On Sunday, J and I went to Waltham to check out the Watch City Festival, an annual celebration of steampunk culture.
Before Sunday, neither J nor I was hugely familiar with steampunk, which is a curious blend of Victorian-era style and industrial-age gadgetry: picture men in top hats and aviator goggles, women in long skirts and leather corsets, or members of both sexes wearing prosthetic limbs fashioned out of pistons. Despite our general unfamiliarity with the genre, however, J and I were curious to see what kind of steampunkery might erupt in a town with a long industrial history, and we figured (quite rightly) that the festival and its attendees would make for lots of interesting photos.
Waltham sits on the banks of the Charles River, and it once was a factory town, the site of an enormous textile mill established by Francis Cabot Lowell as well as a clock factory that inspired the nickname “Watch City.” The Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation now sits on the site of Lowell’s textile mill, and they organize the annual Watch City Festival as a way of celebrating the city’s industrial heritage while attracting folks of all ages to come to Waltham, either to show off their steampunk costumes or to gawk and take photos of same.
Although neither J nor I was very familiar with steampunk culture, we’d read enough about it to want to learn more. Steampunk is a bookish genre, inspired by both sci-fi and the fantastical fiction of classic authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Although I’m not an expert in Victorian literature, science fiction, or fantasy, I’ve had plenty of colleagues over the years who are, so the aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of the era aren’t entirely foreign to me. J first heard the term “steampunk” on an episode of “Oddities,” which is one of our favorite TV shows, and when he researched the term, he realized that one of his favorite childhood TV shows, “The Wild Wild West, is considered by many to be a prototypical example of steampunk culture with its curious coupling of Western adventure and fantastical gadgetry.
You might say, in other words, that both J and I were primed to be steampunk’d.
Walking around a historical mill town in the company of people wearing Victorian-era costumes is more than a bit surreal…and I say that in a good way. Watching men in silk vests and top hats strolling with women in full skirts and tailored shirtwaists felt a bit like being transported into an antique postcard showing gentlemen and ladies taking a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park, as urban Victorians were wont to do.
More than anything, J and I were impressed by the ingenuity of the various costumes and creations we saw, which obviously entailed hours of planning, antique-shopping, assembly, and upkeep. How exactly, for instance, did one fellow’s top hat feature moving gears and puffs of steam…
…or where exactly did another chap find not just one but two enormous, industrial-sized wrenches (one on his shoulder, and another on his tool-belt) to accessorize his working-man’s outfit?
In addition to wearable art, J and I admired the steampunk gadgetry of a Victorian-inspired (and fully functional) computer fashioned out of an antique typewriter, desk, and picture frame…
…and who wouldn’t adore an otherwise ordinary pooch who had been transformed into a high-flying steampup with wings, jetpack, and goggles?
J and I had so much fun admiring the creative costumes and gadgets we saw, we decided to attend the Watch City Festival next year, and already we’re wondering whether we’re brave enough to cobble together some costumes of our own between now and then.
Although I can’t imagine being entirely comfortable squeezing myself into in full steampunk regalia…
…it might be fun to experiment with odd accessories.
What would happen, for instance, if J tricked out one of his cameras with gears and pistons to transform himself into a steampunk photographer, or if I coupled a khaki safari dress with antique brass binoculars to transform myself into a Victorian ornithologist? With a full year between now and the next Watch City Festival, you never know what curious combinations we might devise.
Click here for more photos from this year’s Watch City Festival. Enjoy!