“Music, Merriment, and Men in Skirts”– A SteamCon II Report by Jake von Slatt

This year I had the distinct pleasure of attending Seattle’s SteamCon II as the “Artist Guest of Honor.” I had come to Seattle last year for the first SteamCon and enjoyed it greatly so I was very happy when I received the invitation from Diana Vick to be a GoH this year.

My trip out to the West Coast was uneventful, and I will admit to some anxiety over the possibility of having to endure the TSA’s new “enhanced pat-down” since I will not go through one of those back-scatter x-ray machines. My objections to the machines aren’t based on privacy or even safety concerns (though I do think there are some of those) but it is in protest to the system of corporate lobbyists that put those machines in place. I opt out, always.

Anyway, I went out a bit early to visit with friends and ended up having a absolutely stellar week! On Tuesday I was invited down to Abney Park’s Gig Harbor lair for dinner and to hang out while the band practiced the acoustic set for Friday’s show at SteamCon.

Dinner was delicious and featured the biggest chicken pot pie I have ever seen. Before dinner I got to play with Robert’s remote control hovering-camera-quad-rotor-helicopter thing which used an iPhone as a remote control. What an amazing toy! Alas, I promptly crashed it into the ceiling fan in their living room! I felt pretty bad about that but the machine was undamaged except for some decorative steampukery that got knocked off.

Phew!

After dinner the band broke out their instrument and started playing in the dining room–which is really the piano room in this house. The acoustic set sounded great and then they moved into the studio to put the final polish on a couple of songs for their Saturday night gig. Nathan is a close friend and I am well acquainted with all of the members of the band but I still felt kind of privileged and special sitting at the mixing board and watching. Also, these folks have FUN when they’re working!

Robert, Jodi, and Nathan of Abney Park at Post-Apocalyptic Studios

The evening continued after the practice and I somehow ended up in borrowed swim trunks in the hot tub with the band drinking 12 year old whisky from the bottle. It was indeed a memorable evening, I’m told.

Later in the week I met Nathan at Traveler’s Tea Co, one of my favorite places in Seattle, for lunch with Veronique Chevalier and Ms. Audelia E. Flint of the Trial by Steam blog. We had a lovely lunch and Veronique told me about a song that she’d be performing in the Cabaret at SteamCon called, I believe, “Sprocky Spitton” in which one Jake von Slatt was immortalized! I had the pleasure of hearing her perform it live a few days later and I can’t wait for the CD to issue!

Veronique Chevalier in the SteamCon Cabaret

Friday arrived all too quickly and I high-tailed it down to the Hilton near SEATAC  for my first panel which was entitled “The Spark of Invention” with moderator Philip Athans and artist Aimee Stewart. We talked about our inspirations and muses and I unveiled the new microphone that I made for Cheyenne Wright to use for the Girl Genius Radio Show which was, coincidentally, scheduled for the same venue and immediately after my panel.

Girl Genius Radio Show Microphone

My next job was to load in the rest of my pieces to the art gallery. I brought my Wimshurst machine, the microphone pictured above, the telegraph sounders and some etched Altoid tins. Not a lot of stuff, but I don’t really keep things around after I make them so it was what I had on hand and could fit in a suitcase. I also had some large format photos of the bus project and the Steampunk computer and keyboard projects.

That evening was the Airship Awards dinner, so after a lovely lunch with friend and Jigsaw Renaissance director Willow
Brugh, I took a short nap and put on my best outfit for the event. By the way, it you are a Seattlite you should definitely check out Jigsaw, it’s a Makerspace on First Hill and they are doing really cool stuff there!

Alas, I didn’t take many shots of the outfits I wore, which was dumb because I put more effort into them than I did preparing for panels! Friday night’s ensemble included a tuxedo shirt with black bow-tie, a silver and black double breasted waistcoat hand made by my mother, The Baroness, and an a simple black accordion pleat skirt. My gratitude goes out to Michael Stonecastle for allowing the use of his photo here!

Ready for the awards ceremony.

The dinner fair was quite nice and the company delightful. I was asked to open the ceremonies with a short speech which I’ll republish here along with the stage direction notes-to-myself toward the end:

We are gathered here tonight to honor some of the folks that have made steampunk, well, whatever it is.

Ever since I tagged my first project with the word ‘steampunk’ I’ve struggled with a definition, everyone I spoke to about it who was outside of the scene suggested I needed an “elevator pitch” a short concise description of the scene.

