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Steampunk & the Pandemic Eerily Similar: Visually Merchandizing a Steampunk Store During Covid

Updated: Mar 13

Fantasy Trunk

You might ask, “Why didn’t you just take a government loan?” The answer is that I am in fashion and my clientele is small businesses and individuals. Since I was in the fashion industry, with that clientele as a focus, it did not seem like it was the most financially responsible thing for me to do at the time. So, I did the one of the hardest things that one can do, and I put Shelby Original to rest, an emotional moment because I began the business as a distraction, terrified in the thick of the worst my epilepsy facing brain surgery.

COVID hit after I thankfully ended up not needing to have the surgery and I found out that my immune system was far weaker than most. I had to get the COVID immunization shot and boosters when they were first released and ALWAYS wear a mask.

Okay, that was terrifying to hear, but everybody has their thing, and you just do what you got to do. So I got the shots, I wore a mask and with my normal appointments bricking to a stop with quarantine, I start trying to make money any way that I could. I even contacted old friends and tried online consultations that weren’t regimented, so they went terribly. Online and in-person are two different beasts and I initially discovered that the hard way. I then got really intimidated by the idea of entering the digital market, so I quit trying to do so.

After several months of taking small jobs from small businesses, I got an opportunity to fly down to St. Augustine, Florida. It is the oldest city in the country (1513) and where Ponce de Leon landed in his search for the coveted Fountain of Youth. On this project, I could travel and do the Visual Merchandising for a completely, bare, new store!  I was broke, bored, and mapping out the second location for Aunt Matilda’s Steampunk Trunk sounded exciting! There was already a smaller store, and she was expanding.

Steampunk is a genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology. It is what our alternate reality would be if everything had advanced but powered by steam & gears instead of electricity.

Now that it is a few years later, I can see that this was a VERY powerful project because it contained some impactful artistic parallels that may never have me in the correct space at the correct time to witness similar parallels.

Hands Jewelry Station

The Plague: I think this is the most obvious connection between Steampunk and the pandemic. The plague mask is a staple of the genre. Creators address the aspect of the plague differently. Some creators make the plague a backdrop that characters freely navigate within without physical consequence but there always seems to be an almost palpable mental impact. Other creators choose to have mental and physical impact be symbiotic. For example: The character will have a plague complication caused a deformity that was rectified a steam-powered invention and will be mentally impacted by the event that caused the loss of the rectified organ or limb or by the permanent mourning of the loss of the organ or limb.

The Parallel: From the moment I got off the plane, I only then realized that was surrounded by people who could make me very sick. I love me some southerners and I know that this is controversial, so please do not hate me. Life was proceeding eerily like normal.  Down there, there was no six feet of distance, in which to freely navigate my life. The mask was a cue that I needed to be thoroughly informed. I love my Southerners, but they felt like they were being tricked and they were going to me about it and get my head straight about it.

Was I right or wrong? I don’t know. I was the one in their territory.

I do know that the South sadly experienced the highest amount of trauma and loss of any other region and that is awful. Georgetown University posted an article that states their behavior in the disregard of COVID amplified the region’s loss. It states that, “Since October 2020, 48% of COVID-19 deaths were in the South, which makes up 38% of the population, pointing to disproportionate outcomes regionally.” This data can be supported by the CDC, which can be found here.

There was also a lot of conflicting information being distributed to minorities, especially blacks, a population that feels extremely conflicted because of past events. And understandably so, due to being lied to many times before due to a soul-crushing lack of perceived value by the government. The most famous example of this, in the realm of studies and medicine, is the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.

This study lasted 40 years, from 1942-1972, the infected patients were never once informed that they even had Syphilis. What’s worse? The United States Public Health Service and Center of Disease Control knew by 1947 an antibiotic created from Penicillin was widely available to treat Syphilis. It was discovered as a successful treatment for the disease the year after the study began. “In 1928, Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) discovered penicilin and from 1943, it became the main treatment of syphilis.” 

Many men suffered or died for no reason, so I fully understand the COVID vaccine skepticism, especially from the black populace. Would I have still taken vaccine if I didn’t have epilepsy? 

Probably, yes. I come from a small town, but I left as soon as I turned 18. I live in a constant state of Northern hustle and bustle. I have lived in Chicago and Boston, and we always have somewhere to be, and we always complain about how dirty the city is getting and how long it is taking to get to a destination. But that’s just the culture. Chicago style pizza is the closest thing that you’ll ever get to a pizza pie, and I love that I can meet a solid gold Mass-hole that is screaming at me one minute and sharing stories over a beer the next!

What I love about the South is that the people, while not perfect, because no human is, are genuine. If they don’t like you, they will let you know to your face, on the spot. The West Coast aspect of, “I’ll call you!” and then ghosting you that is starting to permeate the Mid-West, hasn’t been a thing I’ve seen down here. You’ll say, “I think about it,” which is a much more honest answer that I respect.

I also love that even the bigger cities have a slower cadence. Houston, Austin, and Atlanta are all doing huge things right now but when you visit those cities or others, one doesn’t feel overwhelmed or pushed away. Whenever I travel, it only takes somebody about a half an hour to sincerely ask me how I’m doing.

With my epilepsy I had to wear a mask, especially when I would honestly see people on the sidewalks in coughing fits or visibly having trouble breathing.

The toughest part is that even though people were dying up North the vaccine gave some areas a sense of optimism. The worst part of the whole experience was that even though people were trying to live normally, there was a thick, tangible undercurrent of grief & oncoming death in the air. We all die, but this was different.  Almost everybody I met that family in the South, no matter how young or old, was connected to someone who had just passed. Because it simply doesn’t matter if a vaccine is real or fake when a family member dies. All that matters is that you will never get to spend time with them, here on earth, again.

