Friday, October 31, 2014

DIY Steampunk Attire, Part 2: For the Gents

When I first thought about putting together a steampunk costume for Brian, my first idea was to do the same thing I'd done with my own costume and look in the closet for some basic pieces to build on. It seemed like it should be even easier to find appropriate pieces for a men's outfit because, as this article at Steaming Apparel points out, "While women's fashion changes remarkably through the years, men's fashion has been comparatively consistent for the last couple centuries." All I really needed to start with was a shirt and a pair of trousers: surely he must have something that would work.

Unfortunately, I found that while the men's clothing of today may have the same basic shape as Victorian-era garb, it tends to fall down on the details. For instance, Brian had several pairs of dress pants (which he hardly ever wears), but most of them have pleated fronts—a distinctly modern detail that completely throws off the look of a steampunk outfit. He had one pair of flat-front pants in his closet, in a fabric that looked fairly appropriate for the period—but since he's recently lost a good deal of weight, the pants were now too big for him to wear without a belt, and belts have only been used for holding up pants since around 1915. (Victorian gents wore suspenders, or "braces" as the Brits called them, to keep their trousers in line.)

Shirts were also a problem. Brian had several simple dress shirts with buttons up the front (which, again, he hardly ever wears), but most of them had button-down collars, yet another modern innovation that looks thoroughly out of place in a Victorian outfit. A couple of the shirts had a "standard pointed collar," which Steaming Apparel describes as "certainly acceptable for steampunk," but they also had pockets on the front, which looked decidedly modern. Of course, if I managed to find him a waistcoat (or vest, in modern parlance), which is a key element of the Victorian look, then it might conceal the shirt pocket—but I couldn't be sure that would work.

So, having had no luck in Brian's closet, we moved on to step 2, which was to check thrift stores. We struck out at our local thrift shop: they had absolutely no flat-front pants in Brian's current size, and no shirts without pockets. Fortunately, we happened to be in Princeton a couple of weeks ago, so we took the opportunity to stop by the Nearly New Shop on Nassau Street. There, we hit the jackpot: a pair of flat-front trousers in a subtle brown fabric (a popular color for steampunk garb) and an absolutely comme il faut dress shirt. One marvelous detail about the shirt was that it had the sort of sleeves that require cuff links, giving us a splendid opportunity to garnish Brian's outfit with a bit of steampunky hardware. The pants weren't quite perfect—they had belt loops, which, as I noted, aren't quite suitable for the period—but we decided to leave them on so that Brian could wear these for dressy occasions in real life, as well. The fact that both pieces could become regular (if seldom-used) parts of Brian's wardrobe helped to justify the $18 price tag for both.

As soon as we got these pieces home, Brian started fiddling with possible ideas for cuff links. After just a bit of rummaging in the basement, he managed to mock up something that looked remarkably appropriate: a simple arrangement of a bolt, a nut, and a couple of washers. It looked pretty good with just the components we had on hand, but Brian thought it would work even better if we could find similar hardware in brass, since a brash finish is another hallmark of the steampunk look. So we popped into Lowe's and picked up four 1/4-inch machine bolts, four matching nuts, and a packet of flat washers, all in brass. At my suggestion, we also grabbed a packet of lock washers, which look very much like gears, since nothing says steampunk like a bit of clockwork. The lock washers only came in stainless steel, but that actually turned out to be a good thing, since the two metal finishes contrasted nicely with each other and made the little cogs stand out. And, since all the hardware could be reused, this additional $5 purchase didn't seem too extravagant.

I'd hoped that one of our thrift shop visits might turn up a vest to finish off the outfit, since the waistcoat was an indispensable part of a Victorian gentleman's costume, but that turned out to be too much to ask for. There actually was one shop in Highland Park that had some, but they were all priced at $60 or more—way too much to spend on a piece that he'd never wear except as part of a costume. Brian suggested just adding a pair of suspenders to tie everything together and give the outfit a more distinctly Victorian look, but these, too, were nowhere to be found in the thrift shops. I searched for instructions online on how to make some, but the only ones I could find either were insanely complicated or called for the use of elastic webbing, which definitely wouldn't look period-appropriate. So I decided to borrow a vest from a friend of ours, who'd worn it years ago as an usher in a friend's wedding. It was a bit too short for my lanky husband, so it didn't quite cover up the belt loops on the trousers, but it definitely made the whole outfit look more complete.

With the basic pieces of the outfit assembled, it was time to turn our attention to accessories, which are what really make the difference between plain Victorian and steampunk. Brian had a pair of suitable shoes, his old black wingtips (which are now old enough to drink legally, and still on their original pair of shoelaces). He also had a very fine hat, a nice wool driving cap that my mom gave him one year as a Hanukkah present. That took care of headwear and footwear; what was missing was hardware, the linchpin of the steampunk look. However, to come up with suitable accessories, we had to have some sort of idea of who Brian's steampunk persona actually was. Brian didn't have any sort of clear character concept in mind, but he said he definitely didn't want to be the sort of character who would carry a gun, which ruled out one of the most popular steampunk accessories right off the bat. Likewise, goggles, a common hallmark of steampunk style, didn't really seem to fit with the rest of the costume.

To me, it seemed like the look we were piecing together style could best be described as "gentleman scientist"—which, after all, is more or less what Brian is in real life. That gave me the idea of using this brooch that I inherited from my grandmother, which looks to my eye a lot like a Starfleet insignia. Brian liked the idea, but he thought that if his outfit was going to be a Victorian Starfleet uniform, he really ought to have some sort of steam-era tricorder or communicator to go with it. I thought perhaps we could mock one up from a cardboard box, but he thought that looked too chintzy. By this time, he was starting to get kind of into this costume idea and to care about how it looked, and his ideal was quality rather than quantity. His outfit might have only a few pieces, but he wanted all those pieces to look as solid and authentic as possible. So I started nosing around the workshop, looking for something that it might be possible to make over as a piece of steampunk Starfleet gear, and I found an old multi-meter (now used only for testing voltages, since its battery was long dead and too obscure a size to replace). With its little dial display, it looked just retro enough to form the basis of a steampunk piece.

Brian, now entirely swept up in the possibilities of this project, threw himself into the task of redoing this gadget in steampunk style. He built a little wooden case to fit snugly around it and finished it in a dark stain. He adorned the case with a few brass thumb tacks, which resemble buttons and add another touch of that always-appropriate brass finish. At the top, he epoxied on two knobs from his old desk, which we'd fortunately thought to save when we redid the office back in March, to give the look of antennas for radio signals. And on the back, he glued on a couple of gears that he scavenged from a pair of toy stirrups that came as part of a cowboy toy set from the dollar store. (I bought this to get the gun, which I wanted for a different costume.) He gave them a quick spray first with the oil-rubbed bronze paint we bought to make over our kitchen cabinet hardware, and while they wouldn't stand up to a particularly close examination, they don't look too obviously plastic.

So here's Brian sporting the complete ensemble (face hidden to protect his anonymity, at least a little). It may not scream "steampunk" the way some of these outfits do, but it's definitely different enough from his usual jeans-and-sweatshirt look to qualify as a costume. And, should we ever have the opportunity to attend a real Steampunk event like the Steampunk World's Fair, held every May right in our neck of the woods, he won't have to show up in blue jeans, which would just be frightfully embarrassing.

Happy Halloween, everyone!
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