Mac McGowan, the man behind the goggles recently sported by Adam Lambert on Glee, is clearly a master of his craft.
McGowan has been an artisan for over 40 years. “I started doing traditional leathercraft as a hobby back in 1968, when I was 10 years old. During middle school I made extra money by doing hippie style wrist cuffs, arm bands and pouches for my classmates. At some point I began to realize that this was more than a hobby!”
Later down the line his interests turned to incorporating his love of crafting leather with making historical costume replicas. “In my high school years I was a civil war reenactor and made uniform items and leather goods for that. In college I was in the Society for Creative Anachronism and back then we made our own armor, a lot of which was of leather.”
It wasn’t long before cosplay followed, “During my college years I was also in a very talented group of costume players in the science fiction convention scene. My mom used to let us set up six sewing machines in the living room and bedrooms right before Archon, the big SF convention , and let us use her kitchen to heat thermoplastic for costumes. We built droids in the garage. I owe a lot to her encouragement of our creativity!”
A gifted craftsman, an interest in history, and a cosplay enthusiast, the stage seemed set for Steampunk to find McGowan, but it came in stages, and in different forms. “There are three different “Steampunk” things going on at the same time. First, there is Steampunk, the science fiction subgenre. I was aware of that back in the 1990s. Then there is Steampunk, the art movement. That began at Burning Man back in 2007-09 with the first big art installations in Steampunk theme. I began seeing the images of these huge installations and wondering how to get involved.
Then in late 2008, a friend of my daughter’s who knew I was a leatherworker asked me if I could make him a set of Steampunk goggles. That lead me to the third iteration, which is Steampunk, the lifestyle, the statement, and the fashion. This is the place where steampunk really comes alive. It becomes a way of belief, that old things should be cherished and re-purposed. That new technology should and could be made beautiful and no longer sterile in a design sense.”
From his home workshop, listening to a combination of jazz and music from his favorite Steampunk bands, McGowan creates works of art with his goggles using Steampunk characters to inspire and inform the designs. “I start with a character in mind. What would a gunner on an airship wear? (ans. A monogoggle with a cross hair – his 19th century heads-up display!) Or how about a mad scientist? (a magnifier goggle with or without clockwork enhancement). I try to see the character first, then build the goggle to my imagined functionality.”
The now famous Watchmaker’s Dream Steampunk Goggles is a design that McGowan takes great pride in. “That is a signature design. I started putting full pocket watch armatures into one side of my magnifier goggles when I found by happy accident that I could fit them to the rims, and that the effect was very cyborg-like. All that engraving, the millwork, the satiny finishes were INSIDE the watch case and only someone digging into the watch to repair it, or to specifically look at it to adjust it, would see all that beautiful handwork! THAT’S why I put it on display. Facing outward. We need that kind of dedication to craft today.”
McGowan has taken the positive response to his work on TV in stride and enjoys that he has helped Steampunk reach a broader audience. “I’m happy to have been part of the show. It’s nice to see steampunk fashion getting some recognition in the greater popular culture. I think it helps to introduce more people to the fashion and the lifestyle…so some of the people who saw Adam Lambert in steampunk attire and are intrigued by that will stick around for the literature and the art. It’s a richer field now than it was only a couple of years ago. The aesthetic is still growing and changing and remaining dynamic.”
For McGowan goggles will always be a part of Steampunk, but he has no interest in putting a definitive definition on the genre. “Everywhere you go, someone is trying to “define” steampunk, as if they can chase it down, corner it, put a bag over its head and stick a label on the bag. As long as steampunk stays somewhat elusive it will grow. Let’s hope it continues to run hard, deftly slip out of reach, and defy a formal definition for a long time to come!”