The Scene Is Never What It Used to Be: A Retrospect on Glamour and Steampunk

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Can I make some old/femme/goth/steampunk/the-scene-is-never-what-it-used-to-be noises? Back in my day, a hundred years ago when I was the con head for SalonCon, Steampunk was still being defined. Like, to the point that I needed to make my assistant (The Baby) explain what exactly it was, many times. I was interested in Neo-Victoria for many reasons but I also became interested in The Past that Never Was (Steampunk) for many reasons coming from an intersectional feminist standpoint.  Mostly, we became involved in Steampunk because The Baby was interested in it and we couldn’t afford to pay her and it was a reasonably easy way to compensate her for all her time and energy.  We wanted her to have a space to enjoy herself as a thank you for her hard work.

This was . . .ten years ago.

Penny Dreadful wouldn’t be out for another seven years and cybergoth was most fashionable at the club, along with a modern high gothic aesthetic which had a lot of velvet but also a lot of straps and snaps and spikes. Chokers had been out of fashion for a while as we were in the late aughts so you couldn’t just pop over to Forever 21/Hot Topic for one.

I’m not a costumer, I’m not a seamstress. I was also working a day job while running SalonCon.  I trying to make a thing go that did not previously exist. I would try to explain to local shop owners and club owners (because flyering was still a thing) and even to various ellllll-jaaaaay groups but it was never what the Lolita Goths wanted and it was never kinky enough for the kinksters and it didn’t have enough tweet-tweet-stomp-thump for the general goth person. I mean, it was hard to sell a concept then that was very, oh hai!  You have to dress up in some fashion, manners matter here and you will be expected to use your brain!  Everyone just wanted to drink and dance.  Now everyone wants to think and not dance, but that’s a story for another time.  On my part, there was a lot of crying and vomiting because who knew where the money would come from to pay for everything to make SalonCon go? It was as mysterious as death.

So, I was flat broke and completely stressed out from all of this. I knew I wanted to get people to think and think hard about a lot of nebulous things – What does it mean to dress up glamorously without a dress code?  (an issue that would cause many writer friends much angst for reading at SalonCon.  Some, I simply lent clothes to, others I reassured)  If this is a past that never was, where do people of color, the lbgt community, people with disabilities and other minority communities fit?   Why would people want to learn ballroom dancing, sit at a formal tea, engage in theoretical debate together?  Who even wanted to do this?  It turns out, ten years later, a lot of people do!  Year one, it was a very hard sell.  A very, very hard sell.  I was basically telling vendors, um, I can’t promise very much but maybe eventually?  You don’t have much to lose!  Tables aren’t expensive!  You can say you were here at the beginning!  As someone who is also a merchant, I can tell you that I wouldn’t have touched us with a ten foot pole.  But there were a lot of brave and kind vendors who wanted to try something new and see what it looked like.  This very foreign concept of having manners, acting/dressing glamorously and using one’s brain in public.

I knew I couldn’t get away with what my male con head/club event counterparts could get away with. They could wear jeans and a t shirt because they had to work very hard.  I had to learn to run in a corset and heels because I was also the figurehead.  If I was going to insist on art, beauty and truth at a hotel in New Jersey, I was going to need to look the part. I was broke, I was a minority as a femme con head and no one knew what Neo-Victoria was, let alone Steampunk which was somehow even harder to explain at the time because there were no visual cues yet.  Now, it’s a completely different story.  My mom could probably take a stab at explaining Steampunk, having been to SalonCon and now having seen it in pop culture.

I needed to have A Girl to help me look somewhat respectable for this. But it was never A Girl, it was always many girls. April1’s cousin who did my hair, Fae who did my make up, The Girl from Damaged Goods who lent me lingerie, The Girl from Art of Adornment who made a tiny hat and velvet choker for me (both of which I still have), The Girl from Retroscope who made me a taffeta high-low skirt which are now ubitiquous to Steampunk but then was a concept that required many prototypes and as much money as I could afford to spend at the time (roughly, $150 – if you know anything about concept fashion, you understand that she was doing me a giant favor, even ten years ago) and took several months to make (which I still have as well).  It was a village of Girl(s) who would put me together enough to do this.

