By Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Skirts with bustles, goggles, crockery on wheels, and a most elegant way of settling disputes – Wairarapa’s steampunk club is taking the region back to its pioneering Victorian roots.
Wai Steam is a society dedicated to all things steampunk, a genre of science fiction, known for its Victorian/Edwardian aesthetic and celebration of industrial, steam-powered machinery.
Masterton’s Gaylene van Wijk formed Wai Steam late last year, having previously been a member of Wellington club Capital! Steampunk and fallen in love with the ornate costuming, huntress personas and the art of racing a teapot around a complex obstacle course.
The group, which now has members based in all corners of Wairarapa, is now a regular fixture on the region’s events calendar, with steampunks attending gallery showings, carnivals, fundraisers and even the opening of the revamped Lansdowne Village in their full regalia – corsets, ray guns and all.
Members of Wai Steam also represented Wairarapa at this year’s Oamaru Steampunk Festival, which claimed a Guinness World Record for “most steampunks in one location.”
Wai Steam founder Gaylene said the group’s first outing was an appearance at last year’s Greytown Christmas Parade – a perfect fit, considering the area’s 19th century architecture.
“Wairarapa on the whole has that gothic, Victorian feel to it, and we have that pioneering side of our history – so it works,” Gaylene said.
“It’s been a lot of fun so far: we get together and do up our costumes, we have crafting get-togethers, and we dress up in our finery and go out for coffee.
“Any style of steampunk is welcome.”The term “steampunk” was coined in the 1980s by US author K W Jeter, who wrote to sci-fi magazine Locus and suggested the term to describe he and his contemporaries’ brand of speculative fiction.
Inspired by the works of H G Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelley, the steampunk literature is often set in a alternative history of the British Victorian era or the American “Wild West”, or in a post apocalyptic future where steam power and anachronistic technology (as imagined by the Victorians) has become mainstream.
The genre has undergone as resurgence in the last decade, with clubs and societies dedicated to steampunk fashion, costume play, design and decor, entertainment and role-playing forming worldwide.
One way to spot a steampunk devotee is their costuming – with corsets, frilly skirts, waistcoats, cravats and top hats as some of the key pieces, often accessorised with cogs, watch faces and airship goggles.
Gaylene said she often runs tutorials for Wai Steam members on making their own costumes on a budget.
The ideal steampunk outfit, she said, can be put together by scouring TradeMe, charity shops and garage sales, and using everything from old jewellery, to men’s business ties, to lace doilies and paperclips to accessorise.
“There’s a real artistic, creative side to steampunk, and it’s cool to be able to renew and upcycle our look.
“I use all sorts for mine – brass hooks, belt buckles, curtain tassles.
“I’ve got whole suitcases of stuff at home.”
Wai Steam has also run events based around popular steampunk-themed games – such as “Splendid Teapot Racing” and “Tea Duelling”, both of which members have demonstrated for the unsuspecting public at the Tauherenikau French Country Fair and the recent Mini Fell Train Car Carnival in Featherston.
Tea duelling, a group favourite, is “the most civilised way to settle arguments without resorting to edged weapons.”
In tea duelling, two combatants, with a score to settle, face off across a table, and dunk a biscuit in a hot mug of tea – black, no sugar, for those feeling “hardcore” – for five seconds.
The duellists must then take a bite of their biscuit, before it crumbles, without it falling back into their cup, on the table, or on themselves – otherwise known as, according to the rule book, “a splosh, a splat, or a splodge”.
The person who can hold their “wobbly” biscuit the longest before eating it is the winner.
“It’s all very serious, but bloody funny,” Gaylene said.
Going down well with the Featherston crowd was the teapot racing, with steampunks having to manoeuvre a remote-controlled kettle around a course filled with ramps, steep inclines and breakable china.
Splendid Teapot Racing originated in Dunedin, created by steampunk devotee Countess Simona with her wheelchair-user friend in mind.
Racing teapots tend to start life as cheap toy cars and come in various shapes, usually decorated to reflect the steampunk mythology – with the kraken (from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea) being a popular choice.
At the moment, the New Zealand record is held by Stanley, an octopus-shaped teapot commandeered by Leslie “Col. Sir Julius Hawthorne” Craven of Capital!Steampunk, which has been known to blitz through the obstacles in 27 seconds.
Though he has some fierce competition in “the Baconator” – a teapot featuring Piglet in steampunk garb made by Wai Steam member Katey Salmond, and daughter Nikki – who made it round the Featherston course in one minute flat.
“It’s an inclusive fun, activity – anyone can give it a go,” Gaylene said.