Tea & Automatons

Diana Vick's corner of the interweb

Mechanical Hair

When I began working on my automaton costume (Victorian era robot) I realized that my hair shouldn’t show since it doesn’t look the least bit mechanical.  My first solution was to use a flight helmet and cover my hair for the most part.  This worked fairly well, but I decided I wanted to use a hat so the lightning goggles would be more obvious.

I looked for a wig but the only metallic ones I found were all tinsel and looked tacky.  I investigated a product called tubular crinoline or cyberlox.  It’s a long hollow tube and it comes in tons of colors and to my delight metallic shades.   I have seen women wear cyberlox, mostly as pony falls, but the look is too modern for me.  It works great for futuristic science fiction looks, but I wanted something less “cyber” and more steampunk.  I decided that they look enough like banana curls that if I put them in right, they might work.  They come in a long 5 yard or 10 yard tubes and you cut them to your desired length.  They are very light so they cut quite easily.  Once cut though, they can fray a bit, so have scissors on hand.  I cut a bunch to the same length, put my hair in a bun and then just pinned them into my hair and placed a bowler on top.

I really liked the effect, so I began wearing it with other outfits as well.  My first several times I used just copper and it was a bit too pale for my complexion, so I added in a darker brown color.  I am using just the larger ones so far as they always seem to be out of the smaller size when I place an order.

I think the effect is wonderful and people are simply fascinated with my “mechanical” hair.  I have found several places online that sell them, but I have only ordered from Doctored Locks.  I have always gotten good service so I recommend them.

I should warn you though, whenever I wear my “mechanical” hair, people are just too fascinated by it to notice anything else.

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Steampunk, It’s Complicated

When I began working on Steamcon, a lot of people asked me questions like what should they wear at the convention, and what should they read to prepare.  It seemed like there was a lack of good information.  As I began to do some research I ran into a lot of instances of things being called steampunk that made no sense.  There was no common thread.   I began to work out a definition of steampunk for myself.  I, like a lot of people, made some miss-steps at first, adopting fashion that was years too late and weaponry that was much too early.  As I observed more, my perception of what steampunk was began to coalesce.  Okay, so Victorian science fiction at it’s core, but generally written by modern people looking back and trying to figure out what the Victorians might have envisioned the future to be, so a type of retro-futurism based in the age of steam essentially.  Verne and Wells are the fore bearers, but technically not “steampunk”.  I did a lot of this simply for my own edification.  I wanted to understand so I could costume well, create appropriately and help others to do so.  I began to work with steampunk archetypes as a way to help folks figure out how to costume without simply copying others and I eventually created a book about it.  A friend said it was very scholarly of me, and I was amused.  I am far from scholarly, but I do have a need to dissect things sometimes, in my own clumsy way.

The more I delved, the more I encountered things that simply didn’t fit my template being labeled “steampunk”.  At first I chalked this up to a lack of understanding.  In some cases, it was obvious that if the term had cache then some people would try to capitalize on it.   This was sad to me, but inevitable.  I also encountered the “steampunk is anything you want it to be” argument, and was dumbfounded.  How can a genre be “anything”?  This argument meant essentially that the term was meaningless.  In time, I have come to think that there are three basic but vastly different ways in which the term “steampunk” was being used.

First there is the genre of steampunk, which although fairly quantifiable, is still in some debate, but generally is accepted as science fiction/fantasy in the age of steam.  Many people want to put the label on books that are more properly the next genre in chronological progression:”dieselpunk”, because steampunk is the more popular term.  I even had a publisher admit that he knew that a certain book was rightly dieselpunk but billed it as steampunk, because it would sell better.    “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” and “Rocketeer” are definitely dieselpunk, but again are often lumped into steampunk as if steampunk means retro-futurism, its parent genre.  I often find people with no comprehension of science fiction at all lumping things like the film “Brazil” and “Flash Gordon” into the steampunk category, so it’s obvious that the science fiction aspect is apparent to them, but understanding tropes from different eras can really help.  To the non-science fiction fan, Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon might seem as steampunk as Mad Max or Tank Girl.  In reality, none of them qualify.  They are all to a degree science fiction characters, but they are not from the appropriate era or level of technology.  So steampunk to the mundane eye has come to be equated marginally with science fiction, but not always the right timeframe.

