Every Journey Begins with a Single Step

Good afternoon, gentle readers. Oh, I know, several posts in a same month! I do hope that I am not causing undue shock and surprise.

I was asked, recently, what a new entrant to the Steampunk community can do about building an appropriate wardrobe: what to look for and where to find it. As this blog focuses primarily on fashions for males that is where I shall stay, though many of my suggestions will also be applicable to the ladies.

An easy way to start is to shop in October at many used clothing, costume or party stores where you will find mass produced boxes stamped “Steampunk Costume” of some form or another. Taking parts or the whole of what is within said box and adding your personal flair to it is a fast, inexpensive way to create something that will allow you to step, fully outfitted, into your first Steampunk affair. From there will come suggestions, ideas and thoughts that will swiftly and easily build your wardrobe in an individualistic manner.

One of the first things one can consider is a popular statement that “jeans are period.” Well… yes and no. Denim or dungaree [both cotton based] cloth was used to make trousers from the late 18th century and the 1600s, respectively, and onwards, often dyed blue with an indigo dye. The fabric used was MUCH thicker, stiffer and more coarse than the material used in jeans today. It was specifically used for heavy wear workers clothing as well as long wear trousers in the American mid-west so ’tis best suited to Grease Monkeys and Dustpunks [the Wild Wild West sorts]. Rivets must be done in copper if you’re going with the classic jeans look and the fly must be buttoned. The zipper, as we know it, was not invented until 1937 for trouser flies and though some may point at ‘zippers’ being around since the mid 1800s they were very very different beasts and were not used for clothing [initially they were for boots and tobacco pouches]. Zippers are therefore not period if you are playing a period role. For those who enjoy a modern day Steampunk or a post-apocalyptic character then Bob’s your uncle!

While many will point at various articles of clothing or accessories as the perfect starting point I would rather say that there are MANY places to begin, yet one stands out above all others for me: the hat. During the Victorian period and indeed until the mid 20th century men wore hats. Fedoras, top hats, bowlers, boaters and more. From the right hat an entire outfit can easily flow. More and more millineries [hat stores] have been appearing in major cities over the last half decade and shopping for the proper topper has gotten much easier for the gentlemen. Feel free to try on various hats in order to ascertain which one works best with the structure of your face and your hair. Different hats will impart different appearances. Vintage hats can oft be found in military surplus stores, vintage clothing shops and previously loved clothing stores. A little research on the internet can educate you both on hat etiquette [something I have written on in a previous blog entry] as well as proper care of one’s headwear.

After the hat one of the most important additions to one’s wardrobe is the waistcoat or vest. Again there are many stores which offer a selection of vests to match any outfit. Three piece suits and vests have become popular again and thus many modern haberdasheries will carry a selection. Do ensure that it has a pocket for your watch. Single breasted, double breasted, collared or uncollared, several vests will enhance any gentleman’s wardrobe.

Goggles are oft mentioned as a mainstay and item of note for Steampunks but I would put forth that one should have a reason for one’s goggles to cover both their use and their design. Finding a good pair of goggles is a bit more of a trick and will involve hunting in hardware stores, military surplus stores, vintage shops and all over. There are tutorials on YouTube to make your own or enhance the plain goggles you have purchased.

Accessories are important and, for the gentleman, the selection during the Victorian period was exquisite: cufflinks, pocketwatches and fobs, handkerchiefs, ties and ascots, monocles, glasses, tie pins, brooches, arm/sleeve garters and more. Form and fashion were important as, much like the large and expensive personal automobile of the last several decades, one’s accessories told the world of your success and standing.

A final note on colour: take it or leave it as you wish but do read your history before doing so. In the first half of the Victorian era there was a lot of colour and it was riotous. Dyes were being discovered and blended frequently and fabrics were experimented on and with. People combined checks and stripes, they wore palettes of colours which were bright and clashing, and they reveled in their clothing. Then a combination of circumstances changed everything around 1861. The most notable and best defined change was the death of Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort. With both the passing of the Queen’s mother and her consort that year the Queen dressed in mourning clothing for most of the rest of her life. And the public will oft replicate the trends set by royalty so much public-wear for men was in somber colours. Additionally the great amount of industry, most of it supplied by coal-burning power, resulted in a high level of pollution, smog and particulates in the air. Clothing of grey or darker colours did not show the ash and dirt as much as did the bright colours. More vibrant colours were still worn but primarily in the home or for special occasions such as picnics, outings in the country and vacations abroad. At home and at work most gentlemen sported a primarily darker wardrobe with accents of colour. So never let anyone else dictate that your wardrobe needs more or less colour in it, it is entirely upon your own preference and your vision for your character.

