When he first learned that his workplace would be having a Halloween party, and that workers were asked to come in fancy dress, he wasn't very enthusiastic. He thought maybe he could simply wear his Renaissance costume, the one I helped him put together last year for the Maryland Renaissance Festival. However, I persuaded him to consider something a little more elaborate, and possibly more interesting: a steampunk outfit.
For those who aren't familiar with the term, steampunk is a science fiction genre based on the idea of advanced technology in the Victorian era. Steampunk settings feature machines that can do everything our modern gadgets can, and many things they can't, but they all run on steam (hence the name). Thus, steampunk style starts with the basic Victorian look, but then it adds on all sorts of little gadgets and gewgaws that play up the idea of retro technology. Guns and goggles are two very popular accessories in steampunk, along with pocket watches and anything with visible clockwork. (Some people try to give outfits a steampunk vibe by sticking little cogs all over everything more or less at random, but true steampunk aficionados frown on that sort of thing. As one steampunk fan commented on a site I visited: "The parts don't have to move, but at least think about what they'd do if they did move.")
In proposing a steampunk look for Brian's Halloween party, I had a bit of an ulterior motive. I'd already created a steampunk outfit for myself a couple of years ago, and I was hoping to talk him into assembling a matching look so we could wear them together to steampunk events. Brian was more or less indifferent to the idea, but he he said he'd be willing to try it if I could do the work of putting it all together. I felt fairly confident about accepting this challenge, because I'd managed to put together my own steampunk garb using only items culled from my closet, with a couple of add-ons from the dollar store. So before we get into the details of how we crafted Brian's outfit, I'll take the rest of this post to show you how mine came together.
Because of my penchant for quirky, vaguely period clothing, I already had several pieces in my closet that were more or less Victorian in style. Some of these are items that most women could probably either pull out of their own closets or find easily in a thrift store, like this plain, dark, long skirt. (Of course, it's not truly authentic, as it has pockets and an elastic waist, but none of that shows once I've got the rest of the outfit on.) Others are more unusual, like this white petticoat with a ruffle at the bottom, which I bought years ago from Deva Lifewear (now Deva by Cammy). This piece isn't really essential to a steampunk outfit—I could just wear the skirt by itself—but hitching up the skirt a bit to reveal the petticoat contributes to the steampunk vibe by saying that (a) this is a period look, and (b) we're breaking all the rules of the period, when undergarments were definitely not supposed to be seen. (Or heard, for that matter.)
For my upper half, I had this little sort of lace corset top (not really sure what you'd call it) that I picked up at some trendy little shop in New Brunswick where I wouldn't normally go. The great thing about is that instead of modern-style buttons or a zipper, it fastens with lots of tiny little hooks and eyes for a real period look. Of course, in the true Victorian era, this, like the petticoat, would be considered underwear; in the modern era, it would probably be seen as clubwear. But as part of a steampunk look, it can serve perfectly well as a shirt, because as the folks at Steaming Apparel say, the first rule of steampunk is that there are no rules.
There are, however, guidelines, one of which is to follow the basic outlines of the Victorian and/or Edwardian period. That makes this Ann Taylor jacket the ideal thing to wear over the corset, as it's modeled on an Edwardian riding jacket. Just check out all the cool details: the patterned velvet fabric, the rich plummy-brown color, the slightly puffed shoulders, the fabric-covered buttons, the peplum, and best of all, the classic "frog" closures. I had actually been thinking about getting rid of this jacket because I so seldom had an occasion to wear it, but now that it's part of my steampunk ensemble, it will probably stay in my closet forever.
That covers all the basic pieces, top and bottom. However, the real key to the steampunk look is accessories. I like to say that the three cornerstones of steampunk style are headwear, footwear, and hardware. I already had in my closet a hat that had a good basic shape, a sort of beret with a brim (once again, I don't know its proper name) that I bought at a yard sale. However, I thought in its original form, it looked a bit too plain for a Victorian headpiece, because ladies' hats from this era tended to be huge, brimming with feathers and other trimmings (think My Fair Lady.) So I picked up a foofy little headband from the dollar store—the sort of thing that would look ridiculous in most modern settings, complete with black feathers and a rosebud in a sort of bronze satin, and by putting the two together...
...I ended up with a smashing piece of Victorian headgear.
As for the feet, the most popular footwear for a steampunk look is a big pair of boots—preferably tall ones with loads of hardware. I've never owned a pair like that, but I used to have a pair of little low-heeled Victorian granny boots that I bought on eBay, which would have completed this look beautifully. Sadly, though, I had to give them away because I could no longer squeeze my feet into them (turns out that your feet tend to get wider and flatter with age, and mine were pretty wide to start with). So instead I had to make do with these little buckled flats from Rockport (another eBay find), which look passably period when worn with dark tights.
Hardware was the toughest part. Neither goggles nor a ray-gun, those two staples of the steampunk style, seemed quite appropriate with my ladylike look (plus I didn't have suitable materials to make them anyway). So I settled for just a few little trinkets. I slung a black belt with a large metal buckle over the skirt, allowing me to tuck up one corner of it to show off my petticoat, and I draped my neck in a gold metallic scarf, which started its life as a headband from the dollar store. I originally finished off the outfit with the earrings on the left, which I thought looked fairly Victorian with their ornate metalwork; however, when my family sorted through my grandmother's jewelry after her death, I laid claim to the earrings on the right, which, with their clock faces and dangling gears, have an even steampunkier aesthetic. So now my steampunk garb has a little bit of Grandma in it, as well.
Naturally, most women trying to do themselves up steampunk style won't own pieces exactly like these. But the basic process I followed can work for you too:
- Check your own closet first, and look at everything with a fresh eye. Anything with a vaguely Victorian look may be usable. Don't overlook the possibilities of underwear as outerwear, or vice versa.
- If you're missing any basic pieces, try your local thrift shop. This article at Steaming Apparel and this one at WonderHowTo offer lots of hints on what to look for.
- Check the dollar store for accessories to dress up your existing pieces or finish off your outfit.