So yes, I felt like a plague doctor while I Visually Merchandising a Steampunk store when I consoled people who let me into information of losing a family member (I’ve lost my mother, sister & other relatives.) and especially when the fact that I was wearing a mask was pointed out.

Purses Front of Store

The Future & the Past Simultaneously: One of the things that people love the absolute most about Steampunk is that it is set in the Victorian era, which occurred in the 19th century. It also contained a hierarchy structure that is like today of the Upper, Lower, and Middle classes.

One of the things that is amazing to do with this genre is inventing gadgets that would never even been conceived of with the same tool basket. The creator just has a completely different “rule book” for what they can create because they have ridden on an airplane or simply driven a car.

The Parallel: I don’t know if everyone fully remembers 2020. I think a lot of us block it out of our minds because it was such an uncomfortable for most of us or we were a little too young to remember the full scope of what happened.

If you did not have a job that the federal government listed as essential like postal work, groceries, and other roles listed here, you either started to work remotely or you took advantage of the Unemployment (that waived a lot of taxes due to state of emergency) and the Economic Impact Payments. These were great things but a lot of people were still left financially struggling.

But the world, even after quarantine was eerily quiet. It was like the set of a zombie apocalypse film. This is because people were scared, and it was a fear that reverberated through everything so strongly that it combined with fragmented perceptions of class took us back to a mentality of medieval times amidst progressing technology.

Suddenly, the hierarchy of the United States has never been more segmented and defined. Service and other shadow industries (only seen when look for them), the “Peasants & Serfs” of our country, were getting judged by being called “lazy” by people that ranked higher. This is because these people had no interest in taking a job that paid less than their Unemployment, which they knew was a temporary break from backbreaking work. They had decided that they were to take that time to spend with their families because they could lose anyone at any moment.

Surprisingly, regardless of how Southerners felt about COVID, both the middle class of the North & South, the medieval “Merchants, Farmers, & Craftsmen,” tended to keep their kids at the house. I only even use the “surprisingly” because of how many people spoke to me about the whole thing being a conspiracy. I fully well know that everyone loves and protects their kids as best they possibly can.

The middle class of the south were the teachers. This is the group that would take me aside and inform me of why mask was completely unnecessary. They would meet daily for huge rallies that would have them parading all over downtown chanting catchy lines against the president.

I was honestly really impressed because they did a full day’s work, took care of their families, and were so passionate about this issue on multiple levels that they MADE time for this project. I know people who stand very strongly about an issue and the most they might do is write a check.

Another way that they strangely mirrored each other is that both areas never wanted to run out of anything. I just found it odd because the North was openly acknowledging that they were shopping in case the world ended. Manufacturing costs, shipping, duty & taxes were exorbitantly high at the time and most of the things that we have grown to need now come from overseas.

So, if a member of this group saw toilet paper at the grocery store, they bought as much of it as they possibly could because restock did take a while and they would rather take as much as they can now than risk being without later.

This is one of the reasons that I referenced a zombie apocalypse movie at the beginning of the piece. After having this happen to item after item that made sense to purchase in bulk, the grocery store started feel like if the music shut off suddenly. A fear so deep would uncontrollably swell up inside you and you would scream loudly, you would then be shocked at how loudly your own terror rumbled back at you.

Business owners of essential online businesses would be on the next tier. They would “Knights & Vassals.” They protected our economy and fundamental framework from collapsing. We worked, we learned, and we shopped in relatively sustainable. One could argue that was so sustainable that it has been hard to get people to leave it.

Next, are the Nobles or the 1%. They drum up the financing for all the major swings and innovations. They were quiet during this. I remember a lot of them funding COVID research and investing in a lot of things in medicine that were going to be largely implemented.  

The President, Congress, and the House of Representatives are the “Monarchs” of the COVID. I put them all together because they are supposed to act as singular, balanced aspect and this is not a political blog in any regard.

Middle Right Side of Store

Corsets: Corsets are keystone of the Steampunk aesthetic! Steampunk is set in the Victorian Era, in which corsets were the height of fashion. Over time, women would make their waist to be so small that they would only be able to stand for short periods of time.

This is because your lungs couldn’t fully expand due to your constricted diaphragm.  If you were aiming for a progressively smaller waist, the constriction would ultimately shift your organ up and down to be able to make a waist smaller. A faint couch was created for just that. It’s raised head on one side and long horizontal body created the perfect delicate silhouette for women pass out on.

The woman with the smallest waist on record is Cathie Jung it is only 15” around!

One of the amazing parts of the time was that of corsetry. This is the process progressing to a smaller and smaller corset over time. This process is also referred to as waist training!

The Parallel: Okay, so the fabulous waist debuted in 2014. Then, the caught more and more with celebrities wearing them all the time it was a huge trend of the second half of the 2010’s. However, things didn’t get real until after the covid 15 (lbs.) hit and EVERYONE was trying to get rid of the weight that they put on when the world stopped.

That is when your mama and your auntie discovered waist trainers and the entire industry exploded!

You could go anywhere or look at anything in late 2020, if you like female dominant aspects of clothing, and not see something related to a waist trainer. Heck, I was even just playing so sort of mindless word game on my phone and suddenly it asked me, “Are you mad about the weight you carry around you midsection?”

Mannequin on Chair

Conclusion: But, I am sure this will make someone upset when I am coming from an honest, genuine place about my personal experience. And this is just what I’m sharing online.

Like I said before, this has nothing to do with politics. It is just interesting to see how to two groups of people that perceive themselves as vastly different handle a catastrophic problem both differently and the similarly.

Also, it was super cool to see how Steampunk and the pandemic mirrored each other so closely.

I loved this project!

R.I.P. Shelby Original

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