Oct 14 2009 5:38pm

How to steam up your old goth wardrobe

After a glass or two of wine, I threw this topic out onto Twitter—entirely as a joke. But the response was overwhelming … possibly due to the fleeting enthusiasm of other drunk people, for all I know—but even so, enough readers expressed enough interest that I’m going to try and give the topic a shot.

Let it not be said that I was quick to shy away from a challenge, but I’m aware before I begin that this is something of an exercise in futility. No two goth wardrobes are alike, any more than any two steampunk wardrobes are alike. (And just this once, let us never mind all the fractious conversations about what those two loaded adjectives actually mean.)

Therefore, in the interest of keeping it civil and vague, I’ll natter on in a fashion that’s informed by what I’ve done to transform my own personal eldergoth partytime wardrobe into one that works a bit better on an airship.

Since I’m not a dude, I regret to admit that this is going to be a post leaning toward the ladies, or at those who are inclined to dress like ladies. My apologies on this point.

First and foremost, don’t peer into your closet at all that black and shudder, thinking it all has to go. Absolutely not. In there you’ll find some very good basics that submit well to a good repurposing. Have you a good black corset or two? The plainer the better. A low-shag black velour number is just about perfect. Victorian cuts are great, of course, but a simple waist cinch is also handy—and will add that structured touch to a steampunk outfit.

Likewise, a long black coat will serve you well outside of the gothbar, so long as it’s not too overly invested in excessive zippers and buckles. For starter pieces, simpler is always better. Begin basic. You can (and furthermore, should) French ’em up later.

See also: Your black boots. Come on, I know you have some. If you don’t, perhaps you fall outside the target audience of this particular piece. Point is, there’s no need to scrap them in favor of brown boots. Especially if you’re wearing lots of brown otherwise, I daresay that black boots can really pull a look together and keep it from going too sepia, if you know what I’m saying (and I think you do).

I’ve spent a lifetime hearing that one shouldn’t wear black and brown together, but I have developed a sophisticated dissenting philosophy—which can largely be summed up as: “pooey on that.” Black and brown work just fine, especially if they’re broken up with another color. Think a cream shirt with a black corset or vest, and brown pants or a different skirt shade altogether.

Perhaps, hypothetically, and I’m not accusing you of anything here … but let’s just say you own a flowy poet’s blouse. If the lacey bits bug you, take a seam-ripper to them. If it’s too shiny-white (all the better to gleam under the black light, my dear), you can antique it with coffee or strongly brewed black tea. Then take your shirt and tuck it down into pants, or throw a vest or a corset over it. It’s a starter look, yes—but it’s a starter look that can go any number of swell directions.

Speaking of pants, neglect not your denim. Levi Strauss and Co. has been turning out its infamous blue jeans since the 1870s. Rock out with your red tab out, that’s what I say.

Now, moving on to other colors.
Don’t act like you haven’t got any.

Deep, rich blues and purples, and even magentas and pinks—all are fair game in a steampunk wardrobe despite what you may have heard about brown being Where It’s At. The 1850s and 60s introduced widespread use of aniline dyes, which sent Victorians into paroxysms of fashion pleasure. These synthetic shades were an immediate and huge market hit, and they were precisely the colors that most eldergoths like myself have stashed about, peeking through the coal-colored bulk of our old wardrobes.

Don’t get me wrong. Brown is a fine color. Nothing wrong with it at all. I love what it’s done for chocolate. But there’s no reason to use brown to excess—not when you can rock some hardcore black accent pieces and some flashy colors without stepping a single toe over of the Historical Accuracy line.

But don’t get me wrong on that point, either. I agree at least 3/4-heartedly with Steamcon’s tee shirt motto: Steampunk needs historical accuracy like an airship needs a goldfish. But if you’d like to use history as a guide or starting point, you’re welcome to do so. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, but then again, don’t let anyone insist too hard upon it, either.

And now, a note re: accessories.

Let it be known that there’s no good reason an air pirate wouldn’t be keen on a few skulls. Wear your skeletal affectations with impunity; and if you’re no longer as “in” to your similarly styled pendants and earrings, take them apart with a pair of needle-nosed pliers. Up-cycle the results into brooches, stitch them onto gloves or lapels, or weave them into your bootlaces. Throw in some feathers. Everybody loves feathers. Or maybe it’s just me. I’m pretty sure everyone loves hot glue, anyway—and with a little hot glue, costume jewelry, watch parts, or anything else that strikes your fancy, you can fashion your own “fascinators,” badges, hat embellishments, and anything else to customize your look.

And how could I wrap this up without a word on hats? Well, here goes: Top hats. They’re pretty cool. I own about four of them, one of which isn’t even cardboard or anything. There’s no good reason a top hat should go to waste, but if you feel that yours is too “evil” for steampunk, then you can always find neat things to stick on the band. Please don’t resort to gears alone. A gear alone won’t do it. A gear alone on a top hat is becoming the equivalent of fake blood: at the same time both too much, and somehow not enough.

Get creative. Hit up some thrift stores for costume jewelry, buckles, old watches, or interesting cufflinks. Don’t be afraid to buy broken things and don’t be afraid to break things (if you’re only going to decorate with them anyway). Collage some goodies together and use them to address your naked hat situation. Or if you’re feeling lazy, slap some goggles on there and call it an afternoon.

