Friday, April 29, 2011

Suggestions On How To "Steampunk" Your Outfit

I am receiving requests from some performers we have recruited for the first “Difference Engine” Steampunk Convention for advice about appropriate attire.   I would be happy to advise, but this is supposed to be fun, and the only real rule is “play nice with others”.  Actually there is a second rule, sort of, that defies making rules about anything else.  The punk part is not only a rebellion against modern corporate attempts to turn us all into blindly obedient mindless consumer zombies, but also against anyone trying force their views or rules on other people’s efforts at creative self expression.  As such, this is all purely advice about what is common and most likely to be highly appreciated by many in the Steampunk Sub-culture and it’s many sub-genres, but there is no set rule about what is right or wrong for Steampunk ensembles and the “punk” aspect partly refers to the fact that we fully intend as a group to keep it that way!

There are no firm and fast rules for this, but I was asked to put together a list of general suggestions that would not be so much expensive as creative solutions to making any outfit more "Steampunk".  Naturally it helps if you know what type of character, time period and character type you are wanting to represent already.  Others may simply focus on using an inexpensively obtained, or easily altered item they already own that is interesting enough they want to base the rest of their primary ensemble around it.  Either approach works.

Steampunk ensembles are effectively taking historical period clothing and adding science fiction elements to them as intentional anachronistic elements.  They should also show a strong leaning toward adventure and preparedness for anything!  Weapons that are time period are just a functional part of the historical ensemble.  Futuristic weapons or gadgets are needed (at least a little) to point out that science fiction is going on in the outfit.  Some people choose to ignore that on purpose and bring out the futuristic stuff occasionally, but just brazen through on attitude the rest of the time.  

Almost any type of attire from a time period earlier than the 1900s will work.  This would include Celtic attire, such as kilts, or event the modern kilts or utilikilts, but really, anything with tiny pleats or a totally flat front, while appropriate, is a more dieselpunk era or post-apocalyptic era style  (mentioned later) as opposed to "Age of Steam" style.  Victorian era style, or more appropriately called simply Colonial Style (referring to the fact that all the nations of Europe tried to use superiors military power to conquer others and enslave whole cultures for profit) refers to the clothing style of the 1800s and most often European styles.   In these styles men almost always wore vests, often in bold colors, but with slacks and jackets of darker and more severe colors due to the amount of coal dust and soot in the air of industrial cities that would “grey down” brighter colors on outer layers of clothing.   For those choosing to avoid the whole Colonialism idea in their work, the term "Age of Steam" works, but suggests that the culture they choose to focus on is indeed experimenting heavily in this steam power technology as well in their characterization story even though they may (as we always do) portray groups that fight against imperial expansionism rather than in support of it.  Some of the clothing styles; however, may still relate to your characterization regardless.
For women:  Ladies wore very elaborate gowns, often with “hoop skirts”, gloves, hats, etc, but only for those that could afford servants to handle things too hard to manage in such attire.  Corsets were worn, but hidden then, but now we wear them on top of clothing both to show off the most expensive  (for a good one) item and to rebel against “Victorian” rules of propriety, but other rules about courtesy are actually supposed to be observed with the corsets outside of clothing as an interesting extreme out of place element turned on it’s head as what is most desirable rather than most scandalous.  All the more reason to buy a good one as they worn often and for long periods of time.  An economical option is to get a good black Waist cincher style that comes up to just below the bust as it will go with almost anything.  Bloomers and striped nylons with garters were very common, but only ladies of the evening, or modern Steampunks, would lift their skirts high enough to see them.  We do it pretty much constantly making a good pair of skirt lifters almost essential unless wearing a formal gown or hoop skirt.  Skirt lifters can either be the older style with 2 D rings or the easier and more sure to hold style with clips on each end available in many sewing stores, but they should be decorated with Steampunk styles such as leather, brass, gears, etc. as they will be clearly visible.  Bloomers can be made easily by cutting off a pair of pajama pants, (men’s often have more historically used colors and patterns, but use what you like) then sewing on a bit of lace at the end.  If it is sewn to where the lace still has a bit of the cloth under it, the lace is less likely to be scratchy.  Sometimes a sleeve is sewn in for a drawstring made of decorative ribbon or the ribbon is woven through a piece of lace and used as a drawstring to "bloom" or "balloon" the bloomers.

Top hats are commonly used as they were a symbol of power, money, and prestige at the time, realistically bowler hats, of the middle class were much more common.  The poor wore what they could find, but it was more often a worn bowler hat, straw hat, or sailor cap of some type.  As we are doing this for fun, people most often dress more upper class or military.  Why?  Simply because, unlike the real people of history,  they can.  Ladies hats go from stylish, to ridiculously elaborate on purpose, though that came later in the 1800s, but it certainly did happen.  

