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

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The Very Model

Oh my. Apparently I’ve several months to apologize for. Well, I am sorry, dear readers [both of you *chuckle*] for having been away so very long. Many adventures have been had and I have survived each and every one, both good and bad. And soon I shall be off on another. But this evening I am here.

Anyone who actually knows me also knows that I collect uniforms, particularly those with a vintage appearance, and I wear them in public. There are a variety of uniforms available to the Neo-Victorian man: military, police, fireman and more. So is there truth to the saying that “women adore a man in uniform”?

My research has shown that it is mostly true. While there are those ladies who apparently do not find a uniform to be appealing or to be an addition which increases the attractiveness of a man there are more who do. Were I to roughly guess the ratio I would put it at around two-thirds finding a uniformed man more attractive.

Here are eight reasons which were offered by an author and a lady:

A man in a uniform knows how to look after himself. (Who wants to be some guy’s mother?)
A man in a uniform knows how to bathe, shave, and dress himself (I’m not saying the rest of you don’t . . .).
A dress uniform is flattering to the male figure (Ooh-YAH!).
An officer is a gentleman (or at least has really good tablemanners).
The whole demeanor of a man in dress blues, or whites, or whatever is confident and dependable. Very Sexy.
Since a man in uniform knows all about responsibility and duty, he could well be counted on to take out the garbage. Theoretically, at least.
Any military unit that has had to serve in a combat zone anywhere in the world (yep–even in Norn Irn) comes back changed. These men (if not too deeply disturbed by their experiences) (and my heart goes out to all vets of any combat anywhere who go home broken, either physically or mentally) know the value of a sunset. Or a sunrise.
Other uniforms, not just military, work just as well, if the training behind the spit and polish is as extensive. Who is more welcome at an accident scene that a paramedic or a fireman? Women know that they will be rescued by these substitutions for knights in shining armor.

The uniformed man is presented as our ‘modern’ knight in shining armour. Oft the ladies also mention his fitness, his attractive shape and muscular form. There is described a ‘safety’ feeling or a knowledge that a man in uniform will protect a lady or, if she needs, rescue her. And there are wanderings into Mr. Darwin’s realm supposing that a lady looks for the best provider, the alpha male, and that those in uniforms are obviously that sort.

Let us look at the uniform first, shall we?

Beginning with the tunic, that most important part of a uniform ensemble, I have oft stated that a properly fitted military jacket is to a man much as a corset is to a woman: if forces the shoulders back, the spine straight, the chest out and the stomach in. The high collar keeps one’s head up to enhance the posture. The colours of the Victorian military man were often fairly bright and flashy due to a need to see the troops through the fog of war [also known as the dark power smoke of fired weapons] and thus reds, blues, yellows and greens were all popular. Add in trim of gold, silver or copper and other shiny accessories along with dark leather belts and one has an eye catching outfit. During the Victorian era the officers had their own uniforms tailored specifically which, as anyone knows, enhances the appearance, the drape, the fit of a garment.

The pants are usually creased and without pleats, fitting snugly to the waist, thighs and legs. This can make a man look taller than he is, particularly from a distance. Stripes to match or complement the tunic colour also help gain one notice. Generally speaking the pants also did not have pockets which means no unsightly bulges from wallets, keys or what have you. Necessaries were carried in pouches on the belt.

For an officer, in particular, high boots brightly polished and well fitted were necessary. Once again this creates a longer and leaner look of the body. And boots have that particular sound on hard surfaces, a sound that brings many of us back to our fathers, to parades, to marching. It is a strong and aggressive sound.

Add in gloves of snug leather and the appropriate hat and one is set. A uniformed man must know all about hat etiquette which his a showy practice in itself.

Military fashion has oft and long influenced the fashions of civilians. Men’s facial hair has oft been dictated by veterans in an attempt to look more like those who have returned from ‘doing their duty for Queen and country.’ During the Victorian era lady’s riding outfits were very militaristic in cut, buttons and accessories oft including a pelisse for cooler weather, gloves and hat of a distinctly uniform look.

The suit of this modern age owes much to the uniforms of the past as many women will admit that a man looks better in a well tailored suit, and a proper suit is a form of uniform for the working man. Naturally I prefer a three piece suit with waistcoat but even a two piece can, if properly fitted, add to a gentleman’s attractiveness.

Speaking for my self and my self only there is something about putting on a good suit or, particularly, a uniform. The snugness of the clothing which requires that I stand straight in good posture, the many buttons requiring individual attention all shining brightly, pulling on the boots, ensuring that each piece is as it should be: in good state, clean and sharp; all together it adds to my self confidence. A uniform is not a quick to throw on outfit and takes attention and care to ensure that each piece is properly set which means I must attend to my self and my appearance in detail. Together, once that last button is done up and my throat clasp is closed, I walk taller and feel more in control of my own world and self.

There are patterns about for uniforms though they can be difficult to find at times. Military surplus stores sometimes offer vintage uniforms or outfits of a vintage appearance though do shop around for the best price as some stores set a very high value on such things. For daily wear worry not if a uniform is authentic or a reproduction as both will look excellent and only the ‘experts’ truly care.

In conclusion I must say that to any Steampunk gentleman or Victorian re-enactor a good uniform is a must have for the wardrobe.

Here is hoping that I am not so tardy in my next posting.

H.A. Higgins-Keith

It’s What’s On Top

Good evening, gentle readers.