The amount of people adding steampunk elements to things to try and make them steampunk is staggering.  Just adding goggles or airships to something rarely makes it steampunk.  Several online series feel to me like they worked up this alternate world, with a medieval/post-apocalyptic story and someone said “hey, steampunk is hot, you should make it steampunk!”   So they added a few cosmetic steampunk elements which really didn’t add to the already muddled stories.  A friends theory states that if you have a vampire story that still works if you take the vampire out of the story, then it isn’t really a vampire story.  It’s the same with steampunk.  Just adding goggles and airships doesn’t make it steampunk, you need to start with a base of science fiction/fantasy in the steam age.

Me with Kristina and Captain Robert of Abney Park- 2012

The second way the term steampunk is being used is as a subculture.  Way back in 2008, I first heard that there were people who considered themselves steampunks 24/7.  They dressed steampunk all the time.  They lived a “steampunk lifestyle”.  To my way of thinking, they must have time machines and aether discombobulators, because if you don’t have science fiction then it’s just Neo-Victorianism and that’s already been done.  Don’t get me wrong, if you are a steampunk maker, that’s very cool.  I just think that would be a “maker” lifestyle.  So perhaps the disconnect here is that they are referring to the subculture not the genre.  The subculture of steampunk is still in its infancy really, still growing and changing but I dare say that it has as little to do with steampunk the literary genre as the goth subculture has to do with things gothic.  There is overlap, but it is not expected or required.  As Captain Robert likes to say “Steampunk used to be Victorian science fiction, but now it’s what steampunks do”.    I believe that he was attempting to define the subculture and as sloppy as it is, it does rather work as a definition.  The steampunk subculture tends to be a movement of creativity, DIY, recycling, and making our slick mass produced world more beautiful.  Much like the airship pirates of the band Abney Park, it steals from all time periods and doesn’t worry about historical accuracy or definition.

Thirdly, there is steampunk as an “aesthetic”, for which I have never seen a satisfactory definition.  People will look at an object and say it looks “steampunk” and I am at a loss to tell you what that object has in common with other objects that are also called steampunk.  The primary characteristic is usually that it is not modern; usually older than the 1950s, but not limited to a particular time period.  It is often worn or dirty and will often be mechanical or at least made of metal.  The fact that it can be a car or coffee maker that actually existed and has not a smidge of science fiction or fantasy seems not to matter a whit.  So as to “steampunkishness”?  Not sure what the proper term should be, it usually has very little to do with the Victorian era or science fiction at all, but is simply old, dirty, and possibly mechanical.  Try to explain that to someone who wants to understand steampunk.  This may be where the maddening phrase “I know it when I see it” actually works, but for me as an educator it is a nearly impossible characteristic to explain fully.

I certainly admire all the lovely modded or steampunked computers and other such devices, but in those particular cases the maker was going for a steampunk aesthetic, adding ornamentation and brass bits to make something look like the whimsical invention of a Victorian tinkerer.  While it is all very fascinating, it is still a bit difficult to quantify, but more obvious.

In part the reason that I prefer the genre as a basis for the definition is that it is definable.   For the most part, there can be a consensus.  It is also why I believe that there is so much dissension.  If you are trying to discuss any of the three terms comparatively, I am certain you are doomed to fail.  Perhaps these three things need to adopt new names?  Maybe the genre could be steamfic?  Or Vernean steampunk?

The other day a friend was confused by the term “steampunkesque”, but if the author meant something had the aesthetic of steampunk but wasn’t within the genre, it makes some sense.  Language, especially English often gets tangled up like this and leaves me wishing for more clarity. Steampunk is an awkward and inelegant term for a genre that celebrates ornamentation and creativity, but it is the term that we have.  As someone undertaking  to help other understand just what “steampunk” is, these are the conclusions that I have come to and you may feel differently.  As I stated, it certainly isn’t cut and dried.  At the very least I hope that this helps you see my point of view.

