It’s a recent Saturday night at the ballroom of the DoubleTree Hotel on Broad Street, and models with lean limbs and messily chic French braids gracefully glide across the stage in gowns of cream satin and lace.
Beautiful, yes, but not as interesting as the fashion of the spectators applauding the display. Women cinch their waists into leather cat suits and corsets over white poet blouses and sculpt their hair into theatrical vintage styles, topped off by feather-covered antlers or tiny hats. Men wear fine-tailored charcoal suits and top hats. A few don monocles. Brassy clocks and cogs—the jagged mechanical wheels that make them tick—are everywhere; on lapel pins, around necks, in hairdos. They serve as a constant reminder that the theme of the party is theatrical anachronism.
We’re at Dorian’s Parlor, Philadelphia’s monthly party for the steam-punk set and the many subgenres of friendly freaks and geeks—Goth, Ren Faire, gamers, fetish, theater kids—who fall under that one twirling parasol. Tonight, about 300 people will stream in and out of the ballroom.
The inspiration is literary—alternate-history novel The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson is often cited as the ultimate example of steam-punk—and the aesthetic is usually called “neo-Victorian” because of the marriage of Victorian and futuristic elements, like the gentleman walking around with a giant water bottle strapped to his back, a makeshift jet pack.
A man named David approaches. He is dressed in a dark suit, bowler hat and black-rimmed glasses. “This is the world’s coolest cocktail party, no?” he asks. He’s been attending the monthly Parlor since its launch last June to socialize with like-minded strangers and to “see things he wouldn’t normally see” in his day-to-day life as a 40-something tax accountant.
“You may not be into the whole fake blood and acrylic fangs thing, but I am very much into Victorian decadence,” he says. “I picture my alter ego as a diplomat from a small third-world country. Or maybe I’m some famous archeologist at the turn of the century.”
Tonight is David’s first night wearing eyeliner. He hoists his glasses. “What do you think?”
One table over, 22-year-old Rebecca Shilling watches the dance floor as a few people begin to sway to the sounds of DJ Dave Ghoul, also known as Dave Christman, of Grendel’s Den Design Studios. “I love how dapper everyone is,” says Shilling. “And the manners are amazing." She's in a brocade corset, fingerless gloves and aviator pants she made herself.
It’s true. Partygoers are about a hundred times more polite than the green-shirted St. Patrick’s Day revelers puking on the Broad Street sidewalk a couple stories below.
Shilling’s friend, 22-year-old Caitlin Reynolds, is a self-declared Ren Faire and Comic-Con geek, “second-gen gamer,” and member of a group that stages public light-saber shows. Reynolds is unlike most party attendees in that this isn’t her once-a-month opportunity to toy with her identity—she’s in costume any time she damn well pleases. "I gave up at science-fiction conventionas so this is kind of my crowd," she says.
She recalls a recent run-in with a bachelorette party. “They were all in little mini-dresses and no jackets and 5-inch heels and I was sitting there on the bench with my little top hat and Victorian sleeves and they were all walking around me and laughing,” she laughs. “I get a kick out of it.”
In general, women have an easier time of costuming than men.
“Unfortunately, [bullying] wasn’t left behind in middle school,” says 26-year-old Gil Cnaan, avid steam-punk enthusiast and founder of Dorian’s Parlor. At 6 feet tall with a burly beard, Cnaan doesn’t normally catch flack. But he’s concerned for his friends.
Safety in numbers is part of the reason he chose to stage the party downtown.
“I’ve always been one of the weird kids since elementary school,” he says. “That’s fine, I have a grand time being that. But not all of my friends do.”
A native Israeli who has lived in the Philadelphia area since about 1990, Cnaan didn’t blend in with the preppy kids at Harriton High School in the suburb of Lower Merion township.
“[In] my pictures from high school, you can see me in a Victorian shirt and a top hat,” Cnaan says. “At the time I said I was a Goth, not realizing there was this entire other realm I was not familiar with.”
While working for the Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair, he discovered that steam-punk was a more accurate description of his style. Around the same time, he was struck with a virus that attacked his heart so badly he needed a transplant. Two days before his 21st birthday, he entered the hospital, where he spent the next three months awaiting a new heart and a new start.
Once he recovered, Cnaan had a better sense of how he wanted to spend his life after he got out of the hospital.