The bizarre parade came towards us, barrelling down the main street of Thames like a bedraggled army.
“Wild, wild,” exclaimed the man standing next to me. Steampunk has gone viral; he seemed to think it was feral as well. His name was Kevin and he was rather wild himself, all teeth and muscle but with long pink hair. A tattooed skull grinned at me from his right biceps and his ears bristled with silver rings.
As the spectacle of the parade advanced, Kevin tried to describe Steampunk to me, “It’s what that Victorian lot thought was goin’ta happen in the future with all that industrial stuff goin’ on,” he said.
Another spectator joined in, “I think it’s a kind of Victorian industrial science fiction,” he said as we watched a woman drift past dressed in 19th-century African safari gear, a pith helmet on her head and a large python draped around her neck.
Later, a woman, outfitted like something out of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, asserted that Steampunk is what the past would look like if the future had already happened. Well yes/no! But whatever it is, this crazy vogue has infiltrated into machinery, fashion, music, literature, and art and it seems that anything goes. If you get it, you get it. I’m not sure that I do, but, along with thousands of others, I greatly enjoyed the drama.
One thing’s for sure, the movement is growing. Thousands of partakers and onlookers had crowded into this quiet Coromandel town for the five-day festival. Even in the gold rush days, Thames would never have seen the like.
Before the parade, I sussed out the market. Among the stalls, Louis Mills—from Off the Rails steampunk shop in Taumarunui—displayed elaborately decorated top hats; a collection of jewellery and leather came from Vintage Twist in Paeroa; Liz Hoskins presented the fanciful space guns she creates in her Raglan studio; Lizzette from Copper, Cogs and Corsets, (the Steampunk community in Whanganui) had set up her Clockwork Steampunk Emporium in a restored 1958 caravan; and on sale at the stall of Scarecrow and Sons were Osteopunk Creations, namely real monkey skulls, little stuffed bats, and the tails of furred animals. As an ardent conservationist that concept rather appalled me.
Steampunk devotees were also trawling the stalls. Many wore the round vintage glasses or brass goggles that are a trademark of Steampunk fashion. Their other regalia was breathtaking—a mix of top hats, Victorian bustles, corsets and bustiers with a sexy twist or elements of gothic, punk, burlesque, and vampire. Other unleashed imaginings depicted 19th-century characters such as explorers, soldiers, lords, countesses, and harlots.
A lady referred to as ‘the Baroness’, elegantly dressed in a maroon bell gown and black bodice, lent on a decorative walking stick. “Dressing like this is a hobby,” she told me.” It’s part of my lifestyle. Back home in Motueka, I dress in vintage clothing whenever I go out.”
A woman wafted past in a hat festooned with an apothecary of miniature bottles, another wore a sailing ship hat and dragged along a large black plastic octopus on a leash. A dashing fellow in elaborate, gold-braided uniform kissed my hand and called me ‘madame’. The garments are traditionally created from junk and thrift shop materials but I suspect that this year, Ali Express might have also come to the party.
However, Dave a local man, had definitely raided the local dump. He was a sight to behold in vintage diving gear comprising a rusty cannonball-shaped helmet, ropes, and air hoses hooked to a leather vest inset with a large dial. His boots were fashioned from saucepans. Dave’s mate was a pale grey whippet that carried on its back, ‘diving gear’ made from rusted dog-food cans.
Everywhere I turned I spotted something remarkable, ingenious, humorous, or colourful—a feast of unfettered inventiveness that kept my eyes on stalks.
From a park-up of motorhomes emerged a bevy of ladies in colourful bell skirts and bodices. Their voluminous garments must have taken up most of their living spaces. Artist, Violet Pearl, ‘maker of marvellous things’, and her husband Paul (an ex-policeman wearing for the occasion a dress and long purple hair) had a range of costumes stored in their new Smartcamper. Thames was jammed with motorhomes and caravans and the town had opened up extra parking spaces.
As well as the market and Saturday’s great Steampunk parade, the rest of the town was as lively as it ever becomes. Jazz and country music blasted from the bars of the historic pubs. Beer drinkers spilled out into the street and a constant flow of coffee addicts filled the cafes.
During the week, there were markets, auctions and emporiums, a Bizarre Food Bazaar, a burlesque show, art exhibition, a music hall, shop window displays, themed dinners, duelling, high tea, a punk pet show, a ball dubbed ‘End of the World’, and on Sunday morning, teapot racing, where everyday teapots propelled by remote controls were decorated in Steampunk paraphernalia and competed around an obstacle course.
But the stars of this weekend pageant were the big boys’ toys, the industrial dream-ups where the number-eight wire mentality had exploded. The machinery was as wild as Kevin had declared. Cleverly knocked up in backyards and garages and assembled from industrial junk, all manner of weird bikes, trucks and cars came honking, wheezing and rumbling down Pollen Street for the parade and then parked around the corner for closer inspection.
I was taken by all of them but particularly by a phantasmagorical contraption made from old car parts and other bits that the creator, Colin Brocas had found in his shed or snaffled from the Seagull Recycling Centre in Thames.
“It’s called Gold Digger,” he said, “because it was inspired by Thames’ 100th gold mining anniversary,” Colin says he’s a builder, but this creation can only be called art. “I like working with copper, wood and steel,” he said.
“And I’ve always been interested in steam engines. There are no rules for Steampunk, and so it’s a great way to combine art with old and new technology. But it’s time-consuming. Gold Digger took me around 200 hours.”
As he explained the working of the drilling blades and the compressor whistle he was turning sausages grilling on a wood-fired boiler/barbecue that was also an integral part of the bike. His own get-up was no less interesting. On his head, he wore a helmet topped by an old tilly lamp.
“Building these things for Steampunk was a lot of fun,” he said. “More ideas are already filling my mind for next year.”
Mine too. I’m conjuring up a garb so wild that if you go to Thames for next year’s event, you may not recognise me. But I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss it for whatever world it’s in.