As a costumer, I’ve always been drawn to opportunities to do my own characters instead of re-creating characters from books or movies. When I started to dress in the steampunk mode, I found it enticingly open. Rather than the expectation that you were Captain Nemo or Artemus Gordon, you could be a new character of your own devising. It delighted and inspired myself and others to find that we didn’t have to be characters from someone else’s imagination, but could make it up ourselves.
As I began dressing up for steampunk events, I realized that one of the best ways to go about creating a look was to start from one of the known steampunk archetypes. An archetype, or reccurring character, is one that people will recognize fairly quickly even though it isn’t someone they can name. In the steampunk genre, this character is usually a main character, a hero or villain with a recognizable style of dress or equipment.
The Adventurer/Explorer:(see above) A character whose raison d’être is to explore the uncharted expanse, trek to the far ends of the earth and perhaps hunt for a little treasure. Dressed for the wilds, they should have sturdy footwear, lots of equipment, and perhaps a pith helmet. Khaki is a good material for them, but leather works as well.
Aristocrat: Often the patron or patroness of adventure, they would dress in a more sophisticated manner, with rich colors and materials. They would be well accessorized with gloves, parasols, or a cane, and a wonderful hat. These characters are harder to make definitively steampunk, but you can add subtle touches in the jewelry or small personal gadgets. Little anachronistic touches will help as well, such as corsets worn on the outside, and short skirts for the ladies.
Aviator: A pilot would definitely wear goggles, a flight helmet, and sturdy boots, and have either a military air, or a roguish one depending on their proclivities. They would most likely be armed against airship pirates…unless of course they are the pirates, in which case they would be armed to the teeth.
Dandy or Femme Fatale: This character class uses seduction to get what they seek: money, jewels, or information perhaps. Formfitting and slightly revealing clothing in sumptuous fabrics, rakishly worn hats, and bits of lace work well for their couture.
Hunter/Fighter: This character will be well kitted out with weaponry that depends on its prey. Monster hunters would be festooned with stakes, silver bullets, or strange arcane looking weaponry. An air marshal might have less overt weaponry, but equally dangerous gear. They would wear leather or canvas. The western look would be quite apt here.
Lolita: The little girl or porcelain doll look is quite adaptable to steampunk. She would wear lots of lace, knee length skirts, caps, ribbons, and gloves.
Military: There are many historical uniforms in this era to borrow from, but you also can go completely fantastical. Faux medals, epaulets, piping, gloves, helmets, and boots all look so regal. Are you an airship commander? A submersible captain? So many directions to explore. All of these options lend themselves to some very imaginative gear and weaponry.
Mechanic/Scientist: Goggles are a must here; for safety alone if not for the fun factor. These characters would be well outfitted with tools of the trade, not to mention wondrous inventions. It’s no wonder that this is arguably the most popular of all the archetypes: you can pick it out of a crowd instantly. You can be quite inventive here with gadgets and gizmos.
I have outlined some of the main archetypes, but these are certainly not all of them. Also, many of them overlap in some elements, so there is no one right way to portray them. Think of this as a jumping off point for your journey of creation. There is a whole world of characters to explore in Victorian science fiction. I hope that you have been inspired to create one of them for yourself.
Diana Vick is the vice chair and co-founder of Steamcon, and has been writing and speaking about steampunk for a few years now at conventions and elsewhere. When not expounding on steampunk, she is an illustrator and costumer.