Friday, March 2, 2012

Steampunk POC: Phil Powell (Mixed race: German, African, Cherokee)

It's the first Friday of the month again! That means, time for another Steampunk POC interview! This time, we hike over to DC metro, to talk to steampunk dandy Phil Powell, a man who colours up the sepia of steampunk, with more than just his skintone.
Phil Powell. Portrait by Denis Largeron

 How do you do steampunk? Or how do you steampunk or how do you participate in steampunk? Or what steampunk media do you do (lit, fashion, events)? Ay-Leen tells me you're a local organizer, but feel free to talk about anything else: costuming, roleplaying, etc.

I turn Steampunk on its ear.  I don't go for the generic guns/goggles/gadgets that permeate Steampunk; I feel that if we are going to recreate (and perfect) the Victorian culture, all of it must be represented, including the Dandy.  I am a Dandy, a proud one.  I wear very fancy outfits, feathers, accessories, pins, brooches.  THOSE are my gadgets.  Ay-Leen knows me well; I do events, small social outings for those of us wishing to encounter each other in a non-club setting to enjoy our mutual interests and to further my goal of global domination, ridding the world of mundaneness and general boredom.

How did you come to steampunk? What were your first impressions of it?

I am originally a Goth.  Dressing up fancy and having interest in all things Victorian comes naturally to me, so when I learned about Steampunk back in 2008 I was immediately drawn to it and wanting to explore further, thus, I did.  My immediate impressions were that of a very diverse group of people, mostly from the Ren Faire circuit, that were immersed in roleplaying and general nerddom, things that weren't necessarily my strongest suits, thus, I was in some ways coming into the Steampunk genre a bit, well, green.

So tell us your *feelings* about steampunk in general. What do you think of the existing / canon literature? The fashions? The communities that have sprung up around them?

The literature is interesting, but to be honest a bit too generic.  Most seem to be along the same line of airships and gadgets and guns and gears. I don't see enough imagination.  Also don't see enough Dandyness.  I intend to change that.  In the meantime the fashions are quite impressive when you see fellow dandies (I shall drop names now: Nick Picard, Jason Bush, Anthony Canney, Michael Chase, Anthony Pomerleau, Montague Jacques Fromage, Evan Taylor, Danny Ashby, H Brevard Brown III.. learn from these men, my fellow Steampunkers... learn well).

My prior involvement in Goth was a complete dichotomy in comparison to Steampunk when you refer to communities; Goths are solitary creatures that find political (or pseudo-political) conversations a bit tedious at times and would rather go to a cemetery and bask in beautiful solitude; Steampunkers, however, are the exact opposite inasmuch as they thrive in communities, lively conversation and extremely frequent gatherings that, to be honest, at times task my ability to keep up (remember, I am a Goth). 

How did you begin in Goth? As a POC, do you find any difference in how welcoming goth is compared to steampunk? Or did the same problems follow? Besides the gregariousness you mentioned, what differentiates steampunks from goths, and do you agree with Jess Nevins' statement, "Steampunk is when goths discover brown"?

I've had interests in dark beauty from childhood growing up with the Munsters and the Addams Family, naturally evolving in time to appreciate the woods, the castles, and the cemeteries as places of beauty and rest.  I started going to Goth clubs back in 2003 and never looked back (though I visited one club in 1991 long before I understood its full meaning).

The main difference between Goth and Steampunk, aside from the "brown" aspect (haha), is the interest in Goth in all things dark and beautiful, whereas Steampunk can include dark and beautiful things, it expands from there and appreciates things Goths themselves probably wouldn't process...

Phil Powell. Portrait by Denis Largeron
Could you tell us a bit about the principles of Dandyism?

From what I have studied and understood, Dandyism is the art and practice of a fine gentleman who desires to dress in elegance and style, along with carrying himself in said elegance and style, at all appropriate venues. It is the practice for said gentleman to conduct himself in a manner of worthiness of being seen, even in a crowded room, and to find no shame in accessorizing.   Optional traits include the practice of never wearing the same outfit twice (haha).

There were many notable POC during the Victorian era, so perfecting the image of the Victorian era through being a Dandy as a non-white man seems very historically accurate! Do you think steampunk falls into the trap of excluding people of colour in its recreation of Victoriana? How does it or doesn't it?

I don't think Steampunk excludes POCs from the party.  My theory is that most people in Steampunk do not come from racially diverse backgrounds and are, thus, a bit underexposed to the possibilities of undercurrent racism. I haven't seem much - or any - in my travels and experiences.  I'm not saying it's not there, but I am saying I myself have been, so far, thankfully, very thankfully, made exempt from any racially-motivated exclusion.

Having said that, however, I have been concerned about the idea that Steampunk is all about the Great White Way v2.0..  We see very few Steampunk POCs out there, and I sincerely hope more will come forth. Perhaps more POC Dandies!

Here is a touchy, possibly trigger-y question, feel free to skip: have you witnessed or experienced racism in steampunk spaces? What about a microaggression that you didn't realize the breadth of until much later?

Not that I can truthfully ascertain, and that's a good thing as well.  I am not saying it doesn't happen, but I am saying that my experiences at Steampunk events, etc. have been mostly positive and inclusive.  And for those out there that may feel that Steampunk should remain "lily white" should bear in mind that this particular Dandy has been in blogs as Coverboy - twice (Look At That *Ahem* Dandy), been in magazines including New York Magazine, MetroMix and the Village Voice, photo shoots, has won awards for his outfits at Steampunk events, and is about to be in an upcoming Steampunk fashion book this year (2012) and a runway model.  Not bad for being non-white :)

What do you think holds POC from participating more visibly in steampunk?

There is a bit of a perception that Steampunk POC do not exist, from what I've seen.  Not a sense of exclusion but a sense of being unaware they exist to be included. Steampunk POC just need to dress up and make their presence known, and if any flack might occur, for them to remind said persons that we are Alternate History, not Actual History (or, as it is said, "History, not as it was, but as it should have been").


Phil Powell. Portrait by Dennis Largeron. COLORS!
I can be a fanciful Dandy and most everyone is OK with that.  And I can wear COLORS!


It is beginning to disturb me how generic it is becoming and how dependent on "How many gears? How many gadgets?" there are in your midst.  Nothing wrong with either as long as you respect those (like me) that feel neither are required, just optional if you accessorize correctly :)

For all its flaws, what makes steampunk compelling to you?

The aspects of the Victorian Era done right this time, especially since it is well-known that the Victorian Era was not overly welcoming, as a whole, to people of color.  The idea of colonialism felt that the Great White Society was "the best and most civilized"; so turning that on its ear and allowing myself to be a Dandy, a gentleman of renowned elegance, style and fashion of the times, all the while myself being, well, non-white. :) 

What would you say to any non-white person who has an interest in steampunk dandyism?

DO IT.  DO IT NOW.  We need more dandies, a lot more dandies.  Gentlemen in Steampunk need to
know how to properly dress (don't get me started on goggles with formalwear.. cringes hehe) like their female counterparts.  Show them how it must be done, my lovelies!

Thank you, Phil, for your perspective on a very particular sort of masculinity in steampunk! Everybody, steampunk dandy Phil Powell! *golf claps*


  1. you are amazing. I wish i knew you I love your style x

  2. I'm just learning about Steampunk. This article was amazing. Can women get in on this too?

    1. The previous two articles in this series featured women, and this is definitely an equal-opportunity subculture as far as gender goes!

  3. Great article. Phil is a genuine gentleman and a pleasure to associate with. He is a binding force for people interested in the steam aesthetic in the DC area. Without his organizational efforts, we would be a much poorer lot.