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Style Watch

Meet the steampunkers

They're taking Victorian fashion back to the future.

By Tina Sutton
February 20, 2011

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“People say steampunk is what happens when Goths discover the color brown,” jokes 20-year-old Isaiah Plovnick, a theater arts major at Salem State University. Dressed like the Mad Hatter by way of Jules Verne, Plovnick recently joined other stylistic time travelers (some of them pictured here) to celebrate the steampunk exhibition at Waltham’s Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation.

“The trend originators were living during the Victorian era and predicting what it would be like in the future,” says the museum’s executive director, Elln Hagney. “Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818 about the use of electricity to stimulate a heart and the transplanting of organs, an unheard of concept.” Today’s steampunkers romanticize and modernize that vision.

For inspiration, check out the period costumes and gritty machinery in the recent Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr., then punk it up with combat boots and assorted hardware. While devotees like Plovnick favor fantastical interpretations, Victoriana is a mainstream fashion trend as well. “If you go to H&M, Anthropologie, or AllSaints, you’ll literally see steampunk-inspired clothing,” says Hagney, referring to updated 19th-century women’s classics like frock coats, ankle-length skirts, and period costume jewelry. Or look to high-end versions, such as Ralph Lauren’s bowler hats, Chanel’s fingerless gloves, and Jean Paul Gaultier’s leather corsets. But true steampunkers spend more time than money on their outfits, scouring flea markets for treasures.

As to the trend’s allure, 25-year-old tech consultant Jonathan Wendell Townsend-Pitt sums it up nicely: “I love the dichotomy of the uptight and precise Victorian with the slapdash personal expression of punk.”

“Steampunk, Form & Function” is on view through May 10 at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation, 154 Moody Street, Waltham, 781-893-5410, http://www.crmi.org