What is steampunk? That is a question many people have tried to answer. I’m going to write instead specifically on steampunk in clothing, costumes and accessories. So what differentiates a simply cool outfit from a steampunk outfit and when do things miss the mark and why? Before we get to much further into this discussion I want to be clear that this is my personal take on the style and by no means should anyone take what I’m about to say as a hard and fast rule.
The sticky bit about steampunk is it incorporates a number of looks from weird west, multicultural, post-apocalyptic/dystopian, Victorian, etc. this is one of the reasons it can get a bit confusing for people. So do goggles, a top hat and an outfit with a bunch of gears glued on make something steampunk? Is it Goths that discovered brown (one of the quips I really dislike) or what?
The first myth I wish to dispel is that steampunk equals brown. Yes, you can wear brown if you like; if it’s appropriate to the character or costume you wish to create go for it. However, the Victorians loved color, bright sometimes downright garish color. The industrial revolution also meant the advent of plastic and synthetic dyes so by all means have a ball with color if you are so inclined. In addition, many cultures had a tendency to use vibrant color and if you really want to stand out from that sea of brown what better way than with a bright red, vibrant teal, or rich purple?
So you might ask if Victorian equals steampunk. The answer is yes and no, some people will separate neo-Victorian from steampunk. I’m not actually one of those people, I feel it’s splitting hairs a bit to separate the two. Technically if you are dressed completely Victorian with no twist or variation then you are in fact, dressed Victorian. I love Victorian so I’m not about to complain about that however, it’s not really steampunk. In a novel you can create a world with steampunk style technology and have the clothing purely Victorian and that works, but when you are creating costuming you need to bring in some type of element that differentiates you from a reenactor. So you can wear purley Victorian but in order to read steampunk you’ll need to bring in some other element.
Another way to approach creating a steampunk style costume and the one I most often use is to start with a Victorian base and then play with it from there, undergarments on the outside such as corsets or pantaloons, overskirts without an underskirt so you show a bit of leg and then depending on the character throw in a bit of technology.
With variants such as weird west, multicultural, etc. you will most often see, much like I stated with pure Victorian, whatever base style with steampunk elements added to that.
So what does steampunk style technology look like? Well, think of the highly decorative Victorian style and apply that to mad science. The tech may be steampowered, electrical, crystal powered, aether powered pretty much skies the limit outside of microchips.
There is a lot of room to be creative within steampunk. It’s tempting to say there is no such thing as over the top and if you are actually wanting to create a steampunk version of the junk lady from Labyrinth then there is no such thing as too much. However, if that look is not your goal I would suggest at least a bit of moderation. When creating a character think of their personality, what do they do?, What do they like?, Who are they? Use those those answers to create the costume and accessories that tell the story and don’t forget the little details, those are what will ultimately sell the costume.
Now if you’re doing a steampunk version of a well known character such as Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, etc. you need to look at the character and figure out what visual elements are most strongly associated with that character. If there are certain colors carry through those colors, if there are certain symbols or props make certain to incorporate those somehow. Doing that is how you make certain people still recognize the character.
As an example, when I was creating a steampunk version of Rowena Ravenclaw I had a lot of leeway. The character is only briefly mentioned in the books and never appears in the movies. If you look up info online there is a basic backstory and description to work with but that’s it. I knew I was going with the proper Ravenclaw colors from the book so blue and bronze. I knew that I basically have the looks for the character naturally. Since it’s Harry Potter I played a bit loose and fast with the historical elements in my design however, there were a few things I knew I needed. One was feathers, lots of feathers including feather motifs on the wand which also has interlocking gear designs and a mechanical looking claw base and ten yards of navy blue iridescent feather trim. Another was to design a steampunk version of the Ravenclaw logo. I also wanted to translate the diadem into something more Victorian and found an antique hair comb in the right colors, this is one of the very large crown like combs. The funny thing about the completed costume is you can tell how into the series someone is by how quickly they recognize the costume. I’ve had girls see it from the back and recognize it by the colors and feathers alone. I’ve had other people not get it until I point out the Ravenclaw written on the logo on the front of the corset. But for a character as obscure as the founder of Ravenclaw that’s still not too shabby.
So hopefully this has covered at least the basics of steampunk style clothing and costuming, touched on ways to create an outfit and dispelled at least one or two myths.