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

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

The Well Dressed Man

I am sure that, by now, if you’ve done any research you’ve noticed a plethora of designers and fabricators of clothing and accessories for the ladies. However men too require clothing and, during the Victorian period, there are a number of necessary accessories. Depending on the look you are striving for there are some very necessary items, gentlemen. Let us start with the lower classes and work our way up.

The Grease-Monkey

Good strong boots, tools, gloves and goggles. This group of men would, beyond nearly all others, actually have reason to have goggles about their person. A respirator as well would be very likely. Headware is important and may be job related or for wearing home. Denim and corduroy are both period and durable fabrics. Buttons of bone, brass, copper or steel for all closures. Among the clerical and service industries a good set of sleeve garters is important. Rarely ever a watch as the factory whistle will tell the time for you. If you have an idea to be Scottish, which many of the best engineers were, then you can substitute a solid and heavy wear kilt in for your slacks. You could, should you wish, even go with a utilikilt or other non-tartan ‘work’ version as this IS an alternate history, after all. Suspenders can be worn to hang loose or shouldered.

The Middle Classes

Cufflinks, a passable pocket watch, a sack suit, and a hat. Perhaps a derby, a homburg or a trilby, a slouch hat or an ivy, a sporting cap or a gambler’s. Boaters are also to be considered for good-weather wear. And even a fedora or a cowboy’s hat would do, depending. An umbrella is a necessity for poor weather. Add in a car coat or a trench and you are set. Of course no man would be seen without a tie of some sort. Suspenders are normal rather than belts.

The Gentleman

Here we have a wide range to play with and this is where most people do aim. A good pocket watch with a fob chain, cufflinks, tie clip or pin, handkerchief, and other little accessories are important. It is in the small details that the gentleman stands out. Add a tophat or a John Bull, perhaps a bowler or a small brim fedora. Gentlemen stay away from the poorboy or newsboy caps for the most part. A tie or an ascot. Good shoes with spats or riding boots. A gentleman never went outside without gloves. A walking stick or an umbrella depending on the forecast for the day. A frock or morning coat for daytime wear, a set of tails for the evening. A town coat, car coat or duster but never a sack coat unless you’re going very late period though a cutaway jacket is never a wrong choice. A waistcoat or vest is necessary. Suspenders over belts but a well fitted pair of pants needs neither.

As a general rule for any of the classes go colourful in the early period and sombre in the later. While black, brown and grey are all excellent and oft selected choices the right flash of colour in a waistcoat or in one’s accessories can allow one to stand out from the crowd.

Stepping off to the right we have:

The Military Man

What is it about a man in uniform? The back is held straighter, the shoulders are out, the stomach is in and there is a confident swagger that is natural. A well appointed and fitted uniform definitely catches the eye.
One can do many things depending on if you are dressing for field, garrison, work detail or formal occasion.
For the field and garrison the main difference is how much kit one is carrying. Otherwise it is uniform, shako or cap of some form, belt and pouches, boots or shoes and spats. For colour ideas check various online sources for period uniforms as there are a lot. Work detail is even simpler with less belt and pouches and a very basic look often in lighter fabrics.
But full dress? Now here we can shine. Boots or shoes polished to a high gloss with the option for spurs. Tunic, gloves, sashes, medals and all sorts of glitter and gleam. A cap or hat, of course, whether shako or crusher/peaked. An officer would never appear fully armed at a fete or a social but may bear a ceremonial piece.

And where would you find what you need to make yourself up properly? Locally look at used clothing stores, military surplus stores, antique stores and flea markets or bazaars. Online there are a handful of places including:

http://www.gentlemansemporium.com/gentlemans.php

http://www.milanoo.com/

http://www.sutlers.co.uk/acatalog/index.html

And for a bit more reading, here’s one of several sources which I have enjoyed:

http://www.victorianweb.org/art/costume/index.html

But one important thing to remember, gentlemen, is that Victorian Great Britain tended to have chill, drizzly weather moreso than any other. A lot of the clothing was of wool and worn in layers. When dressing for other climes please keep in mind that Victorian clothing does get very very warm.

H.A. Higgins-Keith