I realize now, this is what glamour magic looks like at its heart. This thing that isn’t a thing yet.  You are hesitantly explaining a concept to the people closest to you and then to acquaintances and then to people who run in adjunct circles and then strangers.  You are waiting for them to smack you down really hard because this is something new.  People either can immediately wrap their heads around this new concept you are trying to give birth to and it immediately blossoms into life with them or it’s a seedling that shoots tentative roots as they think about it and become interested or it never comes out of its seed casing and it lies there, dormant and useless.  You start there with glamour magic.  You bring the concept into the universe and see what it looks like, if it starts to look like something else in other people.  You see what common threads twine among them.  You see if strangers tell other strangers about it.  Is your mythos strong enough to stand on its wobbly colt feet?  Then you start spinning, spinning, spinning.  You are making offerings at midnight in the crossroads because you cannot sleep without bringing this Thing into being.  You are obsessed.  You beg and plead with your goddesses, your spirits, your ancestors.  You sob, you bleed, you offer anything you have and then just a little bit more.  You sell yourself by the inch.  You realize you don’t know how to get to this Thing but you will learn.  You will do anything you have to do.  And then you start meeting people who understand what you are trying to do and they will act as midwives because they are struck by this fever too.  And they will offer help in whatever way they can – burlesque, Tesla coil experiments, their voices, their songs, their organization, their hands.  And it’s this beautiful process, your glamour made real through you, through loved ones, through strangers.

Glamour magic has been like that for me and I keep talking about it and I keep writing about it and I keep performing it.  I’m in my “third trimester” before the book comes out.  I’m talking about it on podcasts, I’m blogging about it, I’m setting up events, I’m finishing my final edits.  I’m terrified about it, but it’s coming and nothing can stop it.  It’s bringing me right back to the beginning, right back to Steampunk.  That ex I can never quite fully quit, no matter how hard I try.

It’s been a very long time and I’ve been away for a very long time for many many reasons. Imagine my surprise that now one can simply go to Amazon and get a bustle skirt made out of actual cotton fabric (a “real” fabric, per April2 which makes it v. precious) for $30, delivered to your doorstep via Prime in two days. Two. Days.

I will confess, at first I was completely indignant. A real bustle skirt in two days for $30. Velvet chokers at Forever 21 for $3. A $10 elaborate lace necklace. A $15 lace shrug. Arm warmers! Leg warmers! All for pennies. What about all the time, vomit and money I spent on all of my things?

The truth is, coming back to Steampunk many years later, I still feel a bit of an impostor. My palms are sweating as I wonder what to wear.  Arm warmers?  Cliche!  Goggles?  Double cliche!!!! I will never be Steampunk enough even if I was one of the midwives of Steampunk. Which is silly, isn’t it? Like, how exciting is it that there are Steampunk cliches?  I can go to Michaels and buy things to make my own Steampunk jewelry whether I was a sixteen year old girl or a forty year old dude.  I can even use a coupon.  And I find myself in love that everyone can have access to Steampunk now, whether it’s from a one-woman-Etsy-sweatshop, whether you are sketching and designing your outfit yourself or pick up a gear at a retail chain, it’s there for everyone to love.

Steampunk and Neo-Victoria were never about being completely “true” to a long gone time period (unless that was your thing, then rock out), it was never about looking like a cookie cutter to something we were making up as we were going along.  It wasn’t about bankrupting yourself to keep up with the Clockwork Joneses. It was about being as true to your vision as you could be. It was about what made you feel glamourous inside and out.

Find your compass rose no matter how many or few people are doing that outward glamour thing that you are doing.

If I’m being honest, the roots of my book* started here, ten years ago, in this very uncertain place. Feeling out of my depths with this enterprise I had taken on that I couldn’t even market properly because it wasn’t quite real yet.  Feeling out of my depth in my outward glamour presentation in life but especially here in this place.  I felt very judged as a women in a leadership role both in how I presented myself physically and how “good” my con was.