I must apologize for my absence of several months. I was just too busy with offline stresses and responsibilities and wondering, in truth, where to go to next. I thought I may return to the wardrobe as I’ve written about the etiquette of hats but not the things themselves so without further adieu: hats.

Hats were required at all levels of society and for men of all classes. The man’s hat did not fall out of fashion until the Kennedy era when the American’s ‘presidential (royal) family’ disdained hats because they did not like the look or what hats did to their hair. And the Kennedy boys were all about the coiffure at that time.

Let us begin with the hat that everyone believes defined the Victorian era: the top hat. The first top hat made its debut in the late 18th century though there are several arguments as to its origin. The first collapsible top hat was created in 1812 in order to make traveling with the hat easier. The top hat truly took off in about 1850 when Prince Albert set the fashion. Made initially of either beaver fur [for its waterproof qualities], oilcloth or felt, the silk top hat came a few decades later.The hat band can be either silk, wool or felt.

Grey or brown was meant for daywear and black could be worn day or night. Louis Comte, a French magician in 1814, was the first to use the top hat to conjure up a white rabbit. For refined, self-assurance, men would wear top hats tilted at a 10 degree angle, no more, no less. Top hats come in a variety of heights and styles with either curled/curved or flat brims. Generally the rule is that the higher the top hat [within a respectable height] the higher the class of gentleman.

The bowler, or derby has a lower and rounded top, was most often made of felted wool or straw [though occasionally you can find a leather one] and is usually associated with the middle classes of the period. Brown or grey were the predominant colours though the bowler could be found in a variety of heights, brim styles and shades. Designed and created around the mid 19th century, the bowler was stronger and harder to unseat than a top hat. It was also the most popular hat in the American midwest during the Victorian period.

In the last quarter of the 19th century the slouch hat became very popular. Made of felted wool or other cloth it bears a striking resemblance to the fedora though generally with a slightly smaller brim. Slouch hats started among the military, particularly in the colonies. And fedoras ARE proper for men in late period Victorian-wear.

The newsboy cap, the flat cap and similar styles were also popular during the latter half of the Victorian era, particularly among the lower and middle classes [though the upper class would affect a flat cap during the weekend in the country or during summer outings]. Generally made of cloth they were simple, easy to crumple up into a pocket and light, and there was a plethora of styles to choose from.

And finally we have the straw boater. Made of straw, as the name suggests, this style was created specifically for summer-wear, particularly at sporting events but due to its lightness and easy wear it became extremely popular towards the end of the Victorian era. Popular with men of all social classes and standings the rule was that a boater was NEVER to be worn with a black jacket or coat, though a jacket of some style must be worn with the boater.

And then there are the homburg, the pork pie, the smoking cap and a broad variety of military or ethnic headgear available depending on the clothing and occasion.

It is recommended that you find one or more hats, depending on the extent of your wardrobe, for no Victorian man would be seen out of his home without his hat.

H.A. Higgins-Keith

I Am Iron(ing) Man

Good afternoon, dear reader.

A very important skill for the neo-Victorian or Steampunk gentleman is being able to wield that necessary bit of equipment called the iron.

Read the manual and be familiar with your iron. It will have various settings on it which require you to know the composition of your clothing, of what fabric it is made AND if it is ‘safe’ to iron. If you are dealing with period materials then ironing is essential.

The easiest items to iron are ties, handkerchiefs and napkins. Simply lay the item flat on your ironing board and, with the iron set to the appropriate heat setting, press with a smooth, light stroke. If you like creases in your handkerchiefs or napkins, every time you fold them in half run the iron lightly over the folded fabric.

Shirts are a little trickier. Check the care label for the proper ironing instructions and temperature setting. For best results cotton and linen shirts should be lightly dampened with water before ironing (have a spray bottle handy or know how to use the steam and spray settings on your iron). Spread the collar out on the ironing board with the right side facing down. Iron the back of the collar first and then the front. Use the tip of the iron, pressing from the collar points and work towards the middle. Iron the yoke, starting with the shoulder areas first and then do the back yoke. Use a spray bottle with water to keep the shirt damp. Iron the cuffs by pressing inside of cuff first, then the outside. Lay the sleeve flat on the ironing board with the cuff opening up and begin ironing from the shoulder seam down to the the cuff. Turn the sleeve over to iron the other side. Repeat the process with the other sleeve. Iron the body of the shirt starting from one front panel, then do the back and finally the remaining front panel. Use the tip of the iron to press the area around buttons. NEVER iron over the buttons.

Pants are an easier matter. For the most part the Victorian gentleman’s pants did not have a crease in them. There is a lot of discussion and no hard fact as to the invention of the front crease in one’s slacks, but there is some agreement that the crease is attributed to Edward, Prince of Wales during the reign of Victoria, likely in the mid 1890s. Initially the crease was along the side seam rather than the front. Edward also created the style of cuffing one’s pants, wearing the bottom button of one’s waistcoat undone, and several other common fashion styles (including dinner dress with black tie).

Pants without pleats are the best looking unless one is a large gentleman, though depending on the period of clothing you are looking through non-pleated pants can be somewhat difficult to find (in my experience) but do keep looking; they can be found.

Pants are ironed in a commonsensical manner. Do each leg individually. And whether one wishes a crease down the front or not, both styles are very easy to do.

And thus you can swiftly and easily gain proficiency in this simple skill. Though if wielding an iron still boggles you there are many videos and advice pages to be found through google.

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