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The short definition of Steampunk is: Victorian science fiction.
A slightly longer definition is: what the world would have looked like if the technical revolution had arrived a little earlier.
We have steam-powered machines and robots, Victorian culture and adventurers and explorers, both male and female. Think “Wild, Wild West”, think “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, think “Time Machine” and think Jules Verne.
There is a small but strong Steampunk culture growing in the Western world, and more and more are interested in it. After all, the Victorian times were interesting, that was when women were women and men were men, but this time you get all that but women are allowed to be independent and industrious and wear pants and you get all the comfort of modern technology, only with the Victorian era aesthetics.
If you would like to experiment with this subculture, you can start slow by dressing up as a Steampunk lady or gentleman this Halloween. If you like the experience, you can expand to Steampunk fairs and conventions, then start wearing Steampunk outfits at special events and weekends, and finally wear them every day. It really isn’t too outlandish to wear Steampunk at work.
Some general points
- What ever you choose to wear, remember that it must be in keeping with the Victorian era aesthetics. This is not a question of time travel, but about trying to create a believable illusion of what the world could have been during the late 19th century.
- Don’t wear clothes with a clear label, sign or brand.
- It is a good idea to create a role. “The adventurer”, “the inventor”, “the explorer”, “the aristocrat”, “the engineer” and “the aviator” are all suitable roles for a Steampunk character. “Mad scientist” and “Villain” are also good choices.
- Brown (think sepia) is a popular color, but the Victorians used all colors with pleasure. Mauveine, a synthetic dye based on aniline, was invented during the Victorian era and was very popular. In fact, the more sober and “natural” color scheme of plant dyes was considered boring and dull.
- Cephalopods and arthropods are very Steampunkish motives, both as fabric print and decoration.
- Goggles and a pocket watch are almost indispensable accessories for a Steampunk outfit. You can replace the lack of these by using cogwheels, gears and buckles to decorate your clothes.
- All kinds of gadgets are appropriate, but they should be made to appear Victorian. It is not difficult to paint modern gadgets, so they look like wood or metal, and glue brass details on them, but if you lack the DIY skills, you can keep your gadgets in leather cases.
- Brass instruments, like compasses, telescopes, binoculars and measuring instruments are also very suitable.
- A revolver or pistol is a common Steampunk accessory, and you can transform any toy store gun into a Steampunk weapon with paint and brass details. Adding some wires and coils adds to the impression. It is not necessary though.
- Whether you wear a gun or not, tool belts, holsters and other such things are very useful in helping to create the desired impression.
- Wear a hat. The iconic Steampunk headgear is the top hat, usually adorned with the goggles, but an aviator’s cap or helmet is also typical. You can also use a paperboy cap.
- Other accessories, for both men and women, are gloves, scarves and shawls. Don’t forget the handkerchief.
- Spats are very Steampunkish, and you can even use leather gaiters or bracers with buckled straps.
- Use several belts on top of each other.
- Patterned and wildly colored socks are fine for both genders, but try to choose stripes, diamonds, checkers, or an ornamental pattern. Don’t use socks with cartoon characters, cute bunnies or such.
- Any military items, like military jackets and medals are very suitable, for both genders. I suppose the big metal buttons and passementerie (trimming made using cords and braids etc.) belong to this category.
- Items that make you think of engineering are wonderful, like leather aprons and tool belts.
- Don’t forget the proper underwear. Girls and women should be wearing bloomers or pettipants and petticoats with their skirts and a sleeveless chemise, with or without buttons, and boys and men should wear a one-piece.
Victorian men always wore pants, but for Steampunk a kilt is a nice choice. The Victorian trousers have high waist and rather narrow or straight legs. Jeans would be an acceptable choice, but choose a worn pair that does not have a special dye or cut. Moleskin pants are also good.
You can use any kind of shirt, as long as it has long sleeves and sober coloring. You can even use a long-sleeved t-shirt, then preferably with buttons. The collar should be round. You can use sleeve holders, bracers or roll the sleeves up, but don’t use short sleeves.
It is appropriate to use a vest, but if you don’t use one, you should have braces. You can make the vest of some luxurious fabric, like brocade or jacquard, and add a matching cravat. There are several ways to tie a cravat, and you can use a wide tie or a scarf in stead of a cravat, what ever fits your character.
A jacket is fine, but you can also use a military jacket, duster or trench coat. If you use a trench coat, choose a simple one with refined pattern or no pattern at all in the lining, or one with no lining. Western style trench coat or riding duster is good.
You can use most shoes with laces, but oxfords or boots (with or without laces) are best. Canvas shoes can be used, but not sneakers.
It is common to use hats when dressing up in Steampunk gear, and in addition to the aforementioned top hat and leather helmet, you can choose a bowler or a fedora. It is a good idea to decorate this hat with something, preferably made of brass, like a couple of gear wheels or a brooch, but this is not necessary.