My friend Ri had to hold me that first year.  I was too sick to even drink at the afterparty (me!  too sick to drink at a party!  28 year old Deb!). I trembled v. ferociously in his arms, chanting “I can’t do this, I will never do this again, I will never do this again, I will never do this again, it’s too much, Ri, it’s too much.” and he would laaaaaaaaaaaaaugh v. merrily and say, “Of course you will! It’s what we do, we Make things. You will keep doing this! You will keep Making things.”

And he was right, I did it for as long as I could, until I knew it would break me. I rocked the mike on MTV, I was interviewed by The New York Times and I worked as hard as I could to bring as many people up in their respective areas of Steampunk expertise as I could along the way. I kept my moral compass no matter how hard it was at times and oh at times it was very hard.  It was a whirlwind and I never knew who or what I was supposed to be.  Was I Janet’s assistant who proofed resumes for pharma marketing suits?  Was I April1’s friend being scolded because I didn’t check in enough on my staff?  Was I The Con Head of SalonCon, getting recognized in sweats on the streets of New Hope with a bagel hanging out of my mouth?  Was I some kind of second rate proto-fashion icon who was also a bit on the fat side and not terribly good at doing her own hair?  Was I Josh’s soon-to-be-blushing-bride who was also his even-sooner-to-be-ex-wife?  Was I my mother’s daughter who did not sit up straight enough at tea at SalonCon?

And I find myself very unexpectedly back in that same place, ten years later. And I find myself asked to do things I swore I would never again do . . .and saying yes. Here I am, the derelict Steampunk daughter, back at the doorstep, suitcase in hand.  And I feel that same hurricane inside me that I felt ten years ago again, relaunched by my sudden unexpected return to Steampunk but also with the impending launch of my book.  It feels much the same, though perhaps I’m a little steadier now.  People closest to me acting in ways I don’t expect, sudden opportunities that require me to think quickly and act even faster, the uncertainty in not knowing if I will amount to anything, if my book will amount to anything in my publisher’s eyes, if these glamour dreams I’ve been dreaming for so long will result in strangers recognizing me when I am out and telling me or even worse, saying nothing at all so I am spotted a la Gossip Girl and I’m not even aware of it, the constant hamster wheel in my head repeatedly asking what does it even mean to be famous  and how do you even know if you are?  I slammed the door on that hurricane ten years ago, just before Steampunk became mainstream only a few years later.  Truth be told, I was relieved.

But here I am again, right back where I started, my life an uncertain swirl of glamour, writing and Steampunk.  This time, I won’t slam the door.  This time I’ll fling it open even wider, hollering, “Here I am!  Come and get me, boys!”

* Glamour Magic: The Witchcraft Revolution to Get What You Want, Llewellyn. Available on Amazon for pre-sale!

Deborah Castellano
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Deborah Castellano's book Glamour Magic: The Witchcraft Revolution to Get What You Want is available for pre-order.

She is a frequent contributor to Occult/Pagan sources such as the Llewellyn almanacs, Witchvox, PaganSquare and Witches & Pagans magazine.  She writes about Charms, Hexes, Weeknight Dinner Recipes, Glamoury and Unsolicited Opinions on Morals and Magic here at Charmed, I'm Sure.

Deborah's book, The Arte of Glamour is available for purchase on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Her craft shop, The Mermaid & The Crow specializes in goddess & god vigil candles, hand blended ritual oils, airy hand dyed scarves, handspun yarn and other goodies.

In a previous life, Deborah founded the first Neo-Victorian/Steampunk convention, SalonCon which received rave reviews from con-goers and interviews from the New York Times and MTV.

She resides in New Jersey with her husband, Jow and their two cats. She has a terrible reality television habit she can't shake and likes St. Germain liquor, record players and typewriters.  

Deborah is a social media dork and can be found wasting far too much time on TwitterFacebookG+Instagram and Tumblr.

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