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Steampunk on a budget. In Steampunk, there are no rules, only guidelines.
By SPerry on Aug 31 2010 Category:Fashion, Clothing

In Steampunk, there are no rules, only guidelines.

When I was first asked to write this article, my response was “sure, shouldn’t be too difficult a task”. I said down at my compPhoto courtesy of Appleblossom Photographyuter ready to put my thoughts (on a subject I thought I know) down on paper and within a few moments I was stuck!
You see, I know about costumes, I make costumes and I wear costumes, so why was I having so much trouble translating my thoughts on a subject I was very comfortable with into the written word? 
It was not long before I realized the problem was not the costume part of the title but rather the Steampunk part. Most genres of SF and fantasy have a defined set of rules and regulations to follow, making costume choice a relatively easy task; Star Trek/Star Wars/Babylon 5 uniforms for example are a particular design, style, color, etc .and are instantly recognizable to any SF fan. 
This is where Steampunk differs. To most people I know, one of Steampunk’s most alluring qualities is the very fact that it has no rules and regulations, no codex of the right or wrong way to do something and this was where my problem was stemming from. How do I aid someone on the ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ choice of SP costume when there is no correct or appropriate choice?
During a particularly late night, fueled by way too much coffee, I was struck with a Eureka moment. Instead of trying to circumvent this no rules facet of Steampunk, I should use it. I had concentrated so much on the Steam part of the name, with its connotations of Victorian dress code and etiquette, that I had ignored the punk in Steampunk. 
For me, this punkiness is not about the anarchistic worldview of government and society but rather a need to express one’s individuality. I soon realized that this is what for many, Steampunk is all about and the primary reason it has so many fans.
So with these ideas in mind, I started again and what follows will hopefully be of help. Let’s start by looking at how a Victorian Gentleman would be dressed according to the dictates of the time and then how we can punk it up ‘on the cheap’.
Most people’s idea of a Victorian gentleman is a top hat, Frock coat (a knee length jacket), vest, white shirt with a stand up collar, colorful cravat, striped trousers, finished off dark shoes, gloves and a walking cane. While this is the accepted ideal, brought to you from those wonderful ‘historians’ in Hollywood,  and taken from the fashions of middle of the 1800s, men’s fashion changed quite a fair bit from the 1840s to the closing years of the 19th century and covered a wider scope than many people realize.  
Let’s break down this perfection of Victorian iconology and see what we can do with it.
  • The top hat. The embodiment of the Victorian gentlemen and a well-made one will cost you an arm and a leg! While these fine pieces of head gear were indeed used by the men of the Victorian era, they were really for very formal occasions and a sign of one’s position on the social ladder; Top hats were very upper class while bowlers were considered working class. By the late 1860s top hats were being overshadowed by other styles including straw boaters and traveling hats (flat caps) and by the end of the century, there were many different styles. The important thing was you wore a hat and to not do so was deemed bad form across all classes.. So in the hat department, just about anything will do (no, that does NOT mean baseball caps are okay) and if you want to be a rebel, simply don’t wear one!
  • The Frock coat. Like the top hat, the Frock coat was a statement of class and used in all formal occasions. Over the years, the frock coat shortened from calf length in the early 1840s to knee length by the 1860s and by the 1890s, both the slack coat (the forerunner of the modern suit jacket), Norfolk coat,  and blazer were being worn for everyday day, though the frock coat was still used for very formal events. As the 20th century dawned, the three-piece suit had firmly taken root in the society and the once noble frock coat was now relegated to the world of politicians and statesmen. So again here, we find that any suit jacket will do; single or double breasted, blazers, over-coats, etc. One of the best places to find these is your local thrift store such as Goodwill.
  • The vest. Victorian and Edwardian society had a very simple rule for the wearing of vests. To not wear one was the extreme height of bad form. A gentleman walking outside without a vest was the equivalent of walking outside today naked! Now, that being said, the style of the vest varied greatly from decade to decade. Starting with quite somber colors and materials in the mid 1840s, through to the flash, brightly colored silken brocade of the latter half of the 19th century, and on to the matching vests of three piece suits. They can be long or short, straight cut waist or pointed, with or without a belt, have cloth covered buttons that match the vest or be adorned with bright metals ones, the variety is endless. This is another item to find at thrift stores. Just about any vest will do and can be picked up for next to nothing. For the truly daring, you could of course forgo the vest completely, though be prepared for looks of shock and horror from those of a delicate nature!
