If there’s anything steampunks love to do, it’s get together for tea. High tea. Low tea. Every tea in between. Name a venue that offers elegant service and real china cups, and we’ve probably been there. Or at least have it on the calendar.
In fact, you might say that if the steampunk community hasn’t yet sampled a particular high tea, the venue in question hasn’t proven itself yet. Take for example a tearoom that opened last year in my town. Recently, I joined several local steampunk groups in full regalia to test its offerings against our appetite for elegance.
Our hosts for the afternoon were no less than a local duke and duchess, known and loved by all. And the rest of the guest list was no less distinguished. Nobility, gentlefolk, sky pirates, sea-faring captains, even a few maverick wanderers (such as myself) descended upon the venue at 1 PM for a three-course spread and all the tea a well-corseted stomach could hold.
For those who may not be initiated, high and low tea are very different. The terms even mean different things to British people than to Americans! To avoid the inevitable hairsplitting, I’ll call our spread at the venue simple “afternoon tea.” Our group enjoyed a smorgasbord of small sandwiches, savory snacks, and finger desserts with a few twists on the usual. For example, this was the first time I’d seen vegetable spring rolls on a tea menu!
And that was not the only sight to behold.
Sometimes the most amusing aspect of these outings is watching the venue staff react to our costumes. Most have never hosted a group quite so well-frocked. (As one waiter put it, “Ma’am, when most people come to high tea they wear jeans and a t-shirt.”)
In these cases, the small accommodations that make a cosplay event more successful—such as cranking the air conditioning early in the day—go unattended; that is, until the staff set eyes on our five-layered frocks and three-piece wool suits. Steampunk garb traps heat like nothing else I know!
But steampunks are used to these minor hiccups. In my experience, we tend to handle them with a good humor that, for many of us, was no doubt one of our first attractions to the community.
Where else, after all, will you shout “Huzzah!” on cue or practice your British accent without feeling silly? Not to mention wear ten pounds of jangling brass gear and feathers that stand a full foot off your head?
With as many high teas as I’ve been to over the years, I’ve spent considerable time trying to figure out what attracts us to these regular gatherings. After all, they offer few surprises. We all know the sort of food we will eat, the beverage we’ll drink, and what we’re likely to converse about at table. We wear the same general types of fashions. We expect the same kinds of toasts. And in a community this small and tight-knit, we know exactly who we’ll meet.
I would imagine that’s actually part of the attraction.
In a world that has lost sight of the power of ritual, afternoon tea offers a welcome sanctuary of ceremony and old-fashioned decorum. It’s a social dance, previously agreed-upon, that we all sign up to play: one that ties us to the people of the past and provides a sort of anchor in the midst of our chaotic modern lives. Either that, or we really just like those little cucumber sandwiches.
Of course, I can’t speak for everyone in the steampunk community. But for me, rituals like tea are one of the reasons I keep coming back to steampunk events each year. These events are my chance to be with people who share my love for the past and my obsession with hand-crafted things. People who also share my appreciation for ritual and order.
I can relax over china and silver, in my best starched frock, precisely because I know what’s going to happen next.
We’ll nibble and sip. We’ll laugh. We’ll practice our accents. We’ll expand our steampunk personas and make memories for our modern selves in the old-fashioned way. All the while, we’ll assemble new futures for ourselves using the odd pieces (or in this case, utensils) of a cast-off past.
At the end of the day, our new tea venue met our approval. Each high tea has its strengths, and this one proved its particular merits. Enough to warrant receiving our group again next year.
Thanks, local steampunk group, for another fantastic afternoon. Thank you to the duke and duchess for hosting us. Thank you to my table mates for sharing both stories and costuming advice. Thank you also to the venue for welcoming us into your lovely space.
And thank you most of all, steampunk community, for being an oasis of ceremony in an often-unceremonious world.
Here’s a big “huzzah” to you!
Text by Lisa Walker England
Photos by Kathy Berger