It’s a Tuesday evening at Studio on 4th in downtown Reno. Folks are bellying up to the bar for an after-work drink. But something’s different about this crowd. Some of patrons look as if they’ve stepped out of a different era. One man is wearing a top hat. Another arrives wearing an Old West-style ensemble consisting of a white, collarless, button-down shirt, a pale-colored vest in a plaid pattern, a brown hat and tall, lace-up brown leather boots. Others trickle in wearing Victorian-style costumes that incorporate corsets, military-style jackets, feathered hair accessories, goggles, hats and even a kilt.
That was the first night of the Steampunk Movie Night series. It was the first of several events organized by High Desert Steam and the Great Basin Costume Society to increase awareness of Reno’s emerging steampunk scene and raise funds for the Victorian Steampunk Ball in Virginia City in September. The film series, which takes places on the second Tuesday of every month through August, features three Hollywood films that depict the look and general vibe of the steampunk subculture. The first film was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
So, what is steampunk?
“It’s Victorian style and technology [combined] with modern technology,” says Lauren Reeser, president of Great Basin Costume Society. She says the literary subgenre is influenced by the works of Jules Vernes, H.G. Wells and other sci-fi authors of the era.
The word steampunk was coined in the late 1980s as a tongue-in-check reference to cyberpunk. Steampunk literature borrows from 19th-century concepts of the future, often envisioning a world where steam-powered technology is prevalent but can coexist with present-day technology.
“The cool thing about it is it’s all over the place,” says Reeser. “Anything could be steampunk. There are no rules to it, except that it has a vaguely Victorian twist to it.”
Reeser was wearing something reminiscent of early 20th century aviators—brown jacket, khaki-colored equestrian pants tucked into brown riding boots, a cream-colored scarf, a brown cap with long earflaps and a bird’s wing on the side.
Reeser says her outfit exemplifies the adventurer look, one of several subcategories of steampunk fashion. Other styles include neo-Victorian, which has a more goth appeal, and western, which takes its cues from Old West imagery. The films in the Steampunk Movie Night Series, which include Wild Wild West and Sherlock Holmes, embody these different looks.
“They’re fairly easy-to-get-a-hold of mainstream movies that are pretty representative of the look of steampunk,” says Mary Crawley, president of High Desert Steam, a local group dedicated to the steampunk subculture. “They got the look and the tech. The technology in steampunk is pretty important because it takes it from being just a Victorian costume to being steampunk. You got to tech it up. You got to punk it out.”
The Victorian Steampunk Ball is on Sept. 17 at Piper’s Opera House, 12 N. B St., Virginia City. Tickets are $20 in advance, and proceeds will go to the historic building’s restoration efforts.
The costume ball will be the culmination of a weekend of events sponsored by the Sacramento Steampunk Society, High Desert Steam and Great Basin Costume Society. The two-day bash will include a steam train ride on the restored V&T Train, as well as side trips to cemeteries, saloons and other Virginia City attractions. Reeser says the ball will feature music and dancing from the Victorian era, as well as modern music by bands such as Vagabond Opera, Beirut and other groups that fall into a neo-burlesque/vaudeville category. Attendees are asked to dress in formal wear, whether it’s steampunk, Victorian or something similar.