Guest Article by Valarie LaBore
Editor’s Note: When I first came to know Val she was all into Steampunk. Being hesitant but intrigued with this up-and-coming genre I found myself attending her class on the subject a few years ago at Costume College. This article is her condensed version of that class.
First off, don’t let the word Steampunk scare you. It’s not punk, and it’s not all black.
It started in 1980 as a science fiction/fantasy theme based in the mid-Victorian era, where steam was the fuel that drove engines and machinery. It combined science fiction, like time travel and journeys to the moon, during a time when that technology really wasn’t possible except in the imagination.
…you’re a Victorian lady, or gentleman, and by means of a time machine (thank you H.G. Wells), you traveled to the year 1960 and see women wearing pants, or parts of men’s clothing, like shirts and vests. You grab a couple pieces, and continue on your journey.
Now you’ve traveled to the year 2030, and suddenly you’re attacked by thieves, but fight them off. During the struggle, you got hold of a ray gun, and you stick it in your reticule. Oh wait, you liked that backpack better, and it holds more things.
Get the idea? You’ve picked up souvenirs on your travels, then go home and add it to your wardrobe. Or try and rebuild something you found but with only the technology available in the 1880s.
There’s no limit to your imagination because this is a time period that never existed. So you don’t need to worry if you’re getting it wrong. You can’t!
It’s up to you to decide if you want to stay within the origins of Steampunk, in Victorian costuming, or go into the many different sub-genres that can veer off and out of the Victorian age.
It’s hard to just tell someone how to make their costume Steampunk. It’s like someone asking you, how should I do my hair? You need to look at pictures and see what you like.
It’s more of a visual and personal thing, like how far do you want to take it? What interests you: science, air/space travel, future fashion? Do you want to look like a character with your modern job description and technology, but dress 100 years in the past?
Steampunk by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Extraordinary Engines, the Definitive Steampunk Anthology by Nick Gevers
The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo
Girl Genius comics by Phil Foglio
2. Films – (read the books also!!)
The Time Machine
The Golden Compass
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Wild Wild West – Will Smith version but see the old TV series too
The City of Lost Children
Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Howl’s Moving Castle (cartoon)
Fabulous World of Jules Verne
Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension
Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow
Back to the Future trilogy
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (James Mason version)
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Journey to the Center of the Earth (James Mason version)
Young Sherlock Holmes
Rocky Horror Picture Show
Adventures of Jules Verne
Firefly and Serenity (TV)
Themes for Steampunk Costuming
1 . Historical costume angle
a. Do you want to stay with Steampunk historical origins, or branch out?
b. Victorians travel into the future, and bring back technology to build it with their steam engine technology.
c. There is no “correct” costume because Steampunk is not a true historical period.
2 . Do you want to be a particular character?
i. Sky Pirate/Airship Captain or crew
j. Post Apocalypse (like Mad Max)
3. Websites for Purchasing Modern Clothing
4. Making Your Own – Patterns You Can Use
5. Accessory Checklist for Your Character
a. Pick a theme or character you’d like to be.
Determine what your character would use, and think in the future, then make it look antique.
b. Mix historical clothing w/ modern.
Think of traveling in the future and adding to your wardrobe.
c. Add a mix of antique & modern jewelry.
d. Where to buy accessories:
Thrift shops, antique stores, junk yards, online (eBay/Etsy)
e. Colors to use:
Victorian black, browns, grays, are most common, but garish
“Dickens” style costumes could work too, depending on the character that you are creating (snake oil salesman, theater diva or divo, etc).
Add bright colors to it; Victorians loved it when aniline dyes came out.
f. Calling cards
Victorians used them. Add some futuristic designs to them, or your unusual skill that will tell people what you are.
6. Guns – If you’re so inclined to carry a ray gun
There are lots of plastic dart guns and water guns that are very futuristic-looking. Most Steampunks paint or mod up their guns with paint and other accessories so they look more personalized.
Wearing a hat was a part of a Victorian’s costume, so yes, wear a hat & use your imagination on how you could add modern trim to it.
8. Purses/Travel Cases & Shoes
Again, they’re an expected accessory, and there are lots of things you can do to change them, or combine with modern purses and shoes. But don’t go too far and end up looking like just a modern person. Try to stay looking antique.
You don’t have to wear them if it doesn’t make sense for your character. It is the most recognizable accessory to Steampunk, but do you really need them?
If you do, you can make them from aviator goggles, wielding goggles, even swim goggles. But do something to them so they don’t look plastic. True, you could have brought plastic back with you, but where’s the fun in that?
10. Websites for Inspiration:
Article on Dressing Steampunk: How to Get Started
Guidelines for a beginner, Steampunk Fashion on LiveJournal
(Word of caution: entrepreneurs have jumped in and made just about anything into Steampunk to sell it.)
If you’re unsure or not ready to go full-blown Steampunk, do it subtly. Add something modern to your Victorian outfit. You might find it’s kind of fun, like I did, not following the “rules”.
Finally, don’t copy someone’s costume. Take an idea, or inspiration, and then use it to build your own theme. Be a Borg & assimilate. While you’re looking at photos of other costumes, or at people wearing them, something will appeal to you and click in your imagination. Then the fun starts!
These photo galleries of our local Steampunk events were taken by my friend, Jerry Abuan, and I was given permission to share them.
Val LaBore became interested in historical costuming about eleven years ago, and with just basic sewing skills she plunged into it with very little knowledge of what she was doing. Without finding much help, it was a struggle. After discovering & joining Costumers Guild West and San Diego Costume Guild, she began attending the Costume College conventions every year in Los Angeles. She was President of SDCG for three years, has done a few presentations at museums and fashion shows, and shares everything she learns with the world. She documents her costumes as she makes them on her blog (Time Traveling in Costume), and hopes that others can find the help they may need. She said her techniques are not always correct but in the end they usually look good. She has dressed from 1770-1918 but her favorites are the 1880s bustle period.
Have you done Steampunk Victorian? Curious to try (like me)?