Retail Therapy: Steampunk subculture blends Victorian, modern styles (video)

The Fresno BeeApril 5, 2014 

Steampunk: Calling it a fashion trend doesn't do it justice.

It's more like a subculture of people playing dress-up in outlandish outfits.

"Steampunk is basically Victorian science fiction," says Fresnan Michael Butler. "It is an aesthetic movement that grew out of a literary genre."

It has roots with writers such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. A whole slew of children's and young adult authors have adopted the genre.

Fresno has a small but thriving group of steampunks — that's what you call people into this trend. Their outfits are their canvas. Think skirts and vests, goggles, monocles, top hats, canes and accessories decorated with gears, keys, clock parts — even the occasional octopus.

Steampunks usually dress up for special events — though you will see the occasional diehard wearing her holster to the grocery store. They connect through the Gaslamp Society and its Facebook page at They hold meet-ups, a yearly picnic at a cemetery and some people dress up for the silent movies hosted by musician Nate Butler at Full Circle Brewery and Mia Cuppa Caffe.

And if you want to check out steampunk without jumping in head first, it's perfectly acceptable to show up at events without dressing up, they say.

Many steampunk fans travel to out-of-town conventions. Butler and his husband just got back from a steampunk cruise.

You'll see several steampunk booths if you go to the Fresno Mini Maker Faire from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at the Fresno Art Museum. The faire isn't all about steampunk, but with the event's focus on invention and creativity, it's a natural tie-in.

The Gaslamp Society will have a booth there and several steampunks will be displaying their projects. Butler will also unveil the "Great Harry" at 1 p.m. It's a Cushman Truckster he is revamping into an elaborate, purple steampunk vehicle.

Steampunk clothing comes from all sorts of sources. Many people scour thrift stores for vests and suit jackets. Valentino's in the Tower District and Hot Topic at Fashion Fair mall carry some items. Roxanne Smalz of Fresno had her hat — decked out with feathers, bullets and ornaments — made by Bold Luck Leather, a local vendor found on Facebook that takes custom orders. Another local woman sells steampunk jewelry at various events and online at She will be at the Maker Faire.

Steampunk fans often dress up for other events such as Renaissance fairs — Butler played King Henry VIII for years — but were attracted to steampunk by its freedom. Since it's based in fiction, steampunk doesn't have to be historically accurate.

And since steampunk books often involve time travel, there's all kinds of blending of past and future.

"Retro-futurism," Lydia Fortner-Walker of Fresno says. It's "Victorian science fiction translated into our terms, so you'd have steam-powered computers and things like that."

And since fictional time-traveling steampunk adventurers often run into trouble, they carry fake weapons with them. Fortner-Walker's son, 10-year-old Solon Walker, carries a gun that turns people into rabbits when he shoots them. It's a Buzz Lightyear blaster gun his grandparents bought him at Disneyland that he painted to look steampunk.

Steampunk is a genre with depth that allows people to get as carried away with it as they want. Some have characters and back stories, like Butler.

If you run into him at an event he might be speaking in a foreign accent and introduce himself as "Sir Michael Butler, governor general of her imperial majesty's underwater colony of New Atlantis."


The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6431, or @BethanyClough on Twitter. Read her blog on

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