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


Gears & Guns

Time to settle in while I expound for a moment on two things in the Steampunk community that confuse me, annoy me and vex me ever so much: gears and guns.

To begin, gentlemen and ladies, gluing gears on something does not automatically make it Steampunk. The outfit worn by the character Herrick in the Syfy series Riese is an excellent example of cogs not making sense. They decorate certain parts of his armour but they don’t do anything. They’re obviously not there for aesthetic reasons and they obviously have no mechanical purpose so why are they attached? Are they some label or badge that says “this is a Steampunk outfit in case you’ve not looked close enough”? I have seen tophats with cogs liberally applied. I have seen armour pieces, breastplates, helmets all with cogs bolted, glued or welded on. I have seen goggles with cogs stuck onto the sides. And often not just one or two but a whole forest of brass or steel gears of various sizes.

Cogs are intimately involved in the Steampunk aesthetic but do take a moment please, readers. Give it a little thought before you start wielding the gluegun as if it were a knight’s favoured weapon. I will admit that I have incorporated cogs into some insignia and one or two small accessories but truly while the Victorians did enjoy elaborate decoration sometimes less is more. Consider a reason for those gears to be part of your outfit.

Not to belabour a point, but I shall, I must say that the Steampunk world is very, very well armed. I have gotten a little tired, personally, of seeing photographs of both individuals and groups in which everyone is pointing a weapon at either the camera or at everyone else. I very, very rarely carry a weapon of any sort and only when appropriate and even then I think about it before strapping something on. I sometimes wonder if in peoples’ personal Steampunk worlds there are constant running gunfights, battles both big and small, and wars between societies and countries. A small part of me understands the allure of the interesting gun, I think, as in our modern society we are not often permitted to carry a weapon of any sort and the Steampunk world seems full of so much more adventure and risk but honestly, does everyone need to be well heeled with the kind of armament required to take down a charging velocipede even when just visiting a friend for tea? It may explain why I see so many flintlock pistols being tucked into belts and boot-tops, that people have raided their grandfather’s armoury for some status symbol that says “here walks a gent or lady that you do not wish to mess with!”

While I agree with Heinlein that an ‘armed society is a polite society’ I must point out that in the places of this world that call themselves civilized and where a weapon is permitted to be carried they are not found on the hips of every person on the street nor do they tend to carry long arms or huge dinosaur dropping pieces of weaponry, but usually it is a discrete and nearly hidden something tucked into a bag or a holster on one’s belt. I wonder that, in the Steampunk worlds of many enthusiasts, when entering a venue for fine dining they may need to check their hat, coat AND rifle. And if one does a little google search on ‘The Polite Society’ one finds that this group, based on Heinlein’s famous quote, consider appropriate only ‘everyday concealed carry’ firearms.

Just a few more things to ponder.

H.A. Higgins-Keith