I struggled with that for quite sometime, filled a moleskine with my musing on the subject until I came to the realization that ‘elevator pitches’ are in fact sales tools and I had no interest at all in selling steampunk, I just wanted to do steampunk.

So I stopped trying to answer the question “what is steampunk” with any more detail than ‘it has something to do with the intersection of technology and romance’.

That said, I still struggle with the question “Where’s the punk?” There are certainly DIY aspects to steampunk and crossovers with Maker culture. This is the space I live in.

There are also transgressive aspects of steampunk, and people exploring steampunk as a lens to study other peoples, times, and cultures. Of the many subcultures extant, steampunk seems to have a real desire to teach, about the past, about the future about technology and about people.

And that’s kind of subversive.

So where’s the punk? It’s right there! (points to someone in the house, Oprah style) and there! (points) and there! (points) You my friends are the punk in steampunk.

Rock on! (throws horns)

I really enjoyed the event! I had asked fellow Steampunk Workshop contributor Libby Bulloff to join me for dinner at the awards. But alas, she was asked at the last minute to work the dinner as a photographer. We joked about sending con management an invoice from the Steampunk Workshop for stealing away my dinner companion. Fortunately they do seem to recognize that there’s a difference between dilettantes like myself and creative folk who make a living at what they do and despite some confusion at the time, it turned out to be a paid gig after all.

But to assuage our initial annoyance we decided to play “The Lying Down” game at the con, which I assure you is a thing!  You’ll find a whole gallery of game participants from my photographer friend Annie Dennisdóttir Wright
here!

Jake von Slatt lying down on the job

I retired to my very nicely appointed hotel room after the dinner, I had decided that I was going to forgo Abney Park’s acoustic set on Friday night to ensure that I’d have sufficient energy for the main show on Saturday and I’m glad I did because they didn’t go on until 12:30!

Saturday began with an early morning interview with the Airship Ambassador. Some tough questions were asked and I think I didn’t embarrass myself too badly!

The Airship Ambassador

After the interview I had a nice lunch in the hotel restaurant and then walked around the con and the vendor area for a bit. I was thrilled to discover that Studio Foglio were offering copies of James Blaylock’sThe Shadow on the Doorstep.

You see, Phil Foglio and Cheyenne Wright had drawn and colored, respectively, the cover art and yours truly was the subject! I’m told that Phil was inspired by the cover of the issue of Make magazine that featured my Wimshurst machine and that it wasn’t until later that Kaja Foglio said something to the effect of “we should probably ask Jake if this is OK.”  Well of course it was OK! In fact, I felt quite honored and purchased my very own copy from Phil himself.

My last panel on Saturday was “The Wimshurst Machine” so I ran up to the gallery, snagged the machine, and then headed back to the other hotel for my panel. This was probably my best attended panel and since it’s a presentation I have done many times, I launched right in to my description of the Wimshurst Influence Machine, its history, and its uses for experimentation and medical treatments.

It was during the discussion of the machine’s use in quack medicine that I notice that a young lady in the front row had the hiccups and was ‘hiccing’ loudly and perfectly in time with the pauses in my talk. She was clearly embarrassed when I glanced over.  I felt bad for her embarrassment, so I decide to make it worse by pointedly turning to her when mentioning that hiccups was one of the things the the machine could allegedly
cure!

Well, the die, at that moment, was cast! I asked if she would like to give the cure a try and she nodded eagerly. Apparently the hiccups had been with her for some time and she was a little bit desperate! I gave the machine a few cranks, to charge the Leyden jars, warned her that although it was harmless, it was going to give her quite a jolt, and had her touch the two electrodes. Before she could actually touch them an inch long spark leaped to each finger and she shrieked and jumped back! I worried for a moment that I hadn’t sufficiently warned her as she stood there panting and patting her chest.

However, after a moment,  a slow smile spread across her face. The hiccups were gone! The audience applauded! I think that some folks may have thought that this was staged, but I assure you it was not! However, it went over so well that, if I can find an accomplice, I will definitely stage it next time!

I finished my presentation and then went to a question and answer format for the remainder of the hour. I told the story of taking the machine to my daughter’s school and having the entire class hold hands while my daughter cranked the machine, and the resultant yell of thirty children! We decided that we needed to recreate that event so 40 or so folk formed a circle, held hands and let out a most gratifying bellow when I completed the circuit by touching the negative electrode on the fully changer machine!

