Raw Interview with Libby Bulloff

Self-Portrait Red and Blue, Libby Bulloff

Libby Bulloff is a professional graphic designer, photographer, and videographer, whose work played a large role in The Steampunk Bible, including two sidebars on Steampunk fashion styles and accessories. She runs Exoskeleton Cabaret, a small business devoted to wearable art, and has had her work appear in Wired.com, Boing Boing, WarrenEllis.com, Diesel Sweeties, Craftzine, Makezine, the Webomator Blog, Street Tech, and Etsy’s The Storque. She also writes, edits, and illustrates for Steampunk Magazine and is The Steampunk Workshop‘s fashion contributor.

To quote Libby from her website:  “My work synthesizes art and craft, retrospect and innovation. It is about creating impossibly wondrous worlds out of the discarded and forgotten in order to resurrect a glorious future.

In my photography, I look to build a portfolio of images that display models creatively, building on natural, -real- beauty with extraordinary costumes and makeup/hairstyles of epic proportions. I’m intrigued by the bizarre and comical. I love shooting smart and strong people of all sizes with anomalous features. During a shoot with me, you will emote, you will have fun, and you will discover aspects of yourself forgotten or unknown.”

Below is the interview conducted with Libby in the early stages of the book’s discovery in 2010.

Steampunk Bible: What is your personal definition of Steampunk?

Libby Bulloff: Steampunk is a style, literary genre, and subculture containing nostalgic elements lifted from the 19th century (and other time periods, not limited to the past) married to speculative nods toward the fantastic, cheeky, or romantic. In order for something to be Steampunk, and not simply neo-Victorian homage, it has to contain both antique aspects and at least one non sequitur.

Also, Steampunk is awesome [this is my favorite definition, personally].

Steampunk Bible: How long have you been involved/interested in Steampunk?

Libby Bulloff: I became interested in Steampunk before it truly emerged as a counterculture. I would assume that it was around 2002 or early 2003 that I became involved.

Steampunk Bible: What differences do you see between now and when you started?

Libby Bulloff: Years ago, upon discussing with a friend a Victorian fantasy world laden with heavy machinery, must, grit, and soot, I Googled to see if any such genre existed in two- or three-dimensional form and found the Livejournal community “anachrotech”. I think much of what became the Steampunk culture came out of banter in this community and others. Participants used to post an example or two a week of enviable modded tech or brass-coated clocks. Now the internet community of Steampunk aficionados is too large to adequately describe, with message boards, blogs, stores, etc. in use all over the web.

Beyond the ‘net, Steampunk has bled over into meatspace, and with the mass appeal it has generated come the typical issues of any subculture. In the beginning, the culture was obscure and speculative enough that there were no defined Steampunk fashion trends, no hard and fast rules, and a widespread acceptance of “anything goes”. As it’s mainstreamed, steampunk has become less accepting but more accessible. Aspects that drove me into its arms half a decade ago have been purged or repressed in favor of a structure that can be marketed and consumed more easily.

All subcultures become more rigidly organized as time passes. I doubt Steampunk will remain mutable if it stays around for a long time. The DIY definitely contributes to the free-spiritedness of Steampunk, but then again, both goth and punk used to be more DIY-oriented before being commercialized by record labels and clothing companies trying to make a buck. I do not expect this subculture will be any different. The artists who basically innovated the visual aesthetic of Steampunk are emulated by the masses of fans, and trends grow and change based on both the early adopters and the needs of later followers, as do all subcultures. Steampunk is still a small child as far as subcultures go—it hasn’t been fashionable as long as say, goth or punk, and therefore I can say that it is still more community-based rather than scene-dependent, but it is well on its way.

The Street Urchin, by Libby Bulloff, was part of a session Bulloff did especially for the book, and illustrates the sidebar "Steampunk Fashion: Four Styles."

Steampunk Bible: What are the different types of Steampunk fashion you’ve seen in your experience?

Libby Bulloff: I’ve seen two basic factions: serious cosplayers, con-goers, reenactors; and Steampunk casual–a more palatable, daily-wear look that pulls from a plethora of vintage influences. The former group is obsessed with detail and often chooses to portray various Steampunk icons (such as airship captains, tinkerers, pirates, etc.), but only at specifically Steampunk-friendly events. The latter group seems more relaxed and less obsessed with period-correctness or characterization.

Steampunk Bible: You work with Steampunk Magazine. Could you tell me more about your role with the magazine and what you think the magazine means to the DIY/sustainability movement?