Really, I suppose, that’s the sum of adjusting your goth wardrobe to suit your newfound steampunk sensibilities. Be creative, have fun with it, and don’t let the rules get in the way. Play. Dress up. Remember, like Auntie Cherie always says, “If it isn’t fun, you’re doing it wrong.”

Besides, in my experience the overlap between the goth community and the steampunk community is pretty hefty. To pull a statistic out of my butt, let’s say perhaps seventy percent of us have a pair of fangs hiding in a retainer case, somewhere under the bathroom sink. So do whatever you like, and tweak your wardrobe only insofar as you see fit. There’s always the chance no one will notice.

Cherie Priest is the author of seven novels from Tor books and Subterranean Press, including the award-winning Eden Moore series, Dreadful Skin, and Fathom. Her most recent book, Boneshaker, was released on September 29th by Tor Books.

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Liza .
1. aedifica
Fun article, thanks! (And even I have a pair of black army-surplus boots in my closet, and I was never a goth. It's just one of those things you gotta have.)
2. cmpriest
Haha! Thanks aedifica - and I have a pair of those boots too ... but they belonged to my stepmother, who left the army right around the time grunge was really getting popular.

Very convenient how she and I wear the same shoe size!
3. Nancy Fulda
Hah! I am neither deeply into goth nor deeply into steampunk and I still got a kick out of this article. Halloween, here I come...
4. bloomsinthenight
I really enjoyed this article as I've been a part of the goth community for a while now and have found a new love and fascination with steampunk but haven't had the budget to have a truly steampunk outfit. Your comments were definitely helpful. Thanks!
5. Mark Bukovec
Please construct an alternate history that allows for Victorian-era PVC and I think I'm good.
Evan Jensen
6. eoghanacht
"A gear alone won't do it". Oh lord, THANK YOU for saying that. I'm cringing everytime it's a pile of gears with nothing else.
7. cmpriest
Thanks everyone! And Mark: I'll get working on it.
eoghanacht - You're welcome.

8. Jillian Venters
Besides, in my experience the overlap between the goth community and the steampunk community is pretty hefty.

Ha! Gracious, is that ever an understatement. ;-)

A nicely-done post, Cherie!
9. cmpriest
Oh wow - thank you, Jilly! Coming from you? I am flattered indeed! I bow to the master ... or the mistress, as the case may be :)
10. Cory Gross
Steampunk: An excuse for the Goth kids to wear goggles like all the Cybers and Rivetheads do?
11. Sara Harvey
How did you know about my fangs??? ^_~

Heheh, expertly written and I agree on every point and in fact have transmuted most of my old Gothy gear into Steamy stuff myself.
12. ClockworkZero
Ah, what an excellent post. As a former Goth (okay, I got too lazy to work at Gothdom about 12 years ago) girl I have found a lot of my wardrobe is easily converted to Steampunk wear. Since I make steam/cyberpunk jewelry the accessories are covered.

Some of the simple updates I've done are replacing buttons, adding some brass rivets and taking away some of more dramatic lace.

Here in Toronto we've lucked out since down in Kensignton Market there is a great store called "Courage My Love" that carries well-made, beautiful Top Hats in a large range of sizes.
13. Donna Ricci
Cherie, should you ever find yourself in Los Angeles, I would love to dress you up for a photoshoot. :) I think it would be marvelously fun.
14. Donna Ricci
Ooops. I guess I should add, I own
15. cmpriest
Donna, I'm flattered that you'd even bring it up! (And I totally know who you are ... I own a couple of items from your store, even :) )

Alas, I'm not often in California; I've only ever been twice before, I'm afraid. But if you ever find yourself in Seattle ...
Miss Kai
16. wolfkit
I wish I could remember where I saw it but the quote went something like "Steampunk is just Goths that have discovered brown". Having often been called a Goth merely for the amount of black I wear but never having been one in actuality I must admit to finding this quite amusing at the time.

Currently though, I'm mentally trying to turn Indian into Steam at the moment, what with summer nearly being upon us here in Australia and I have finally succumbed to wearing the brighter colours these wonderfully cooler-to-wear outfits typically tend to come in.
17. Steff Metal
Cherie, excellent article!

I've always been one of those dark side folk (metalhead, not goth) who favors a smidge of Victoriana, so I have a wardrobe full of 19th century military coats, top hats and bustles and fob watches, so it's been easy to put together a few steamy outfits. All I need now is a ray gun.
18. ClockworkRoses
Great article! The lines between steampunk and goth are often blurred, especially with the "romantic" or "vampiric" types of goth you see every now and then. (What with the corsets, top hats, high-necked shirts, long skirts, and the like.)

Let it be known that black is NOT forbidden in steampunk! People call steampunk "goths who have discovered sepia," which is utterly false. It's much more than wearing brown instead of black, and brass instead of silver. A lot of my own steampunk outfits are mostly black. Gears aren't off-limits, but don't stick one or two Tim Holtz gears from Michael's on a pinstripe vest and call it steampunk. It takes a lot more effort than that.

On an added note, Donna, I am currently wearing boots from your store as I type this. They're black, steampunk, and fantastic.

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