Mon
Oct 3 2011 5:00pm

Building a Steampunk From the Grubby Ground Up

Creating a steampunk ensemble requires imagination, ingenuity and creativity. The New Victorian movement is rarely portrayed accurately in movies in the true style of genre. To say that it “damns the factory but celebrates the machine” is one of the most accurate quotes stemming from the budding subculture. Aristocrats are not fine lords and ladies but rather ship captains, yard bosses, and storekeeps. This is the working class Victorian. Creators, inventors, metal smiths, dressmakers, musicians, and explorers are the celebrities of the time and with that comes a more practical ensemble.

Figure out who you identify or can lose yourself in. After that, you must create the wardrobe to support it. Thrift stores can be a great source to find sacrificial items to be altered. Many a prom dress was reinvented into a Victorian steampunk gown. Do a little research before going in so you can keep an eye out for what makes sense.

If you want to do a period recreation, consignment shops, and eBay can be a great source for authentic late 1800s clothing that is still very wearable. Beware that storage and sun are factors in how well a garment can withstand a soiree. Showcase it knowing that it may be a one-shot deal and have a backup (or at least great underclothes) should it fall away during the night’s revelry.

You can also either commission or buy off the rack at one of the online steampunk clothing stores opening up. A helpful salesperson can even guide you to get pieces that support your ideal self.

For ladies, you can never go wrong with a swag-front bustled skirt, ruffle-front blouse, granny boots and great chappeau. Do remember your foundation when dressing, utilizing a corset to get the hourglass silhouette of the time. An underbust corset helps create that look while giving you more “breathing room.” Literally.

For men, a true gent can never be without coat and tails and a proper topper. Men’s clothing largely hasn’t changed over the years too terribly much. A pair of dress slacks and shirt will go well under a well-tailored frock coat or tuxedo jacket. A bowler or top hat completes a dapper look. Spectacles or a dangling monocle distinguish a literary man from the uneducated worker, and a cravat or ascot can cover up an unsightly or non-period button up shirt. Don’t be afraid to show some frill. The Victorian gent was the first metrosexual.

Some pointers: Like a towel, a steamer can never go wrong if he knows where his goggles are. It’s much like a passport: you should have a pair because you just never know what adventure awaits you today. Flights on dirigibles were as common as train rides in our alternate history, and one really does not fancy a bug in the eye.

Every subculture has had its ”symbol,” as it were. The punks wore anarchy symbols stitched, painted or drawn on clothing and jewelry, and the goths had the ankh. Steampunks unite under the cog to show their avid love for invention, mechanics and time travel. Never be afraid or ashamed to don one.

Not unafraid of social qualms, steampunk-styled ladies are NOT afraid to show their well-fashioned corsets on the OUTSIDE. Cinch up a well-curved waist over a skirt and show off 2” of backlacing. I dare you.

Being a celebration of technology, adventure, hopefulness and travel. It’s not uncommon to see the everyday tinkerer strapped into a homebrewed invention or altered object. Perhaps you could make a better pocketwatch or tie tack. Perhaps they are both the same thing?

Because many period images were in sepia, many steampunks have fancied themselves in browns and blacks. Partner that with the working class appreciation, and they tend to shun the acid dyes of the Victorians. This is not to say it’s not allowed, just know with steampunk, brown is the new black.

Movies to watch for inspiration: Wild, Wild West starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline, the Japanese anime Steamboy,The Prestige, Sherlock Holmes and Firefly. Recommended sounds: The Unextraordinary Gentleman, Tin Hat Trio, Emelie Autumn, and Rasputina.

With your help, we can create a night of Neo-Victorian opulence. A new utopia with elaborate dress, impeccable manners, renewed chivalry, and undeniable kindness. I hope to see you at the celebration.


Donna Ricci is the Captain of the S.S. Clockwork Caravel, the World’s First and Fynest steampunk trading vessel and dry goods shoppe.

This article is part of Steampunk Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1 comment
Bernadette Durbin
1. dexlives
I borrowed an outfit for the recent Girl Genius Ball at the Reno Worldcon, and the comment I got most often was some variant of "I love your bustle." It outweighed "I love your costume" by a significant margin. Why? Well, first of all, it was created by a costumer, so it was properly done. But more importantly, it was one of only two or three bustles on display that night, because apparently bustles are hard and most steampunkers ignore them entirely.

So if you have the ability or the means, I highly recommend getting a proper bustle done because it is less common than many other looks and will help you to stand out a little bit. At the back, if nowhere else. ;)

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