As for building a particular look or wardrobe there are two ways to go about it, I find. One can easily google “Steampunk” or something similar and take ideas from pictures. The other method, and the one I find more enjoyable and more interesting, is to attend a Steampunk gather or event even if you are just in jeans and a tshirt [and do note that t-shirts are not period and should disappear from your wardrobe as soon as possible] and ASK other well dressed folk where they obtained their clothing. Trust me on this: Steampunks LOVE to talk about what they’re wearing and where they found it. You can easily create an outfit or three from your very first event.

I find that many people are confused, hesitant and worried about their first Steampunk outfit and the subsequent wardrobe yet such concern is truly without foundation. There will ALWAYS be someone willing to point you in the right direction.

H.A. Higgins-Keith

Advertisements

Toronto’s Best Kept Convention Secret

I attend many conventions through a regular year. Most of the conventions that I frequent are, naturally, Science Fiction/Fantasy affairs and most occur in Canada though I am always happy to amble across the border to enjoy our southern cousins’ offerings.

There is one convention, however, which I find to be an absolute favourite. Not an easy thing to select given the enjoyment, the entertainment, the wonders and the peoples that I find at all the conventions which I am able to attend, but this one particular convention seems to have the rightness that I, personally, look for in a gathering: Ad Astra.

Ad Astra is a general science fiction/fantasy convention with a very heavy focus on the literary side of things. Thirty-two years of age, she has had her lean years and her fat but she has always offered an incredible experience and this year no less so than any other.

First of all one must look at the people and the social adventure. The folk are friendly and welcoming, they are fun and intelligent and always up for an intriguing discussion. There are many many room parties as well as a convention hospitality suite of a large size and excellent placement and, for the special guests, a green room that offers a wonderful place to sit and chat. Alcohol is abundant but handled in a very mature manner [and for those visitors from the United States may I note that our drinking age here in Ontario is 19!] Conversations break out in rooms, hallways, the smoking area, the parking garage and anywhere that two or more fen meet. It has a relaxed atmosphere which encourages an atmosphere of greater fun and less stress than some conventions I have been to.

Ad Astra is one of the few conventions at which I enjoy meeting the special guests as none here are pretentious or standing atop a pedestal and all seem more than pleased to be able to chat with anyone and everyone. This year’s included Jim Butcher, Stephen Hunt, and Ben Bova as well as a host of other wonderful people among which were to be found Guy Gavriel Kay, Julie E. Czerneda, Kelley Armstrong and Robert J. Sawyer. And many were the writers and creative peoples of all ilk and diversity.

The dealers’ room was well layed out and balanced, presenting books, collectibles, jewellery, clothing and many other items in a neat, compact area. Selection was varied and prices were more than fair.

There are readings, tastings, anime screenings, and gaming as well as a broad selection of panels including relevant fashion design [from corsets to costumes], quite a few on writing [from how to write to crowdsourcing to promoting to finding an agent and more], several steampunk topics, some science, prop making and current trends and topics.

Two items of special note:

The masquerade is well run and not at all large with, generally, about a dozen entrants. This is the perfect place to strut your stuff for the first time in front of an audience who loves to be entertained as well as a great venue for showing off your masterpiece to a very focused group. With Ad Astra occurring at the start of the SF Convention season it’s also the perfect place to test drive your new costume and presentation.

The karaoke on Friday night was just pure fun and those who know me also know that I tend to dislike karaoke quite a bit. However the host, the song selections and the singers made it a perfect way to wrap up the evening before hitting the room parties. I must admit that I truly enjoyed it.

Overall I must highly recommend this convention to anyone who is interested in being a writer, to everyone who enjoys a good social weekend and to all fen who just like a darned excellent convention. I would, and do, offer Ad Astra a very solid 8 out of 10 with their expressed intent to continue improving until they reach the pinnacle.

