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Globe Editorial

Steampunk: Of gears and yesteryears

Isaiah Plovnick, 20, of Salem, poses during a steampunk event. Isaiah Plovnick, 20, of Salem, poses during a steampunk event. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
May 6, 2011

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Waltham residents might understandably be puzzled when thousands of men in bowlers and women in corsets show up this weekend. The city is hosting the International Steampunk City festival, a gathering for devotees of a thriving subculture that has coalesced around a shared love of Victorian-era fashion and technology.

For the uninitiated, steampunk encompasses music, art, and fiction, and combines the brass-and-iron aesthetics of the Industrial Age with a punk style — part Jules Verne, part Joey Ramone. The festival is scheduled to include both a panel on airships and another titled “Corsets, Goggles & Empowerment: Women & Steampunk.’’

A similar festival was held last year, when Waltham’s Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation shrewdly realized it could capitalize on the genre’s popularity by declaring the city the nation’s “steampunk capital.’’ But virtually every other New England city has something to offer, too. While they’re here, visitors should check out some other Industrial Age relics — Slater’s Mill in Pawtucket and Lowell’s industrial park, for instance, or Boston’s Green Line.

One reason New England cities have so much for steampunk aficionados is because, in its 19th Century heyday, the region really was the factory to the world. Before gears were a fashion accessory, the gears in precision watches manufactured in Waltham made it the “Watch City.’’ Massachusetts is littered with red-brick remnants of the age of invention.

Sadly, that world has vanished. But if events like Waltham’s festival help promote a new appreciation for New England’s industrial heritage, it’ll be well worth the tip of a top hat.