The first year started with a masquerade ball where more than 200 people came in exotic finery and embellished masks. That has led to the group’s annual event, a weekend gathering where participants spend three days immersed in Victorian steampunk culture.
“We want to make it when you hit the door you’re entering the Circle City Aerodrome — a trans-dimensional hub between different time periods,” Robinson said. “We wanted to have a very open interpretation of steampunk and not lock it down to one place or one era.”
The theme this year is “Steampunk Through the Looking Glass,” a nod to the Lewis Carroll novel as well as the idea of steampunk culture through an American filter.
Corn Island Steampunk Embassy, a group out of southern Indiana, will feature its Gadgetorium, where people can submit their best steampunk-inspired mechanical creations, jewelry and accessories.
Musicians such as steampunk funk artist Montague Jacques Fromage will provide music. Improv comedian Thee Bluebird will perform.
Gandersnitch the Goblin is slated to wander the crowds and do Gothic-style tales and jokes.
Amy Mullin, known Madame Belle Breeze in steampunk circles, will host a salon. Participants can stop by for naughty Victorian parlor games, gossip and witty conversation, as well as drop in on performances, Mullin said.
The masquerade dance will be the final big activity of the weekend, and it often spawns creativity that’s unparallelled throughout the event.
“Steampunks love their finery. The stuff that comes out, the outfits, are mind-blowing,” Robinson said.
The atmosphere will be one of anything-goes, and that’s what way that organizers like it.
Inclusiveness is important to the steampunk ethos, and Circle City Aerodrome welcomes anyone’s particular ideas about what their costume and characters should be like. There’s no right or wrong way to be a steampunk, since everyone’s making it all up as they go anyway, Robinson said.
“Steampunk isn’t historically correct, so that leaves you with a lot of latitude on how you want to interpret it,” she said.
What: Through the Looking Glass, an immersive steampunk weekend that invites people to step into a Victorian world for music, games, theater and a dance to top it all off.
When: 3 p.m. Feb. 13 to 3 p.m. Feb. 15
Where: Columbia Club, 121 Monument Circle, Indianapolis
Who’s in charge: The Circle City Aerodrome, Indianapolis steampunk appreciation group
Who can come: Open to the public
Cost: $65 for a weekend pass
- “Through a Mirror, Darkly: Portal II,” the event’s annual masquerade hootenanny featuring live music, Montague Jacques Fromage and his “Steampunk Funk,” a DJ, photo booth, silent auction, dessert fondue, and live theater segments.
- The Gadgetorium, a competition judging the best gadgets, gizmos or oddities
- “In the Salon … With the Mirror,” an intimate, interactive theater experience from Q Artistry.
- “Portal Openers: A Steampunk Cabaret,” a special evening of steampunk surprise presented by Angel Burlesque.
- “In the Library: A Collection of Curiosities and Wonders,” an impromptu bookstore and vendor arcade
- Thee Bluebeard’s late night improv comedy talk show
- “Mad Hour,” a twisted take on the American institution of the “happy hour” by Q Artistry
- Absinthe Twist, an advanced course in the American twist on absinthe cocktails
- American tea dueling tournament
“It’s how in the past people imagined what the future would be like. The biggest stereotype is top hats, goggles and airships, which is why people were attracted to it, and that’s fine. But there’s a lot more to it than just Victorian England.”
Katrin Robinson, Indianapolis steampunk enthusiast