H.A. Higgins-Keith

[For more information do feel free to visit their website at http://www.ad-astra.org/ ]

One Must Always Watch One’s Words

Good evening, mesdames et monsieurs.

I do thank you for your patience. Life, once again, has gotten away from me. But enough prattle and whine…

Recently I attended a Comic Con held in my new city of residence. It was well attended, boasted quite a few excellent guests, offered an expansive dealers’ room and some very interesting panels. Among the superheroes, the stormtroopers, the apes and daleks and robots and graphic novel characters there were some extremely wonderful steampunk folk.

I ensured that I made it to two of the panels on steampunk: Steampunk 101 and Steampunk Clothing.

I have a slight issue with Steampunk 101 classes having been involved with such for six years and counting at this point. Where are the following courses? Where is Steampunk 201 [So You’re Steampunk, Now What?], Steampunk 301 [The Devil IS in the Details] and the advanced Steampunk 401 [Etiquette Both Personal and Social as Embedded in the Steampunk Subculture] as well as the off shoots into the -02. -03 and onwards? Steampunk has been embraced by the media and the mainstream, something oft heard complained about, and most everyone knows what it is at the basic level: that which is taught in the 101 courses.

I was very pleased with some of this particular course as it did wander through the geo-centricity and temporal focus of the subculture and kicked those doors wide. But there were two points that niggled.

The smallest of the pair, which bothers me only a little, is when people talk about the ‘punk’ in Steampunk without experience or proper knowledge of the punk period and movement. Having lived through it, in it, and around it myself, I must admit that it rankles when Steampunks offer their ‘expert opinion’ on the ‘punk’ facet without actually having a solid grounding in what they are speaking of. But this part of the 101 was easily passed through and over.

The large, and by large I mean elephantine, shock was a statement made by one of the presenters; a gentleman from Montreal. He said, and I paraphrase but it is very close to his exact wording as I remember “The only way to do Steampunk wrong, I tell people, is to buy the box of prefab Steampunk outfit made by the big mainstream corporation with the Steampunk label stamped across the box.”

And to this I must say: Nonsense! Piffling nonsense. Nonsense from both sides and the middle. And unfortunately some people new to Steampunk may have listened to him and will now have the wrong approach.

It is indeed possible to “do” Steampunk incorrectly without buying in bulk. I often tell people who wish to experiment that they should try things and see how others respond. If it is met with frowns and whispers then hie thee back to the drawing board. If it is greeted with smiles and applause then it is successful.

And those boxes sold in chain stores, filled with plastic and cheap fabric bits, with the brazen “Steampunk” stamp boldly printed across the cover? Yes indeed, do feel free to purchase one of those if ’tis your first foray into the community.

It is apparent to me that the gentleman I have paraphrased has never heard the term ‘gateway’.

The goth/industrial subculture was little known and less understood until Trent Reznor’s “Closer” and Marilyn Manson’s stage theatrics and marketing creation. While both are pooh-poohed by most members of the g/i community it did introduce new blood to the clubs and the coffee shops, it brought new folk to the music and the fashion, it continued to inject life into the genre and the aesthetic.

The most common reason I hear for why someone has not made a steampunk gather is that they do not have an outfit. If buying a prefabricated outfit in a box allows them to make that first step into the community, if it allows them to walk into their first gather then I say huzzah to the retailer who supplies them this needed item. From that first step in the new entrant can THEN be offered advice, can learn of sources and styles, can begin developing their own aesthetic and build their own wardrobe. But without that first step, without the gateway then the new blood will not be maximized.

The speaker obviously did not consider access, income and creativity which is not offered equally to all people. He, perhaps unwittingly, has set up a group of steampunks for ridicule: those ‘poor’ folk who start with a box kit. He has pretty much said “you, you ‘real’ steampunks, may look down your nose at those people who purchase it as a boxed set, as they are doing it wrong.”

Can one do Steampunk wrong? I think yes, though I would more use the term ‘incorrectly’ than to say wrongly. Is what is wrong to be found in a box in a large retail location? I do not think it is that easy.

And again I say stuff and nonsense.

H.A. Higgins-Keith