Dragoncon 2008

 

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Born Too Soon

I was born in the wrong time.  You are thinking “the Victorian era, right?” No, I actually think I was born thirty years too soon.  Let me explain.  I have been going to science fiction/fantasy conventions since the early 1980’s.  One of the things that really interested me about them was the costuming.  When I put on a costume, I felt empowered.  I had confidence.  I didn’t even do much costuming back then.  What little I did was pretty simplistic, but I was shapely, young and vivacious.  I had my picture taken a lot.  At Chicago Worldcon, I modeled chainmail and I have three grainy Polaroid’s of me in the outfit.  As the years went by, I got a bit braver and one year a friend who later went on to make props in Hollywood, made me a Valkyrie costume.  I donned a curly red wig, and my new costume and I entered the masquerade.  Long story short, I had fun and had my picture taken a lot.  I have about five pictures of that outfit.

From 1982 until about 2003, I attended hundreds of conventions, wore dozens of outfits and have a very pathetic amount of photos to show for it, most taken in front of a hotel room door before we headed out.  Somewhere in photo albums, my past is captured, but I rarely got to see the results.

In 2004, I got into doing more costuming.  My costumes got more and more elaborate.  I usually had a friend to take photos, so I at least have one or two photos to show for each new costume.  Still, each time I’d have my picture taken by strangers knowing full well, I’d never get to see the results.  Digital photography helped a bit, but most people were still putting them in random personal online albums and exhaustive searches might yield one or two if I was very lucky.  Tagging would have helped, but the photographer rarely knew your name and for the most part it is just too much work.  I get that.  Then I found Flickr.com.  Someone finally did photo sharing right.  You could not only tag, but you could allow others to tag your photos.  You could make groups and sets and galleries.  There are still some flaws, but overall it’s fantastic.  I have been encouraging people to scan their old photos and upload them.  The quality isn’t great but those of us who never saw them would be thrilled.

I still have a very hard time finding my photos, but now it’s often due to the sheer volume of photos uploaded, or improper bulk tagging of every possible tag for a set, which just obfuscates the information.  So, if I had been born later, then I would have a better chance of seeing photos of some of my earlier costumes.

So, here I am in my costuming prime so to speak, more elaborate than ever, with the miracle of digital photography and good sharing sites, but no longer being young and svelte, I am just not the photographic subject of choice anymore.  Costuming as a hobby is more popular than ever before, but it’s still the girls in the least amount of “costuming” that get the most attention.  It’s their time.  I get that.  Well, at least they will have a chance to find their photos.

——Please do not use this post as a platform to rant on weight, youth, beauty or feminism.  Take it for what it is, a lament about timing, on the lack of a technology and the hole in my past that can never be mended to my satisfaction.  ——

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Apologies

Dear readers, I am sure that you think I have completely abandoned you, but that is not the case.  I have been quite busy, but I am also working on several reviews and articles as well.  Hopefully I will get caught up shortly and be able to post them.  In the meantime, here is a photo from Norwescon to tide you over.

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Norwescon

Easter weekend will find me once again at the Northwest’s largest general science fiction convention, Norwescon. I will be at the Steamcon promotion table  where we will be running Eggstravaganza.  Each egg contains a prize code.  Prizes will include a copy of Anno Dracula, copies of the Lady Mechanika comic book from ECCC, passes to the EMP museum, and memberships to Steamcon IV and much more.

On Saturday there are a few panels that might be of interest to you.  I will be giving my basic steampunk talk at 9:00 AM -Steampunk 101 – Diana Vick – Saturday 9 am Cascade 11.  Then there will be a couple more interesting panels throughout the day.

Steampunk Culture – Saturday 11 am Cascade 3&4

Native Steam: The Rest Of The Victorian World – Saturday 5 pm Cascade 5

Hope to see you there.

 

 

 

 

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About The Author

Diana Vick

I am an illustrator, writer, costumer and steampunk enthusiast. I am currently vice chair and art director of Steamcon V, a steampunk convention occurring October 25th - 27th 2013 in Bellevue WA.
I have done illustration for comic books, animation and collectible card games such as Magic the Gathering and Legend of the Five Rings. Currently, I do art for my own line of cards and gifts in my Zazzle shop.