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Steampunk festival Cogs & Corsets returns to Bloomington — and you don’t have to be a die-hard to join in

A child wearing a white bonnet and black dress with lace accents sits in a bow-tied man's arms gazing with wonder at a miniature hot air balloon.
David Huber
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Cogs & Corsets
Returning to downtown Bloomington for a fifth edition, Cogs & Corsets provides family-friendly fun for steampunk newbies and experts alike.

Here's something I didn’t know before I met Cathy Sutliff: There are a lot of steampunk festivals.

“There’s the one in Hannibal (Missouri), the Big River Festival, that happens on Labor Day weekend,” Sutliff said. “Then there’s also one in Quincy, which is also outside. A lot of them are inside in convention halls.”

Sutliff co-organizes Bloomington’s annual Cogs & Corsets: A Steampunk Happening. The first festival was in 2017 and it was such a success that they did it again — and again — with a break in 2020 for obvious reasons. Last year was limited to just one day, and for this year, festival-goers will have two full days (June 3 and 4) in and around downtown Bloomington to get their steampunk on.

“The difference is that we look at it as a Steampunk 101,” said Sutliff. “We really want to encourage the average Joe to come on in and just take a look.”

Steampunk is a retrofuturistic subgenre of science fiction that imagines an alternative history of the Victorian era. Inspired by 19th century authors like H. G. Wells and Mary Shelley, Steampunk’s aesthetics mix Gilded Age and Victorian fashions with a little American “Wild West” throw in. Add inventive tools and gadgetry — and goggles, lots and lots of goggles — and you’ll start to get the idea.

“It also comes with some of the problems of the Victorian Age, too, that many steampunkers try not to gloss over, but try to address,” Sutliff said.

By problems, Sutliff explained that steampunk enthusiasts don’t shy away from discussions about how colonialism, racism and misogyny played a starring role in late 19th century Europe and the expanding American West.

“The Victorian age was wrought with a lot of tough issues which we have been trying to address in the modern age.” she said. “If we’re rewriting history, we might as well rewrite it in a way that everyone is involved and included.”

But Sutliff reiterated that Cogs & Corsets can serve as an entry-level, family-friendly peek at steampunk for those who she says are, “steam curious.”

“It’s not just for aficionados and the heavy fan base,” she said. “It’s for people who are also interested in what’s going on. We have some people who come every year who are die-hard steampunkers. And then we also have some families who are coming along and made their first pair of goggles, and they’re all excited. They’re dressed in jeans, but they’ve got goggles and that’s great! Come and enjoy yourselves.”

Two of Cogs & Corsets’ ticketed events, Dine with the Dead, a picnic at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery, and The Great Airship Race Murder Mystery Dinner are sadly sold out. But fear not! There will be plenty to do, including $10 tickets to the tearoom at the Eaton Studio and Gallery. And everything else—like sewing and cosplay workshop, panel discussions, and the famous and very popular teapot race—is free. You can even stop by the home and sculpture park of local artist and resident gear guy, Tom Kirk, who’s created enormous, whimsical sculptures out of discarded gadgets and machinery.

“Yes! I cannot wait to see it,” Sutliff said. “It’s so amazing. If people get a chance to go by there, especially if you’re in costume, and get your photo taken with some of Tom Kirk’s work, it fits right in with what we’re doing here.”

Cogs & Corsets festival, June 3 and 4 at various locations. For more information and a list of events, visit cogsandcorsetsil.com.

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