February 20, 2011

How to have a steampunk high tea

My dearest Blog, I was privileged yesterday to be among the fortunate guests at a steampunk high tea. Meet (standing left to right) Julianne, Chuck, Henry, Layla, Anna, (yours truly), Greg, and (seated) our hosts, Laura and Paul.

How precisely ought one host a steampunk high tea? Why, I am glad you asked, Blog.

First of all, for those unfamiliar with the term "steampunk," it is a popular genre of fashion and fantasy that combines Victorian style with science fiction elements of the type found in the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Think time travel, airships, machinery incorporating gears and steam engines, all expressed with the elegance of the Victorian period. And what better way to enjoy the company of fellow steampunk fans than at a high tea, a social event very much in vogue during the reign of Queen Victoria?

Like steampunk in general, such a gathering is certainly open to individual interpretation. But I will share with you some tips based upon the manner in which it was executed by our delightful hosts, Paul and Laura. Follow these guidelines and you too can travel back to a romantic time that never really quite existed....

1. Invite guests who will come attired in steampunk-themed garb. As you see, that is key. Outfits include top hats and vests, splendid coats, long skirts, high button shoes...and the more subtle steampunk elements just as goggles, jewelry fashioned of gears and cogs, and props such as the sextants at Greg's hip in the photo above. British accents such as were employed by Henry and Greg are optional, as are imaginary character back stories, but hope to have a few attendees who will amuse your guests with same! And a de rigueur activity for guests is admiring each other costumes. Henry's "spat shoes" received particular attention.

By the way, it's not hard or expensive to contrive your own steampunk costume. I outfitted myself for about $50 out of pocket. A better view of me:

Start in your own closet. I used a shirt and vest I already had, and high-button velvet boots from a prior costume. Supplement with items from thrift stores, online steampunk shops, Etsy and eBay. I got my bustled skirt on eBay from Moonlight Cove. Don't forget steampunk props and jewelry, like the steampunk heart pendant I made from polymer clay. You can achieve a lot by spending a little. I made my hat from supplies I bought at Michael's for under $10.

2. Prepare a romantic, old-fashioned table. Paul and Laura happen to own a variety of antique china perfectly suited to the occasion.  Combined with equally splendid goldware, glassware, tablecloth, napkins, and fresh flowers, the look is formal but charming.

Don't forget placecards and small gifts such as the net bags Laura made and filled with period-appropriate salt water taffy. Note the small gear sewn on the bag for that steampunk touch. 
3. Serve tea. We were offered three types of delicious teas with cream, sugar and honey. There's something so delightful about the ritual of pouring tea. The guests at your tea will also enjoy the option of alcoholic beverages; we had some cherry wine as well as both sweet and dry champagne.

4. Observe the traditions of high tea food. Laura informed me that high tea includes three courses: scones, sandwiches, and desserts. Our scone course included two offerings. Our sandwiches were both sweet and savory (strawberry, cucumber, and some wonderful chicken salad on cherry walnut bread).

And the desserts included both raspberry and lemon layer cakes, petit fours, and chocolate truffles from Harrod's.

5. Discuss the wonders of steampunk. Of course the meal can include any sort of discourse that arises, but it's definitely a good opportunity to talk about DIY steampunk projects and past steampunk gatherings like the TeslaCon that takes place in Wisconsin. Here Paul examines some nifty goggles that Henry fabricated out of leather, showerhead parts, etc.

6. Provide appropriate props for your guests to enjoy. Among the props at our party was my little creation Herbert G the stitchpunk doll. It was a thrill to share him with such an auspicious group! Our hosts had a nifty stereoscope on hand and plenty of antique photos for us to view in 3D; here you see Greg trying it out while Chuck awaits a turn.

Paul also brought out the old 3D camera he bought to create his own 3D pictures. Note: two lenses! It uses regular 35 mm film.

7. Don't mind the anachronisms. Paul's iPhone came in handy for steampunk related research. No reason not to take advantage of the tools of the current age. You can always account for the phenomenon by pretending to be time-travelers from the past, visiting the current year.

And that, Blog, is all you need to do to throw your own steampunk high tea. I made wonderful new friends and enjoyed a refreshing mental break from our Wisconsin winter and the trials and tribulations of real life.

Thank you, Paul and Laura! Bravo!


  1. Bravo, bravo, indeed! ::applause, applause:: I so enjoyed reading your letter to Dearest Blog, Laura. I am greatly appreciative to my friend Chuck for sharing it.

    I am grateful for the explanation of "steampunk". I've been meaning to ask Julianne & Chuck the derivation of this term that has been cropping up in their posts and photos, & simply had not, yet. Now I know. The whole genre is all the more appealing.

    And the description of the Steampunk Tea is utterly delightful. I don't think we have sufficient folk in our area with such interests, else I'd be conniving to hold my own Steampunk Tea, it looks like such fun!

    Kudos abound for your hosts for putting on such a splendid event, from the fine guests to the themed gadgets, to the lovely setting and the utterly delicious Tea they provided to you all. I have only one quibble, a terribly minor one in the face of the delightful spirit of the event which is of course the most important element of any Tea. As you point out, such a gathering in the steampunk realm is certainly open to interpretation, and many fine hotels over the years have confused the issue by dubbing Afternoon Teas and Cream Teas, "High Tea" because it sounds so Elegant, Posh, and High-Society. (By the same mis-use of language, fine establishments sometimes also post signs declaring things like: Five O'Clock Tea is served throughout the day, & they're not talking about a brand or blend of tea called Five O'Clock, but of a traditional type of Tea meal.) I have not yet written a Dearest Blog entry of my own (http://oflifeandtea.blogspot.com/) about High Tea (though I did touch on the matter in a Sipping Notes newsletter) to point to, but the brief explanation would be: the food at a High Tea is, simply put, a meal. High Tea is also known as a Meat Tea, because essentially, High Tea is simply a meal at which Tea is served as well. The name "High Tea" is not indicative of High Society or any cultural standing. "High Tea" is called High Tea because, customarily, those partaking of High Tea sit at a normal-height table sitting on standard chairs. This is as opposed to "Low Tea", which is no reflection on the fanciness of the event, the people partaking, or the fare, but simply refers to the low tables, such as we would now call coffee tables and end tables and trays, upon which Tea was served around couches, chairs, settees, etc., back when the custom became popular in the mainstream after the Duchess of Bedford stopped being secretive about her custom to tide her over until late dinners that were customary back in the day. The matter of the Tea being served at a high table of course makes this all the more minor of a quibble with Paul's and Laura's event being termed "High Tea". But the descriptions and photos of the food served do more closely fit Afternoon Tea as it was begun in the Victorian times (such as described in this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Russell,_Duchess_of_Bedford, merely the one I found the quickest just now, though perhaps not the most definitive).

    Minor quibble notwithstanding, I repeat my gratitude and appreciation for sharing your descriptions and photos of that lovely event.

  2. A smashing fine to-do! What can be more civilized than tea? Thanks for sharing, Diane.

  3. Kathryn, thank you so much for all the history and details, you are certainly an authority on what has become a rather obscure subject! I'm pleased to have your comment here to enhance the content of the post!

    Jennie, "smashing" is indeed the word. You're welcome!