The feature event of SteamCon, this year as well as last, was the main Abney Park show on Saturday night. The band did not disappoint!

Abney Park

I particularly like watching the keyboardist, Kristina, when the band plays because she always looks so serious! She’s almost never lit like the other members, probably so she can read the laptop screen. But she always puts me in mind of the Wizard of Oz and I like to imagine that the other band members are actually all robots and that Kristina is in fact controlling their every move from behind that podium.

Dan and Kristina

At about the midway point in the show Unwoman joined Abney Park on the stage for a few songs, this was definitely the highlight of the show for me as I just love her music!

Unwoman!

It was a stellar show and a highlight to the whole weekend!

Sunday morning came all too quickly and Libby Bulloff and I met in the Seattle room at the Marriott hotel for our presentation: “Queering Steampunk Fashion.”  We were joined by Nathaniel Johnstone of Abney Park. Nathan and I were both dressed in skirts, Nathan’s with an attached corset and mine the accordion pleat skirt from the awards dinner, paired with a Wahmaker McLaury vest and a DIY silk puff tie.

Nathaniel Johnstone of Abney Park. (Photo Annie Dennisdóttir Wright)

Libby was handsomely turned out in a most elegant tuxedo and swaggered around the presentation hall like one of the king’s own musketeers.

For some time now Libby and I have been interested in Steampunk garb that is fashion rather than costume. Clothes that you can wear outside of the convention environment but are still clearly transgressive and something other than a pure affectation of Victorian wear. Since the 19th century was a period in time where fashion became particularly rigid for both men and women, and since what we do in Steampunk is joyfully rip things out of context and re-mix them to our own desire, queering Steampunk fashion seemed like a no brainer.

Libby did the bulk of the heavy lifting putting together this presentation, she used the Prezi online presentation system and you can see the screen notes we used below.

Queering Steampunk Fashion on Prezi
A description of genderbending in fashion from the Victorian era through the rise of steampunk as a subculture.

She opened with a history of women in pants through the 18th and 19th century while Nathaniel Johnstone and I stood by looking pretty in our skirts. Libby then threw it over to me and I talked a bit about David Hall, an aerospace engineer who in the 60’s and 70’ lead a campaign to create acceptance for the skirt as a garment for men.

From:David Hall: Pioneer of Skirts for men:

Perhaps it was similar to the feeling an explorer has when going into new territory. Wearing a skirt gave me a sense of freedom and it gave me a feeling of kinship with women. There was also the purely objective feel of the different pull of materials as I walked and the different sound it made. It was truly liberating.

I wondered at how a simple experience that every girl has could be so intriguing and charged with exploratory daring, How strong these sexual conventions are. And yet women today cross the skirt / pants border freely.

I also related some of my own experiences over the past couple of days wearing a skirt in public for the first time. Particularly interesting to me had been the previous evening spent socializing in the hotel bar with a varied crew. I found that wearing a skirt made me take a distinctly different posture. I demonstrated and went on to discuss how being in that pose definitely changed the way I related to the other folks around the table. I really felt that I was being quieter than I normally would and a was perhaps a better listener that night.

Queering Steampunk Fashion (Photo Annie Dennisdóttir Wright)

Libby, who had been wearing a sharp grey tuxedo that evening and had been seated at that same table, then demonstrated the open stance that she had naturally adopted in her bifurcated garment and talked about how she related differently to the other guests. If I recall correctly she commanded the table that evening, spending much of the night telling bawdy tales while gesturing with a brandy snifter full of whisky.

At about this time someone (admittedly a plant of ours) shouted from the audience “what’s in your pants!” and Libby told us about her soft pack or “packy,” an artificial penis made specifically for fashion wear rather than ‘utility’ that made her pants fit really well and changed her stance and posture even more than the skirt changed mine.  Libby closed the presentation with a list of resources and books including;

Catherine Smith & Cynthia Greig, (2003) Women in Pants : Manly Maidens, Cowgirls, and Other Renegades, Harry N. Abrams

Andrew Bolton, (2003) Bravehearts: Men in Skirts, Victoria & Albert Museum

Marilyn French, (1985) Beyond Power – On Women, Men and Morals, Ballantine Books

Babeland: Soft Pack (NSFW)

DapperQ – Transgressing Men’s Fashion

GenderFork – Beauty in Ambiguity

And a brand new project that has just come to our attention from Sarah Dopp, the creator of GenderFork. Please take a look and help support this if you can! Genderplayful Marketplace

This was definitely a fun panel to do and I suspect that we’ll polish it a bit and offer to present it again next year.

