Steam Rising: Steampunk Fashion in NH
It is an understatement to say New Hampshire isn't famous for couture, but wired young fashionistas with bold new visions are turning up the heat.
Carolan Fleer assumes a regimental "at ease" pose while modeling a military-style jacket from Steampunk Couture at the Conway Scenic Railroad.
Photo by Chloe Barcelou
Steam rises at noon in a snowy rail yard where giant locomotives huddle on their tracks like slumbering iron dragons. Perched on the rusty grate of one and leaning against its riveted black boiler is a slender young woman. Her hair is a mass of curls surrounding dark piercing eyes and parted lips. Her outfit is a mixture of Union cavalry officer and western show girl — a curious blend of leather, denim and lace that reveals gracefully tapering thighs above her knee-high black boots.
“OK, relax and lean into the shot,” says photographer Chloe Barcelou, peering into the viewfinder of a camera. “Now stick out your boobs and butt,” she adds, helpfully.
Barcelou, herself in a black wool riding coat and diaphanous dusty rose handkerchief skirt, trudges through heaps of snow to get a better angle. Her skirt drags through the slush, occasionally revealing pink and tan hiking boots.
“Now can you reach that bar? Hold that. I love it.” She focuses carefully and the faint recoil of the camera’s shutter is the punctuation to a story that is being told and captured on film — a story written in the careful assembling of elements, setting, models, makeup, mood and, of course, clothing. And the clothing style is a story unto itself, bound up in a curious name: steampunk.
Steampunk as a fashion aesthetic is currently best known to the web-based brains of the Millennial generation. Even there one finds two camps: those who love it and those who love to make fun of it. On the elder side of the hipster divide, the usual reaction to a mention of steampunk is, “Huh?”
Model Dawnmarie Currier is ready for just about anything in practical cuffed overalls by Steampunk Couture.
Photo by Chloe Barcelou
But lately the parents have been picking up the vibe and designers of couture are as susceptible as the next guy to the call of the young and wild. In fact, steampunk's time-tripping Victorian style seems to be gaining, well, steam.
In January, IBM’s “social sentiment index” predicted steampunk to be the next big thing on the retail fashion scene. Actually, the influence has been apparent for awhile in the corsets, lace collars and funny hats on the couture runways of Paris and New York — appearing notably in Alexander McQueen’s spring-summer show at Paris Fashion Week last October.
Back at the Conway Scenic Railroad, a team of about a dozen has accompanied Barcelou for the shoot. The entourage includes four other models, three makeup artists, two hair stylists, a photographic assistant and Barcelou’s boyfriend Brendan, who runs the smoke machine to provide the atmospheric “steam” and performs other heavy-lifting tasks.
The other models stand by for their turns, dressed in clothing that seems plucked from eras of the past but bearing a touch of the future. It’s frilly with an industrial touch, old and strangely new, both dulcet and dangerous. Steampunk fashion thrives on such contrasts. And the Conway location is literally packed with potential — a maze of good angles and perches. The models climb onto greasy ledges near pistons and couplings that seem poised to return to life. One acts puzzled as if she’s just emerged from a cosmic portal, muttering in a Cockney accent, “What year is it? Is it 1880?”
One of Barcelou’s regular associates, Alexandra Angelone, is applying makeup to a model sporting Gibson girl hair and wearing cuffed blue coveralls with giant buttons. She lifts her voice over the chatter to ask, “What do you want for lips?”
“Just a dirty nude,” replies Barcelou.
Nearby, one model toys with a brass and glass accessory and remarks, “I want to get a monocle for my dog. Give him a touch of class.”
Barcelou has to think a bit when asked what exactly it is she does. “I’m a photographer but I’m also involved in the conceptualizing and styling of a finished piece of art. I control most aspects of it.” She decides she’s comfortable with the title “storyteller.”
A behind-the-scenes look at photographer Chloe Barcelou.
Photo by Bruce Luetters
The tools of her trade are basically just her Nikon D5100 (an entry-level pro camera, she admits) and her imagination. “I do have a generic remote and an extra battery. Most of my tools really have nothing to do with the camera — the props and whatever clothing I use to create the scene, and the other people I work with are a huge factor.”
