Daylina Miller studied the bustle skirt, a cadet-blue concoction that used to be a Civil War costume. Now it was morphing into something more steampunk, something more perplexing. It needed a discerning eye.
Stephanie Dorsey held up a piece of fabric printed with a gold key motif. Would it look right?
"I like the keys," Miller said. "But if you're going to give it color coordination, it doesn't go as well as the black velvet."
The steampunks were crammed in Dorsey's Clearwater living room, sewing corsets and buffing plastic goggles with gold paint, getting ready for the Florida Steampunk Exhibition East starting Friday in Daytona Beach. It's the first of three large steampunk conventions planned for Florida.
The steampunk genre is some 30 years old, but caught on big in the mid 2000s in cities like Seattle and Portland. In Florida, steampunks have infiltrated Renaissance festivals and comic book conventions in full gear, taking on "steamsonas" — chemists and botanists and cult researchers. They didn't have a home because not everyone understood what they were.
"Even people in the genre argue over the definition," said Miller, 23, president of the Tampa Bay Steampunk Society.
It's a home for recovering goths and fantasy fans. It's a Victorian concept of the future, coupled with science fiction, horror, the Wild West. It invokes Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The wildly popular BBC series Doctor Who has steampunk elements. There are steampunk bands, steampunk novels, steampunk shops online.
For some people it's political, and a total lifestyle. For others, it's just about petticoats and pocket watches. For people like Miller, it's a place to fit in.
She had no money as a child, and less confidence. Her teeth were crooked and she didn't smile. When she was in 8th grade, her stepmother gave her a tube of black lipstick from Halloween. Miller wore it for the next eight years. She listened to Marilyn Manson and wore studded chokers.
"People were kind of afraid of me," she said. "People would sneer at me and that was okay."
But Miller wasn't antisocial. During college at USF, she worked to fund braces. Her teeth and posture started to straighten. One day, she saw a jacket online, brown with rivets and buckles described as "steampunk." She started reading more.
"This was everything I always loved. Goth and punk and Victorian. Gears and gadgets. A community."
She cobbled together her first outfit on a 2010 visit to a Pennsylvania Renaissance festival — a floppy corset from Hot Topic, long skirt and tiny top hat headband from Claire's. She topped her head with goggles.
"I was nervous. I thought people were going to think I'm nuts or they're just going to sneer."
She got nonstop compliments.
She made a Facebook page for Tampa Bay steampunks. A ton of people asked to join. Now the Tampa Bay Steampunk Society has more than 250 members. They've gone to lectures. They've picnicked in the park. They're visiting a Victorian tea room in May.
Everyone looks at it differently, Miller said. Some hardcore steampunks wont even allow zippers. On the other hand, someone online called Miller elitist for suggesting My Little Pony didn't seem steampunk. Miller herself is still learning.
"I'm not one to walk around a convention with a bad English accent and be in character all the time," she said. "But if you have a character, it is helpful if you design and wear a functional costume."
She pulled out her sewing machine to start making a vest for her boyfriend. She tilted down her bowler hat and smiled with all her straight teeth.
"Steampunk lets you be whatever you want to be."