Libby Bulloff: The magazine began, for me, in early January of 2006, when my esteemed colleague, Margaret Killjoy, put out a call for submissions for a ‘zine with a retrotech and Steampunk theme. Each successive issue has contained at least one piece of my writing and some of my artwork, and I have helped with editing the final drafts, too. I’ve brought the magazine to the Bay Area Maker Faire these past two years as well.

I think, without SPM, that the political and sustainable notions in Steampunk might never have been discussed outside of private message boards. It exposed a lot of regular folk, of all ages and economic backgrounds, to the positive aspects of anarchism, feminism, upcycling, making, etc.

The magazine is now operated out of the UK and I am no longer as involved in it, but it’s still operated by a collective of people who respect the DIY aspects of the movement and care about sustainability.

Steampunk Bible: Steampunk fashion has a huge DIY culture. But it’s also becoming mainstream–in fact, this past season many of the major houses had steampunk influenced designs on the runway. Do you think this commercialization of Steampunk will compromise its original spirit of DIY?

I feel like the only way to save Steampunk fashion from being consumed and pitched away is to, ironically, casualize it. So many of the Steampunks I see are not ready to commit to rocking the aesthetic as their regular attire, claiming that it’s too difficult, expensive, or socially inhibiting. Thus, it’s not mainstream interest that makes steam fashion fadlike–it’s the folks within the subculture who misguidedly view only heavily embellished outfits containing goggles, functionless gears, and sepia and brown as the one true look of Steampunk. We’re no better than our wealthy, trendy, hipster counterparts when we cease continuous metamorphosis of our look, when we won’t fearlessly model our style at our desk jobs, and when we eschew making old garments into new, upcycled ones because it’s easier to buy from the mall. As deftly put by Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy and he is us”.

I believe that as long as Steampunks encourage each other to make their own clothing, or at the very least spend money on Etsy and buy garments from small, independently-owned design houses, that the mainstream won’t usurp the spirit behind Steampunk. If we give up on constantly honing and re-envisioning our aesthetic, then we lose. Fashionistas and coolhunters will give up on Victorian-influenced couture when the next season comes–will we?

Steampunk Bible: What do you see as the triumphs and disappointments of Steampunk?

Libby Bulloff: I think Steampunk gave a lot of nerdy, geeky people across the world a voice, and it gave outcasts some hope that we could look interesting, change the way art and tech objects are designed and are used, and re-envision the present with nods to both the glories of the past and the potential for the future. I love that I can attend Steampunk events and see 6-year-olds sharing and storytelling with 66-year-olds. It has this universal appeal that is both a blessing and a burden.

It’s disappointing that like every social trend, it’s been distilled down to something that often feels overdone, soulless, and exhausted. I rarely see people actively and passionately trying to evolve it past where it currently lies, and this is highly depressing. The political nature of the genre has been constantly silenced by those who feel Steampunk is best represented by bourgeois booth babes with Nerf rayguns.

Also, it is a shame that some people believe that wearing multiple pairs of goggles at the same time is fashion-forward.

Steampunk Bible: Future of Steampunk fashion? Where do you see it evolving too?

Libby Bulloff: I fear that it won’t be the mainstream that will ruin Steampunk fashion–I believe it will be those within the subculture themselves who will lower it to a mere passing trend. Steampunk clothing is often impractical, uncomfortable, and inappropriate for wear outside of conventions, parties, and formal affairs. While it has popularized to the point of being represented at clubs, and while it has appeared in couture lines and on celebrities, Steampunk has not become highly visible as a common street fashion trend. Or, if it has become a fashion trend, it hasn’t yet entirely metamorphosed into a functional, sustainable style. Fashion lasts a season (if that); style is internal, eternal, and transcends time.

Casualizing Steampunk is as simple as seeing the aesthetic as broader than just a cosplay affectation. The props involved in much of Steampunk convention wear, whilst interesting, are cumbersome and alienating, or just downright ridiculous for say, the office or the grocery store. Clothes can be costumes, but not all costumes are clothes. On the other hand, the inherent timelessness of all Steampunk clothing is what makes it attractive on a day-to-day basis. The finest Steampunk outfits are a flirtation of formal and casual, a blend of old and new. This cannot be achieved by snobby fashionistas who won’t make the time and care it takes to create a sustainable, unique, nuanced wardrobe, and this is where we have the upper hand.

I hope that Steampunk fashion continues to evolve and diversify and that it doesn’t lose its DIY flavor. One does not have to be rich or thin to look great in handmade Steampunk garb, and the most fantastic items for padding one’s Steampunk wardrobe usually don’t have a little label discerning them as Steampunk, either.

“Raw Interview with Libby Bulloff” was published in Art, Fashion, Interviews, Photography and tagged , , .

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