In the Victorian times both genders used jewelry. Suitable items for men are the aforementioned pocket watch, signet rings, cravat pins and cuff links, if one wears a shirt with sleeves unrolled, and a cravat or tie. It is acceptable for men to wear one earring, but it would then be a metal ring, and not a jeweled stud. If you want to wear a wrist watch, choose a simple design and mechanical, analog watch, and wear it on a leather strap. Brooches, especially medals, are good. You can also wear a ribbon in a buttonhole, or a boutonnière.
You can express yourself quite freely with your hairstyle. Practically anything is possible, the usual short and neatly combed Victorian hair is fine, spiked hair is quite OK and if you like, have dreadlocks with added leather straps and tubing.
To create the Victorian impression, women today can dress up much more freely than Victorian women could. Nevertheless, there is one piece of clothing that is a must for a Steampunk outfit for women, and that is the corset. You can get away with a tight vest, but a corset makes almost any outfit appear Steampunkish, because the main requirement is femininity, and there are few things as feminine as corsets. You can also use a wide belt or a waist cincher.
A bustle will also help to create the illusion of times past.
It is fine to use some men’s clothing items, like military jacket or pants, but you need to “girl it up”. Use a bustle with your trousers, or use bloomers as trousers. (For Steampunk the bloomers can be of any length.) Wear a hitched skirt over the pants.
You can wear an authentic Victorian dress, or a reproduction, but these are not very comfortable and practical. One of the concepts behind Steampunk is adventure, and Victorian women used to wear a little shorter and simpler skirt for these occasions.
For Steampunk the skirt can be as short as above the knee, just as long as it has volume in the form of ruffles, rouches, pleats, drapes, hitches and gatherings. You can also use lace, ribbons, tassels and fringes to add to the volume in the skirt and bustle.
Your blouses, vests, jackets and coats should be fitted.
Women’s hats are a much more elaborate thing than men’s hats. You could also use a fascinator, which is something between a hair accessory and a hat.
You can add a parasol to almost any outfit.
If you use a handbag, choose something dainty, soft and round, like reticules and pouch bags, or something elaborately beaded or embroidered. Tapestry purses and carpetbags are a good choice too.
As shoes most laced boots work fine, so does laced shoes and ordinary boots. Your shoes can be of any color, but be careful with the heel. You should have shoes with a heel, and the heel should be either tapered or Louis heel.
Women should be wearing dangling earrings, but not too long, nor too big. A woman can easily wear necklaces on long chains. Lockets and medallions are a popular choice. Victorian women used rings and bracelets, sometimes in excess. Brooches are good, and medals fit women as well. Usual motives were flowers and animals, but to enhance the Steampunk impression, choose a cephalopod or arthropod – octopuses and insects always work. You can also wear a ribbon in a buttonhole, and flowers; corsage, nosegay or posy, are very nice as accessories for women. If you want to wear a wrist watch, it should be analog and on leather strap, but a pocket watch, necklace watch or brooch watch would be better.
The hairstyle is quite free for women too, but it is appreciated, that you have a long hair, either braided, in corkscrew curls or an updo.
Whether you choose a classic sailor costume or pants with braces and a shirt, perhaps add a sweater or pullover, you have to remember two things. The pants’ legs were short, just covering the knee, and boys too wore long socks.
I would put children in pantyhose, both boys and girls, but some boys find this too girly and thus uncomfortable, and they shouldn’t be forced to wear tights. If this happens, you give the boy stockings and call those knee socks. It might help to persuade the child to wear such uncomfortable and inconvenient pieces of clothing if you tell him that this is the origin of Christmas stockings, and the higher the stocking, the more space there is for presents. (Then you have to, of course, keep your promise and fill the stockings (both of them) to the brim, otherwise you will be considered a liar and a cheater, and it serves you right.)
I would choose laced boots for boys, but make sure that the shoes have separate heel and that the sole is made of one material. It really isn’t easy to find shoes for boys’ Steampunk outfits. You can also take a pair of ordinary leather “party shoes” and give the kid spats to “disguise” the modern details, or use simple canvas shoes that are the same color as the boy’s stockings. Don’t use sneakers.
Girls are usually easier to persuade to wear unusual clothing than boys, but even here you need to consider the child’s personality.
Even when it was unheard of that a Victorian girl would wear pants, it is quite acceptable for a Steampunk girl to do so.
A Victorian girl’s dress is usually one-piece, and you can choose the early Victorian dress with fitted bodice and wide skirt that falls from the waist, or the late Victorian dress that is straight and has a belt on the hips. A simple straw boater or beret is suitable for both styles, but a big hat with decorations shouldn’t be used but with the late Victorian or Edwardian dress.
Use either black, white, or striped stockings.
You can choose ballerinas, strap shoes, laced shoes or boots, laced or buttoned, but don’t choose shoes with too thick sole. Also, stay away from metallic shoes and shoes with figures or glitter, or much decoration.
Now your whole family is dressed up for a Steampunk adventure. Have fun!
write by Elwyn