Because of interest from those who might like to add aviator goggles, ray guns and other anachronisms to their Victorian costumes, the Durango Heritage Celebration requests participants “to kindly refrain from the Steampunk fantasy look.”
Steampunk style is influenced by the mad scientists, time travelers and gothic characters who populate the classic science-fiction novels of Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells. It is a grungy, gear-churning vision of the future from those stuck in the Industrial Revolution.
While steampunks have not yet crashed the local heritage celebration, scheduled for Oct. 10-12, they have inquired about the event, said Suzanne Parker, chairwoman of the festival that celebrates the early years of Durango, from 1881 to 1912.
Their interest validates an idea that has been kicked around for some time by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the Strater Hotel, Durango Discovery Museum, costume shops and others: Durango really needs to host a national steampunk convention.
“We think Durango is a great backdrop for it. It is so rich with history,” said Loreli Thayer, whose store, Gussied Up, sells vintage Victorian and steampunk outfits.
Durango has a steam engine train, a restored power plant from 1893 that once ran on steam and a Victorian hotel. Even the restrooms at the new El Moro restaurant and saloon are in steampunk style with a high-tank toilet, artisan wallpaper and a mirror framed with 100-year-old pavers.
Durango’s Old West location could attract steampunks, too.
“The Wild Wild West” TV series from the 1960s and its 1999 movie adaptation with Will Smith and Kevin Kline are considered influences on the genre for the way they blended a historical setting with futuristic contraptions.
Thayer has seen how the steampunk craze has caught on nationally. In San Diego, she encountered steampunks at a celebration for the restoration of ships from the 1800s.
Not everybody might be into the literature, but people do love to dress up, she said. People seem to love the style.
David Schranck, general manager for Rail Events, which organizes activities around the Durango train, noted that steampunks typically are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s and willing to spend upwards of $500 on a costume.
“It’s amazing how people are decking out,” Schranck said.
“I think it’s a really great demographic for Durango, the railroad,” Schranck said. “We are definitely interested.”
Schranck said one idea that has been discussed is for the train to take steampunks to a midway point in town, such as the fish hatchery, where the steampunks could then parade down the Animas River Trail to Durango Discovery Museum.
A steampunk party has been the museum’s major springtime fundraiser for the past two years, attracting about 150 people from around the Four Corners, said Ashley Hein, a publicist and event coordinator for the museum.
“I was surprised by how people got dressed up,” Hein said. “There’s almost a cult following.”
The museum will host another steampunk party in March.
While steampunk is catching on, Hein said she does “feel I have to explain it. We’re getting there. I think everybody’s explanation is a little different.”
As a genre of science fiction rooted in history, a steampunk convention in Durango faces an age-old problem: Is there a big enough venue to accommodate it?
Schranck thinks Durango would need meeting space for 1,000 people.
Durango just doesn’t have a place. Organizers are stuck on this point.
“The discussion goes round and round,” Schranck said.
Local steampunks make do with their own parties.
Candice Rose Seay, a bartender at Moe’s, recently organized a steampunk party at the bar to celebrate her 24th birthday.
She wore goggles, tights, elbow-length gloves, a necklace with a firefly and a corset.
“It’s kind of like gonzo burlesque,” Seay said.
Seay figured steampunk would be good for a party theme because it’s “different, a little bit ahead of the curve” but still somewhat universal in its appeal.
Seeing women in corsets and tights, Matt Cranston, a man in the crowd at Moe’s, said he understood some of the attraction.
“I’m really ignorant about steampunk, but I think it’s sexy as hell.”