That may explain why she tends to work with the same people whenever possible. “In order to be a model, you have to have a perspective from behind the camera,” she says, noting that people underestimate the pressures that exist on a photo shoot. “It requires a lot of time and energy that I’ll never get back so there’s a lot at stake. Also, I put a lot of money into my shoots and I don’t have a lot of money. If I don’t get something that’s worth it, it’s really a bummer.”
Several of her staff are regulars from the area, but others have traveled long distances to take part. Model Emery Griffith and her sister, makeup artist Hannah, came all the way from Atlanta, Georgia. Hannah has been at it for about five years, is self-taught, still learning and has no illusions about the path to success. “It’s still who you know,” she remarks, adding that her mom is friends with Barcelou’s mom.
Such nepotism aside, she explains that you don’t have to travel to fashion capitals to learn the craft of makeup anymore. There are entire YouTube channels devoted to it. She read up and practiced on friends, eventually doing some special effects makeup for independent films — wounds and supernatural touches. Some of it was pretty grotesque, she says, but still relevant in the modern world of fashion. “We live in the era of special effects,” says Griffith. “Barbies are being replaced with Monster High dolls. People are beginning to enjoy the other side of things, taking things we think are ugly and making them beautiful.”
Ashley Phillips contemplates life as a mad seamstress in her open-bust tailcoat by Steampunk Couture.
Photo by Chloe Barcelou
Nothing too strange was needed for this shoot beyond touches of body painting to create steel and copper effects and to adorn the décolletage of one model with brass rivets. Most of the models require only nude lips and smoky eyes with heavy contours.
She doesn't usually travel so far, but “opportunities can be found anywhere,” she says. “I’m amazed at how many makeup artists and models come out of small towns all over. It’s just good to know there’s a chance like this for them.”
Indeed, Barcelou and other young artists and designers aren't waiting for acceptance into the fashion hierarchy. Empowered by the Internet and social media they sometimes make big enough waves to shake the ivory towers of the fashion world.
Anyone who has ever pondered the bizarre styles worn by frail models with pallid complexions at a Paris review one year and then seen knock-off frocks for sale on the racks at Kohl's the next knows this truth: Fashion is the process of the improbable becoming the inevitable. But in spite of the apparent immediacy of the fashion world — which culminates in a mad dash to the runway with pins and stitches and last-minute details being applied right up to the moment the model steps into view — the wheels of inspiration for the industry can turn quite slowly.
Take the rise of steampunk fashion as exhibit A.
Although the term was coined in the late 1980s, the roots of the style were born in the futuristic novels of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Both imagined technologies of the future as if invented in the drawing rooms of the 19th century.
Dawnmarie Currier takes shabby chic up a notch in her vintage-style green velvet dress.
Photo by Chloe Barcelou
Their prophecies were given Victorian-era stylings and exposed to impressionable minds in the mid-20th century through films like “The Time Machine” and “Master of the World” in which intricate brass and steel devices could perform wonders, reach the moon and even travel into the future. More recent films like “The Prestige” and Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes series have carried the franchise into the present day. And in contemporary popular culture, the Victorian world of buckled bodices, military boots and pith helmets has blossomed as an underground fashion trend, carried on the winds of fandom to comic book conventions and anime expos.
Even today, in its most authentic form, steampunk lives apart from the fashion scene. It was born and is most at home in the DIY world of the imagination where kids piece together the fantastic get-ups that parade and pose for photos at such cultural watering holes as Anime Boston and Comicon.
But the best designers of such pieces can make a decent living just by fabricating and selling garments and accessories. In fact, some have carved out substantial niches for themselves, attracting cults of avid followers.
Barcelou was an easy convert. Her first major shoots involved fairytale themes like "Hansel and Gretel" and "Midsummer’s Night Dream." Then, a few years ago, a friend invited her to a steampunk-inspired wedding and she was introduced to Kato’s Closet, a premier online site for steampunk style with hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide. Barcelou wrote Kato and, though it took a few months to get a reply, the two hit it off. Kato invited her to travel out to Oregon to model for her and soon they were collaborating regularly. Now Kato sends Barcelou original handmade items to include in her fashion tableaus.
