people dressed in steam punk costumes in kaslo, british columbia
Louis Bockner photo

Kaslo’s Steam Punk Revolution

Wedged somewhere between Charles Dickens and Dr. Who, these freaky fashionistas are gaining steam around the world. By Dave Quinn

Alongside the predictable fire trucks and grip-and-grin politicians found at any small community parade, a new tribe of revellers now dominates Kaslo’s annual May Days event. Their trench coats, adorned with a bizarre mix of metal and lace, drag on the asphalt, and their feathered hats bob and weave while they dance to live music in oversized boots.

This form of personal expression is called “steampunk,” a recent global movement that has inspired movies, music videos and artwork. Practitioners wear homemade costumes sprinkled heavily with Victorian lace, leather and retrofitted clockwork technology. Top hats of any sort are the norm, as are pre-WWI war regalia and medals. It’s a trend that blends modern technology with a simplified, steam-powered vision of a future that somehow melds with the past.

There have also been steampunk cabarets and after-parties in the community, and the high school even does steampunk-themed Shakespeare.

Dustin East, a Kaslo resident and steampunker believes this movement is a perfect fit for Kaslo. “I think steampunk has to do with bridging the old technology with the new, and Kaslo has a history of innovation,” he says. Mina Palmer, another Kaslo local, explains that the scene started when a performance steampunk artist was invited to May Days 2016 and that inspired 30 residents to don related attire. “From there a bunch of random steampunkers started to show up to May Days, and now Kaslo Jazz Fest,” she says. There have also been steampunk cabarets and after-parties in the community, and the high school even does steampunk-themed Shakespeare. “I think steampunk is based in culture, and Kaslo has a strong culture of musicians, instrument makers and innovators,” says East. “By having fun this way, it allows multi-generations to do something creative together, share knowledge and create positive change.”

Science fiction author K.W. Jeter is credited for coining the term “steampunk” in the 1980s, but most trace the movement’s mainstream origins to William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s 1992 sci-fi novel The Difference Engine. Set in 1855, it describes an alternative history in which extremely advanced steam technology powers society, mimicking the innovations that occurred with our computer and internet revolutions. The “steam” part of the term is obvious, but the polished designs and positive vibes seem at odds with the Mohawk-capped sneers of the well-known punk movement. However, it turns out the “punk” part of the term was simply meant to convey nonconformist ideals—in other words, make your own way in the world, ideally while wearing a clock-hat and brass-geared hydraulic arm.

Today there are thousands of steampunk-themed events held around the globe, from Cirque du Soleil’s hit production Kurios to the Steampunk World’s Fair, which draws 6,000 followers to New Jersey every May. And because the north end of Kootenay Lake has always celebrated and welcomed diversity, maybe it’s no great surprise that a movement like steampunk has found fertile ground in Kaslo.

Author / Contributor

Dave Quinn

Born in Cranbrook, British Columbia, Dave is a wildlife biologist, educator, wilderness guide, writer and photographer whose work is driven by his passion for wilderness and wild spaces. His work with endangered mountain caribou and badgers, threatened fisher and grizzly, as well as lynx and other species has helped shape his understanding of the Kootenay backcountry and its wildlife, and help ...

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