Creating the Future, as Imagined in the Past
The steampunk scene of New Zealand draws from the island nation's Victorian history
Christopher Chase Edmunds
A mechanized buzzing whizzes through the air of Columbo Street. Drivers in their cars stop at the light, heads hanging out the window, mouths half open, just in time to see a giant teapot zoom past them on the sidewalk.
The teapot stops outside the front door of Grymmstone And Treacle Emporium. Kat Douglas gets out in front of her shop, dusting off her corset and adjusting her dark hat atop her head, as if she just stepped out of a Victorian painting depicting the future.
Inside, the Emporium is decorated with an assortment of Victorian steampunk clothes. On the corner, it can be difficult to find, but random tourists stumble in, looking through the collection. An aviator hat made of wool and goggles lay across tables alongside a variety of different shoes and boots. The shop feels old, yet new, as if 100 years in the future mixed with 100 years in the past.
Steampunk is a genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and features steam-powered machinery. New Zealand steampunk is inspired by the Victorian Era.
“You can put on your clothing,” said Neave Willoughby, Douglas boyfriend and partner. “You can take on a distinct personality. A lot of people hide behind that personality. It’s a way to be social when you aren’t really social. It’s a good way of getting to know people.”
For Douglas, the love for not only the Victorian era but also how steampunk has created a sense of community. In New Zealand alone, there are at least 20 to 25 societies across the major cities and towns. Steampunk Christchurch has over 1,400 people on their Facebook page, with 40 to 60 people regularly attending events. Since 2009, there has been a large steampunk festival in Oamaru, a coastline town 250 kilometers (155.3 miles) south of Christchurch, which many societies attend.
“It is Victorian inspired sci-fi,” Douglas said. “There’s more of a colonial bent here. We’re a colorful bunch. We’re geographically isolated. We have a ‘fix it and make things’ mentality over here. We always have, us Kiwis.”
Douglas runs one of the city’s most popular steampunk fashion shops and also heads the Steampunk Christchurch Society with her partner and boyfriend, Neave Willoughby. Together, the couple, who met at a 2012 Christchurch Steampunk Society meeting, makes up the two spheres of the modern steampunk movement: Victorian fashion and inventions.
In the shop, they sell some of Douglas’s creations as well as clothes and items designed by their friends. Douglas practices millinery, or hat making. She fell in love with the practice, the dying art of trim, stitch and needle, when she studied fashion 15 years ago. When she traveled to a steampunk festival in the United Kingdom, it was a hassle trying to stuff 14 hats in a suitcase to bring home to her collection of 120.
Together, Douglas and Willoughby turned their home into an extension of their store and themselves. In addition to the growing collection of Victorian clothes and hats, their garage is full of Willoughby’s inventions and designs for future inventions and gadgets he’s still trying to figure out.
“We’re both completely weird, slightly nutty in completely the same way,” she said. “[Our house] might be a concrete box outside, but inside, it’s gadgets and things everywhere. We’re pretty good together, I think. We enable each other a little too much with clothing and hats and things.”
Those other “things” Douglas includes Willoughby’s inventions. When Douglas hurt her back and couldn’t walk long distances, Willoughby did what any loving boyfriend would; he went about creating the motorized teapot. He spent hours stripping down and fixing a broken motorized scooter and designing the teapot out of plywood and foam.
“I like the genre of steampunk, how the Victorians would imagine life today,” he said. “I would rather fix something than throw it away and buy something new. This throwaway age doesn’t fit with how I think things should be done. I like making new things out of old things.”