Kato, of Kato's Closet
Barcelou is cultivating her own swiftly growing fan base and a cadre of co-creators. It’s a supportive community that takes away some of the isolation that comes with living on a rural route in Canterbury. “I don’t have a lot of girlfriends in the area,” she says, “but with Facebook and networking it’s like meeting over lunch and talking,” she says. And her decision to live in a three-room carriage house on a rustic 200-year-old farmstead has had surprising advantages for her artistic vision.
“I’d be stifled in the city and would have to travel out to the country for locations,” she explains. Surrounded by the mists of nature and the spell of the changing seasons she is immersed in the perfect dreamscape, full of inspiration.
For example, she cites one location that is just down the road from her studio.
“I’ve never gotten into something really dark for a photo, but every time I drive past Shaker Village I see this in my mind. It’s a fashion treatment of the Salem witch trials. I’d shoot it there on a foggy morning.” In hushed tones she describes a vision seen through the lens of an Andrew Wyeth painting but with a dash of Tim Burton. “I’d want it to be macabre but not go too far, so you know it’s creepy but you don’t know why it is.”
“I’ve been thinking about it since I moved in,” she says. “Come this fall I plan to actually make it happen.”
Emery Griffith in a monocled pith helmet and her open-bust tailcoat by Steampunk Couture.
Photo by Chloe Barcelou
Carolan Fleer, Dawnmarie Currier, Sara Murphy, Emery Griffith, Ashley Phillips
Alexandra Angelone, Amy Monkiewiez, Hannah Griffith
Janet Dolan, Jessica Ruston
Robert Van Der Laan, Digital Artist
The Mechanic's Wife, Anna Kronistik
Bogar Salon, Natural Energy Resource, Conway Scenic Railroad
Offering from Inkubus in Marlborough
Make Your Own Steam
Steampunk style is really limited only by the imagination. It can be a full Victorian ensemble with strap-on optical accessories, a brass-and-steel-studded bustier and tricked out with adventure-ready chaps and gaiters — or it can simply be a tasteful clockwork broach worn on a high collar.
Steampunk’s presence on Web forums such as Etsy and Pinterest is so prolific you need only ask to be overwhelmed by products and do-it-yourself suggestions, but there are places in the Granite State to shop for your steam-focused fantasies. Here are some suggestions:
- Inkubus off Rte. 101 in Marlborough focuses on goth-style clothing, but there’s much cross-over in the fantasy apparel world and they have a hearty array or clothes and other items specifically tailored to the steampunk genre.
- Mother and Child in Nashua’s Greystone Plaza is not oriented to fantasy style, but has some wonderful second-hand steals to spark ideas or complete an ensemble.
Online outlets are too vast and many to mention, but ...
- Kato’s Closet is perhaps the most stylish site on the Web for the steampunk fashion genre and is where to go to see its latest permutations.
- OPUS (Other People’s Unique Stuff) in Manchester has all sorts of “unique” clothing and jewelry for steampunk lovers and the owner is known to know a thing or two about steampunk herself.
- Rochester Pawn Shop located near the Lilac Mall Shopping Center in Rochester, buys vintage and broken jewelry and watches, which can be staples for any steampunk wardrobes.
- Costumes of Nashua LLC located near the Hudson Mall is a go-to costume shop for all steampunk, medieval and Victorian items such as corsets, boots, hats, gears, pins, vest and goggles.
- Go Lightly Consignment Boutique off of Main Street in New London is a women’s boutique that focuses on contemporary and vintage jewelry, clothes and shoes from all different time periods.
- Beggars Pouch Leather on White Mountain Highway in North Conway can be a great stop for those who are in search for a distinct type of belt, boot or other leather accessory.
- Headlines in downtown Nashua has a little bit of everything including a wide variety of Wiccan and gothic jewelry.
Steampunk Roots: Steamy Visions of the Future's Past
Cinematic visions like 1960's "The Time Machine" and "Master of the World" failed to manifest as technology, but as fashion statements they were prophetic. Looking back at the 19th century in modern films like "The Prestige" and "Sherlock Holmes" have created new cachet for the style that inspired steampunk.