So those are the highlights of my experiences at SteamCon. I had a wonderful time and only saw a fraction of what was available to me despite the fact that I was severely sleep deprived by the end of it. I am really looking forward to next year’s con schedule which will kick off with the Steampunk Industrial Revolution in Nashua, New Hampshire and the second Steampunk World’s Fair in Somerset, New Jersey both of which are close enough to home that I will be drive my Victorian RV there and giving tours and showing off the nearly completed roadster.

***
Jake von Slatt is the proprietor of the Steampunk Workshop. He lives in Massachusetts.

15 responses to ““Music, Merriment, and Men in Skirts”– A SteamCon II Report by Jake von Slatt

  1. chelseagirl

    Thanks so much for this, especially the link to the fascinating (and dizzying) presentation notes for Queering Steampunk Fashion. I’m interested in these issues (and would love to see this panel given at an East Coast convention); it’s raised some interesting issues to think about, which is far more than I could have hoped for from a con report!

  2. Right on! I missed pretty much the entire con on account of the fashion show. Thanks to this, I’ll just pretend that I was standing next to you in each of those pictures.

    Staring inappropriately.

  3. Jha

    Oh, Jake, your waistcost is beautiful! I’d say your skirt as well, but black is so boring. Nathaniel’s dress, however… fabulous! (The Lying Down Game picture is pretty effin’ amazing!)

  4. It was a true pleasure meeting you, Jake! It was a thrill to be able to be on my first panel with you. Steamcon is quite amazing, and I look forward to many, many more!

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  7. Refreshing!I’ve felt disappointed by a recent emphasis on strictures in Steampunk – from demands for gallant propriety, to the ubiquity of useless corsets, and finally the “no punks in Steampunk please” debate. The scene is beginning to resemble a bad episode of Bonanza, and nothing more for some newbies (who aren’t lucky enough to have caught the ethos beyond the fashion). It’s interesting to see the guys turn the debate on its head.
    A couple notes on the social history:
    Many pictures of ‘working women wearing pants’ are actually pictures of “working women” wearing pants, if you get my drift. Pictures of “female miners in the Yukon”, for example, are more likely to be fetish/publicity pictures of dance hall girls and prostitutes. As Libby points out, pants denoted loose morals.
    The men’s “dressing gown” descended from the “banyan” robe of the 1700’s (when men were still allowed frippery), as a looser, more relaxed option for either sex. [ http://www.katiejacobs.com/costumes/banyans.html ] So it originates from the ethnic influence also.

  8. Thank you everyone for your kind words! Izzy, I assure the minute punk is gone from steampunk, I am too! 😉

  9. Mara

    Thanks, izzy. From the point of history pants were always a sign of loose moral, skirts for example always the best dress for men either for women. Question about aesthetic and elegance played a major role. Today’s pant suits are just business attire from the beginning of men wearing pants.
    Still, a skirt on men are much more elegant than pants and skirts are less uniform.
    A lot of male musicians wearing skirts, it is not just a protest against pants doctrine, it is about showing open minded people and the creative influence on musicians and music.
    Congratulations that Jake Von Slatt came up with that, too.

  10. Pingback: Steampunk News » Mystic Radio – Hendrick’s Gin Curate a Box Give Away

  11. I loved reading this article and really thought your comentary on how wearing a skirt changed your actions and perception of yourself. The more i delve into steampunk culture the better it seems with far more of a subversive aspect that often gets hidden under the stylised image of the movement.
    Now, where’s my kilt, i think it hasn’t been worn in too long a time….

  12. Bravo, I applaud your article Jake. We should be free to express ourselves. Your report was great, I hope to experience some of the events in the future and look forward to meeting you in person one day. I also enjoyed the article Queering Steampunk fashion. I hope to add all styles of Steampunk dress in my upcoming book International Steampunk Fashions.

  13. Pingback: Writing for The Steampunk Workshop

  14. Pingback: Mystic Radio – Hendrick’s Gin Curate a Box Give Away

  15. Pingback: Sub-culture friendly Gender Playful Marketplace

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