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


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

Tipping your Topper

An important and necessary part of any gentleman’s wardrobe is his hat but many people in this modern age do not know the rules of etiquette for the wearing of a hat: when and where to don it, doff it and tip it. For such a simple article of clothing the rules can be a little complex and require a touch of thinking at all times, something that isn’t so acceptable these days I’ve found.

No matter what style or type of hat you are wearing, good sirs, there are some very basic and easy rules to the comportment. Do note that the protocol is different for women as a lady’s hat has not the same construction nor purpose as a man’s.

A gentleman wears his hat out of doors or in public indoor places. Public places include museums and art galleries, shopping malls, lobbies, corridors and elevators of non-residential buildings, hotels, offices and places of commerce, banks, railroad stations, postal offices, pubs, and in the lobbies of theatres and concerts unless the hat is blocking someone’s view and similar. The exception to the restaurant rule is that a man can keep his hat on when seated at the counter of a diner or cafe, or when seated on a patio.

A gentleman tips his hat, which is a simple gesture of lifting the brim and resettling the hat upon one’s head and can be replaced with a touch of a finger or two brushed across the front of the brim, in situations to indicate politeness and respect. One’s hat is tipped:

~ to “say” to a lady – thank you, excuse me, hello, goodbye, you’re welcome or how do you do.
~ without fail when meeting or passing a lady one knows on the street or in a public area.
~ when being introduced to a lady in a public area or on the street, during which time names are exchanged.
~ when passing in front of a church.

Tipping one’s hat to another man is a very tricky proposition. Done incorrectly it is an insult akin to calling the gentleman a lady. There are very specific cases where one can tip one’s topper to another gentleman without getting into trouble though rather than actually lifting the brim, the brush of a finger or two across the brim in an echo of a salute is much more acceptable. These situations are:

~ when passing someone of higher status on the street or in a public area.
~ when stopping to ask a more elderly gentleman for directions or assistance.
~ when a stranger (a man or a woman) shows courtesy to a woman you are accompanying, such as picking up a dropped item or opening a door.
~ a slight brush of the brim can be appropriate to a gentleman stranger, one of known superior position or an older gentleman to say thank you, excuse me, hello, goodbye, you’re welcome or how do you do.

There is some discussion as to the definition of ‘doffing’ though the source of the word is ‘to do off’ or to remove. There are those who would include tipping of one’s hat as falling under the definition of doffing but I must disagree. To doff one’s hat is to remove it entirely from one’s head and hold it in a hand, put it on a hatstand or check it.

When a gentleman removes his hat it is to be held in the hand loosely and casually but with the top facing forward so as to not show the interior lining. If the hat is of suitable shape and construction, such as a crusher cap, a pith helmet or similar, it can be tucked under the arm to trap the rim against the side of one’s chest. Cloth caps such as garrison caps, poor boys, newsboys caps and the like can be folded and tucked into a pocket. One removes one’s hat:

~ when entering a church or during outdoor prayer. When speaking with a clergyman.
~ during the national anthem or when the flag is passing.
~ upon entering anyone’s home or apartment.
~ upon entering an office. Generally this is done in the personal office that you are visiting but it is polite to remove your hat as early as the reception area.
~ in a restaurant either at the check counter if they have one or just after stepping into the dining room.
~ in a smoking room, billiards room or a gentleman’s room at a club or other social gathering place.
~ once seated at a concert or theatre performance.
~ in a court of law.
~ When a lady enters an elevator no matter the building.
~ in any case when the tipping of a hat is appropriate to a lady, but never to another gentleman. When stopping to talk with a lady on the street for more than a few short words it is also considered polite to doff one’s hat.

If there is no check available for one’s hat when a gentleman is seated then the hat can be placed under the chair or one a knee, but should never be placed on a table. It is also considered to be bad luck to place a hat on a bed, a superstition with various possible sources related to funerary and religious ceremonies as well as hygiene. Personally I just find it best not to as you don’t know how others may react.

Do note in the case of uniforms that the military have different rules for wearing and removing their ‘cover’.

H.A. Higgins-Keith