You seldom see so many corsets and top hats in a bar.
Ah, but a recent Thursday was no typical night at Lava Lounge on Pittsburgh’s South Side; it was the monthly gathering of the Steel City Steam Society, a group that has embraced steampunk culture.
They didn’t party like it was 1899, they just dressed that way, sporting clothes reminiscent of Victorian-era England, or the Wild West.
Women in floor-length silk dresses mingled with men in brass goggles, aviator glasses and other accoutrements of the late 19th century, befitting the style of steampunk, which began as a sci-fi literary genre before transforming to a fashion trend and pastime.
“I always liked that aesthetic, of corsets and Victorian things,” said Hopewell Township resident Alexa Black, founder of the Steel City Steam Society.
Somebody saw her in such clothes once and told her she was a steampunk.
“I had no idea what that was, so I went home and Googled it,” Black, a foundry worker, said. “When I saw what it was, I was like, ‘Wow, this is something I can really get behind.’”
Her Web research revealed there wasn’t much Pittsburgh activity, steampunk-wise, so via social networking she started the Steel City Steam Society.
“In one week we grew to 20 members,” Black said. “In a year it was 200.”
Three dozen members — mostly in their 20s and 30s — showed up Thursday at Lava Lounge, enjoying fellowship, then a few hours of live entertainment including belly-dancers and a band dressed as pirates.
“If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right,” said Oakdale resident Mike DeKlavon, decked out in an aviator hat with a leather and brass wristband adorned with some sort of fanciful gadget he bought at a steampunk convention.
“I have no idea what it is, but I like to think of it as a flame-thrower,” he said.
Unbridled imaginations and a DIY ethos are integral to steampunk, which, according to the website steampunk.com, meshes “social or technological aspects of the 19th century (the steam) usually with some deconstruction of, reimagining of, or rebellion against parts of it (the punk).”
Think 19th-century Victorian-era England, or the Wild West, with fanciful, anachronistic inventions, such as the make-believe machines in H.G. Wells or Jules Verne stories.
A steampunk woman is ready to hit the town in a floor-length Victorian or Edwardian dress or suit, topped with a shawl, frock coat or twill duster, accessorized with a parasol. Underneath she might sport a corset, petticoat and maybe cotton bloomers.
The sharp-dressed steampunk man might wear a frock coat over a vest or suspenders, topped off with goggles and an aviator hat, top hat or derby hat. Accessories could include a monocle, pocketwatch, brass telescope or brass-tipped cane, with a fake, 1860s to 1890s-style moustache.
Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are steampunked in the new “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.”
When it comes to steampunk, a picture is worth 1,000 words, though that hasn’t stopped some people from seeking a concise description.
“To me, it’s essentially the intersection of technology and romance,” said steampunk artist Jake von Slatt, hailed as “Mr. Steampunk” by Wired magazine.
Jess Nevins, author of “Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana,” more wryly noted, “Steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown.”
Robert Warren, a Steel City Steam Society member from Pittsburgh, became fascinated with Victorian-era style and attitude at age 15, learning three years later that others, called steampunks, shared his interest.
He likes the era’s optimism and sense of discovery.
“The idea there’s nothing the human race, the human spirit, the human intellect can’t accomplish given enough time and effort,” Warren said.
“I was interested in that look before I knew it was a look,” said Barbara Burgess-Lefebvre, associate professor of theatre at Robert Morris University. “I always liked that style of Jules Verne, Tomorrowland, Victorian sci-fi.”
Lefebvre liked it enough to have Robert Morris’ Colonial Theatre stage a steampunk rendition last month of “Servant of Two Masters,” Carlo Goldoni’s mid-1700s Italian comedy.
University actors wore steampunk clothes and used custom-made steampunk props, such as old dryer hoses and a jet pack fashioned from 2-liter soda bottles spray-painted metallic and strapped together.
The shows went well, and university theater classes talked quite a bit about steampunk afterward, Lefebvre said.
“Most of them had never heard of steampunk but were intrigued at the look. Some had done some research on it after the fact,” she said.
“I think that the steampunk look helped make the audience forget that they were watching a ‘period piece,’” Lefebvre said. “Our American College Theatre Festival respondent said that the style made the production fresh and new and funny.”
Many trace the origins of the name “steampunk” to sci-fi author K.W. Jeter, who used it in the mid-1980s — riffing on the word “cyberpunk” — when trying to characterize 19th century-set books by himself and peers Tim Powers and James Blaylock.
The term became more fashionable the past few years, spread by online social groups that stage parties and get-togethers.
The Steel City Steam Society chose the Lava Lounge for December’s meeting because of the bar’s steampunk decorations, like gear-encased tables, brass clocks and a tin ceiling.
Given Pittsburgh’s rich industrial heritage, Black hopes to bring a national steampunk convention to the region.
In the meantime, new members are always welcome.
“We’re very open and interested in people of all ages,” Black said. “There aren’t any real cliques or real drama.”
Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/