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


When Goth Found Brown

Please do bear with me, dear reader, while I rant a little bit.

If you are into all things steampunk then surely you’ve head this mouthful of blather: “Steampunk is when Goths found brown.” I have never heard such a handful of bulldroppings in my many years. Even when said in jest, and many do not do so, it is misleading, misperceptive and just wrong.

To begin with let us examine the goths, particularly those at the start of their own subcultural growth. Back in the 80s when goth sprang from both punk and new wave/glam there were several styles of fashion for those who set the foundations for this movement. It was dark and it was spooky or morbid and it was a little piece of this and a little dash of that. The cybergoths and rivetheads had yet to truly emerge but within the beginning years there were quite a few who did the NeoVictorian look and they did it well. At the better clubs one saw tophats and tailcoats, bustle skirts and lace shawls, walking sticks and parasols and fashions familiar to the steampunk crowd scattered in through the jeans and band shirts, the fishnets and skirts. You can see the possible, if tenuous connection being made by people today who just don’t know better.

The first misunderstanding that this saying fosters is that steampunk is built mainly of goths. While there is a lot of attraction, particularly to the NeoVictorian old school gothy sorts I have found this to be completely untrue. Steampunk attracts many types of people from many walks of life with diverse backgrounds and interests. I have met many in the steampunk subculture who are not goths and would never be goths. Steampunk did not even begin in the goth subculture and so yet again there is a lack of any connection at all.

The second misconception inherent in this saying is the inference that goths did not wear colour. While the predominant colour in a goth’s wardrobe is black there was an array of burgundies, greys, blues, jades, whites and an assortment of other shades and hues beyond the basic ebony. Colour was, for the gentlemen, often worn as an accent while the ladies would wrap themselves in luxurious, deep colours at times. Pastels were rare and brown, orange and other ‘soft’ colours were frequently passed over in favour of bold, solid tones.

Coming from the other side of the statement this little saying also seems to hint that steampunks wear black a lot as it equates them with the gothier set. This can be somewhat true but it all depends on when one takes one’s look from. During the early part of the Victorian period [1837 to 1861] fashion was bright and bold and brassy. Colours were seen everywhere in eye-catching combinations and patterns could be liberally mixed. Checks with stripes or plaid and herringbone, interesting combinations were well accepted. Colours tended to make the males, in particular, look like strutting birds during mating season. Black was worn but browns and greys were often the province of the lower classes and did not make much of an appearance on the gentlemen of this period. After Albert’s death in 1861 the Queen set the tone. Victoria dressed in mourning for the rest of her life and the British people imitated her, as is usual, with much more somber trends in fashion. While there was still colour it tended to be used more to accessorize, as accents or for particular and specific reasons. Blacks and greys also grew very popular as they did not quite so easily show the soot and other particulates that floated in the air and settled on one’s clothing.
Where brown was popular was in the western regions of North America. Browns did not show the dirt or dust that would result from unpaved streets and regular work in the dirty out of doors.

So the next time you hear ‘steampunk is when goths found grown’ do feel free to laugh loudly and merrily, knowing that the speaker has no idea of what they say.

H.A. Higgins-Keith