  • The white shirt. The classic depiction of the winged or high collared shirt, while correct for any Victorian outfit, was only popular for a relatively short time during the middle of the 19th century and was used for everyday wear by the gentry before being relegated to the formal circuit. From about the 1860’s, several new collars appeared, including turndowns similar to those found on shirts today. The primary differences being the size of the collar, with early ones were somewhat smaller plus like shirt cuffs of the time, they were detachable (Laundry habits were somewhat lax in Victorian times so collars and cuffs, the only parts of the shirt publically visible, were disposable). Here again, the choices for costume are many. White tuxedo shirts work very well for formal gatherings while colored plain or striped shirts work for other times. A great choice would be the white collar/cuff office shirt that anyone who remembers the 1980s will recognize as a stable part of the yuppie uniform. Once again, check out your local thrift store. For in-expensive tuxedo shirts, Hobby Lobby has them in different sizes for about $16 and with their 40% coupons (available online every week or so), they make for a good bargain.
  • The cravat. Just about every movie or TV show telling a tale set in Victorian times will have at least four gentleman wearing cravats, a wide style of tie held in place by a tie tack or pin (next time you watch anything Victorian, see how many you can spot!) This is another idealized depiction of the time and while many gentlemen did indeed wear them (I have several), they were not the only form of neckwear. Thin ties similar to today’s style, bolero ties, bow ties, and cravats were all worn throughout the Victorian/Edwardian period. Many working class folk would wear a scarf in place of a tie while some people would forego any neckwear (though this was frowned upon by society).
  • Trousers. The only real rule when it comes to trousers is NO center crease! The center crease ironed into just about every pair of suit trousers today is very much a modern style. Any pair of trousers will work as with a Steampunk costume, even jeans*, though you may want to keep the color range muted and dark. Blacks and dark browns/blues/grays all work and for something a little formal, try stripes or even checks (that’s right, think golf pants lol) . Also, try and look for a pair of trousers without a pleated front or turn-ups (again this is modern styling not seen in late Victorian / early Edwardian eras). This is another piece of the puzzle that can be picked up from thrift stores like Goodwill for pennies or even a quick look through a wardrobe/closet is sure to turn up something suitable.
  • Shoes. Like the other pieces of costume discussed so far, shoes are another item where just about anything will do, though try and stay away from sneakers/track shoes. The trick here is to think of what your character would wear. For example, an American may wear cowboy, riding or cavalry boots while a professor or scholar would probably wear something sensible and plain. The least expensive option would be to wear a pair you already own and this is fine.
  • Accessories. While the subject of accessories could probably take up an article by itself, I just want to touch briefly on the basics. Most gentlemen would have a set of accessories that while still individual in taste, were very similar in function.
    •  A walking stick. From plain and simple to elaborate and ornate, gentlemen from all walks of life owned a walking stick. Not only were they a symbol of status, but were also used in self-defense (The Streets of Victoriana were not the safest place to be walking)
    • Gloves. It was considered the height of bad taste for a gentleman to touch the bare skin, hands included, of a woman he did not know. This is one of those rules (did he just use the R word?!) within the Victorian etiquette system and one that being a Steampunk, you could be wild/brash and break, just to ‘buck the system!’
    •  Pocket watch. Rich or poor, every Gentleman tried to procure a pocket watch. Like the walking stick, the higher your social status, the more ornate this was.
    • Cufflinks. As we saw earlier, shirt collars and cuffs were disposable and were constructed from paper/card. Because of this, the Victorian tailors did not bother to put buttons on their cuffs and so to keep them closed cufflinks were used. (In a future article, I will show how to take a basic modern shirt and adapt it to a more ‘Victorian’ appearance, including changing the cuffs to accept cufflinks).
    •  Tie tacks/pins. To hold a cravat in place, Victorian gentlemen used tie tack and /or pins. Again, these were a symbol of status and the richer you were, the more expensive the tack/pin.
    • Jewelry. While it is perfectly acceptable for guys to wear jewelry today, this was something (with the exception of Gypsies and sailor’s earrings) that was not really done. That being said, you’re a Steampunker right? So…
    • Goggles. What would a Steampunk costume be without goggles? While I personally think you do not have to wear them ALL the time (when was the last time you saw a police officer on their way to work wearing full riot gear or a doctor sitting in a bar in a surgical mask?) they have become the ‘badge of honor’ in the Steampunk world and everybody associates one with the other. Any hardware store will sell a basic set of work goggles for welding work, etc. which can be suitably modified for that mad scientist look.
That just about covers the basics I think. The most important thing is to have fun and show off your individual style. Remember, this is a Steampunk costume you are putting together and not Victorian/Edwardian re-enactment attire.  All the pieces of clothing I have mentioned can be picked up with minimal expense from thrift stores or can be found in most closets. The rest can be found online from sites like Ebay and with a little research, can be purchased for little cost.
In my next article, I will look at Steampunk on a budget for the Ladies.

 

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