Once upon a steamy time ago, there was a little black girl looking for a wedding dress. She wanted something unique, something bold, and something…so not like her sisters’ wedding dresses. Search as she might, through magazine after magazine, nothing seemed to fit. And then out of the swirling mists of tulle and satin…the most beautiful dress she had ever seen. It had a bustle with a train, lifts that showed off the underskirt, and the coup de grace – a corset that had her drooling with envy. How had this dress come into being? How could she get one herself? And why was everyone in those wedding pictures dressed quasi-Victorian?

This was my introduction into the world of Steampunk. Sure I had heard about it in passing, but no one had ever explained it to me, and more importantly no one had ever shown me the fashion. It all started with a dress. Within five minutes of research I knew I wanted this to be my wedding theme. Within ten minutes of research I was hooked for life.

The next step was the explanation to my ultra-fashionable mother. My mother had enjoyed both my sisters’ weddings. My older sister had a beautiful sacred Catholic ceremony. My younger sister had a wonderfully elaborate Greek Orthodox wedding. Expecting more of the same thing, I can still recall the blank look on her face as I tried explaining my vision for my wedding.

“You want to have a what type of wedding?”

“A Steampunk Wedding, Mom.” This was the third conversation on the subject. The first two times did not take. She couldn’t understand the concept, and more importantly, she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to wear.

“Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction usually set in the anachronistic Victorian or quasi Victorian alternate history setting.” After a couple times saying this you get used to the blank look that comes over people’s faces. I never really understood how removed Steampunk was from my everyday life until I picked it as a theme for my wedding. Seeing my mother’s confusion, I sighed and went with the old standby.

“Ever see The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with Sean Connery?” And there it was: that light of recognition.  I could have pulled out any number of references. Novels by Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, or even other movies like Wild Wild West with Will Smith. In my experience however, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen seemed to sum what I wanted in a pretty pink bow. I wanted the Victorian setting with enhanced capabilities. Oh, and I wanted a drop-dead corset.

While planning my wedding, finding a venue (a Victorian House that had been converted) and nailing down details (“No, Mom, I don’t want a church full of flowers.”) I went to my very first convention.

The one I chose was a multi-genre convention close enough to drive to, but more importantly,  to drive home from if I didn’t like it. My fiancé ended staying at home due to work, so I was all on my own.  You look back on your first costumes and you think to yourself…“God what was I thinking?” I feel that way now, but then I just knew I was the cutest thing out there. I had a pair of knee knockers, the ever present striped socks, a corset and a lacy top. I was ready to hit the con.

I will tell you, I had a blast. I had never had so much fun in my life. There were zombies and zombie hunters, people dressed like fae both light and dark, and there were a HUGE number of Steampunks. We oohed and ahhed over each other’s costumes, we gave each other tips and tools of the trade, and we genuinely had a laughing, silly, wonderful good time.

It wasn’t until someone asked to take my picture that I even noticed.

“Can I take your picture? I want to show my friend that black people do come to cons.” There are those I know that would have taken that offensively.  I didn’t even understand until I looked around the group that I had had so much fun with. I was the only little black girl in the bunch. Surely that couldn’t be right. I let the woman snap the picture and with a smile she left promising that she would be bringing her friend next year.

That confused me even more. Was I supposed to be waiting for her friend of color to come? Was I not supposed to be having fun without anyone else that was black? I never even thought about race, color or creed until someone pointed it out to me.

This was made clear when I got home and told my mother how much fun I had. Her first question to me was…

“Were there any other black people there?” Of course there were other black people at the con; it was a con of over 1200 people. Were there any black people in my specific genre…well we didn’t get into that.

Wedding preparations continued: we designed the wedding party outfits, and my fiancé and I got fitted for our custom wedding outfits. I ordered my corset (which I am still in love with) and we got ready to go to another convention.

This one was different. It was a dedicated alternative history convention.  As I packed my bustle skirt, two new corsets, a plethora of striped socks, the conversation I had had months before came back to me. Would I be the only black person there? Would people care? Did I care?

I’m happy to say that the answer to all these questions was a resounding no. While still scarce, there were other black people at the con. In a convention dedicated to alternative history there was so much to see and do and see and touch and see and take pictures of for future reference. It was never about the color of my skin. It was about the color of my bustle, and the intricacies of my corset, and the way I had done the lifts in my skirt.

I did, however,  get asked by a congoer if she could take my picture. That had been happening all day, but this one was much like the first. She wanted to prove to her black friend that people like me existed. That black people do come out to the conventions, and we do dress, and (if I do say so myself) we do look fabulous.

The wedding went off without a hitch and I now go to more conventions than I probably should, but I love the genre. I once took a picture of a black couple at The Steampunk World’s Fair. He was dressed like Dr.Who…and they had a frickin pram. Who wouldn’t? As I snapped the picture he gave me a little smile.

“Have to prove to your parents that other black people dress up in funny costumes too?” I laughed. It was true. My father, he thinks it’s a phase. My sisters just shake their head and accept that their sister is a little off. My mother is still in shock at my hobby. She will never understand, but that’s OK.  She looked awesome at my wedding in a bustle skirt and beautiful top. She managed to make my wedding work for her fashion dictates.

I have decided that people taking my pictures at conventions is awesome. If I can show one more little black girl that dressing in corsets with mechanical arms is not only fun, but fabulous, then I have done my job. After all, it all started with a dress.

– Tonnya Vanderspoel