Gary Lange and Ashley Jenkins each sit clutching a tea-soaked biscuit between their thumb and forefinger, waiting.
Lange is wearing a black suit and red vest, his head adorned with a top hat and brass-rimmed goggles nestled above the brim. Jenkins’ head is wrapped with a turban; an ornate metal chain cascades from her neck and over her lacy white blouse.
Lange bites first. Leaning in he gobbles up the soon-to-be crumbling cookie. Defeated. He watches as Jenkins consumes her cookie. And with that, she wins the tea duel.
This scene repeats itself as other costumed characters take their turn at dunking a biscuit and engaging in this game of chicken during a steampunk tea party at Jenkins’ home in January in Iowa City.
Steampunk — a science fiction subculture based in the Victorian era — has been gaining roots in mainstream culture for years. Locally, the Iowa Steampunk group just celebrated its first birthday. With more than 100 members, though, it already is seeing an increase in the frequency of events like Jenkins’ tea party.
Focus on a new future
For each steampunker, even within a small group like the tea party, the world offers something different.
“Steampunk is great because it is not going for a particular time period necessarily,” says Jenkins, who for the tea party has adapted her costume to affect a Middle Eastern look. “It has the Victorian influence, but you can do anything you want.”
The majority of steampunkers agree on this: The culture springs from an alternative view of the future, one where the combustion engine was never invented and society still relies on steam power.
“When you read a lot of old novels, they had an image of what the future would be like. They thought it would be locomotives and trains going through the sky and airships,” says Tony Parisi, an Iowa City resident and member of the Iowa Steampunk group. “They were completely wrong, that isn’t what the future is at all, but (steampunk) is what the past thought the future would look like.”
Not every steampunker is focused on the physical aesthetic. There also are writers, crafters, thinkers and tinkerers.
Colleen Eck, an archaeologist at the University of Iowa, uses her interest in steampunk as an outlet to fantasize about the life of a historical Egyptologist.
“Your workaday life is not always what you fantasize about,” Eck says. “But in this case, Egypt has always been of great interest to me and it was of very great interest to Victorian archeologists.”
Creating a new world
Developing a costume is a part of creating a persona entirely separate from their 21st century life. They create back stories, delving into historical fiction, and tailor their costume and gadget choices to fit a specific aesthetic.
Eck, the archaeologist, is Professor Lena Van Eck.
Iowa Steampunk member Erin Fuller of Waukee is an archivist named Mina Guth.
“She is American,” Fuller says, “ … a ‘blue stocking’, which is a Victorian term for an overly educated lady. So she … is not appropriate marriage material for the average Victorian man.”
Thrift stores and second hand outlets are a steampunker’s playground where they can search for items to salvage or modify.
“When they look at an object, they want to be educated about it, know where it comes from and the history of it,” said Todd Thelen, owner of Artifacts, a secondhand consignment shop in Iowa City.
He frequently has objects that appeal to the steampunk crowd like goggles, vests and other metallic items. Then, there was an old optometrist’s eyeglass set.
“They were basic eye glasses, but they had cranks and nobs all over the glasses and they were Victorian,” he said
“The girl who bought that was giddy out of her mind.”
Parisi bought his mono-goggle “at first, thinking I might wear it as a costume, and I ended up liking it so much I started wearing it every day,” said the University of Iowa teaching assistant who wears the goggle in class.
“There are those days that I just really want to wear a corset,” Jenkins said.
“So I have to decide if I want to dress the way I like to be dressed, or dress for blending in.”
When Gary Lange started the Iowa Steampunk group last year, it was a small faction based out of Des Moines. Since then, its size has grown to more than 100 members and has had multiple events across the state with plans for even more.
Some of the newer group members, such as Fuller, had an existing interest in steampunk and only recently stumbled upon the group.
Molly Ketchum, a 63-year-old steampunker from Des Moines who traveled to Iowa City for the tea party, says the more she is out and about in her Victorian garb, the more relative steampunk novices are exposed to the genre.
“We stopped for a bite to eat on the way over (to the tea party) from Des Moines, and the gal behind the counter at the restaurant sees our rather unusual garb and asks, ‘What are you doing?’” Ketchum said.
When Ketchum replied that they were going to a steampunk tea party, the lady’s reaction was one of surprise and excitement.
“And as we were leaving one of the group heard her trying to explain to another costumer what steampunk is,” Ketchum says.
“I think if people are at all interested, they should attend an event, find out what we are all about, and see if they want to jump in and join the crazy crew.”