Then there are the people recreating styles of “Fops” who intentionally overdress in the most expensive materials and the gaudiest colors and styles possible just  to show off that they can.  Such people historically dressed this way to show that they had more money than some of the royalty and were present at every major gathering, but not particularly popular.  It is a rather fun and interesting character to portray however, and allows one to intentionally violate almost every convention of good taste imaginable, since they did this on every level.  It would be a mistake however, to portray this character in a manner that actually offends or upsets people though, as unlike the historical “Fops” we actually don’t fawn over rich people and only respond well to those that are kind and supportive of one another, so our “Fop” characters are generally just loudly dressed, but otherwise very well behaved, except maybe in comedic plays.

While all of these Eurocentric “Victorian era” or “Colonial Era” styles are quite appropriate and very common, we actually encourage regular rebellion against this style and trying out styles from other cultures or other parts of the world as well as from other times and places, but there are some in the community that may look at this as cultural misappropriation if not done in an educated and respectful manner.  It is impossible to please everyone, so use your own best judgment and wear what you like and fell most comfortable wearing that is still interesting and some type of historical period attire.  

A safer option to dress differently is to go for a completely different time period which would put you in one of the many well loved sub genres.  If it is a style older than 1800, it is called “Clockpunk and tends to emphasize clockwork gears even more than usual as that is the age where clockwork is paramount and prior to the age of steam, where more modern gadgets, made with older materials and workmanship style began to appear.  The most common styles of this are sometimes called “Pirate Punk” if the ensemble looks like those seen at “Pirate Festivals”, but with a few futuristic weapons and gadgets attached or the “Steam Nautical” which can be almost any type of sailor from older eras, but usually military naval commanders, as without enough rank and medals (and sometimes even then) bystanders tend to often call anyone nautical looking a “Pirate”.  Even older styles appear in actual Renaissance Festival Garb (which works beautifully for this, but is a bit unusual so far-we are actively trying to change that) with once again, time period weapons mixed with futuristic ones and gadgets as well as goggles, though the hat can stay period appropriate and probably should.

Actually even the early part of the 1900s, such as roaring twenties gangster wear or WWI soldier/sailor, is also very appropriate as a sub genre called Dieselpunk.  This style is loved for it’s adventuresome attitude and the fact that famous figures from that time tended to “ooze glamor and class from every pore”.  It could also include the hard nosed detective types, but often with very unusual weapons or gadgets under their trench coat and sometimes chasing mythical monsters as often as normal criminals.

Wild West Steampunk is the same time period as "Victorian Era", but set in the American old west.  As such one should start with something that appears in "Western films" and is attired suited to the character they have in mind.  Next add once again futuristic elements to weapons or gadgets.  That may sound complicated, but can involve something as simple as wiring on metal rocket looking attachments to the barrel of your six gun, attaching a miniature flashlight laser pointer to the top as a laser aiming sight, making the bullets glows with fiber optic lights, or plugging the barrel with something that looks like a raygun transmitter and wrapping copper wires and unidentifiable gizmos around the weapon.  Don't forget gadgets, goggles, brass, corseting, compass, etc.

The same can be done with Native American attire, (still roughly falls into Wild West era) but expect to get some that love it and a few that question it if you don't look "Indian enough" for their rather "racially minded" sensibilities.  I am Cherokee, but don't always look it, so I avoid the whole thing if I'm not sure to be surrounded by friends that day.  Southern Native people, such as Aztecs for instance, are far less sensitive, so that style, which we have in abundance as we are formally adopted Aztecs and danced with them for years, we will use much more often.  Extreme abuse of their people by other cultures slackened off about 400 years ago (The Virgin of Guadalupe told them to stop it, thereby explaining why she is so important to us Aztecs).  As that was not the case with Northern Native peoples until about 50 years ago, they and those that believe themselves their cultural protectors, are much more sensitive about "white" looking people wearing their traditional clothing and symbols if they don't know you and know that you are really their friends or relatives.

Post apocalyptic Steampunk refers to a “Mad Max” situation where any fabric or material or technology is appropriate, but civilization has been destroyed so much that return to older methods and technology , like steam engines, became necessary.  While more modern materials etc. are acceptable for this, they are generally avoided as they generally are considered unattractive.  As such you are more likely to see armor that is light weight and includes some football, hockey, or motocross pieces, but stripped to bare framework and covered more in leather and brass for appearance sake.  This tends to be darker in look at times and far more rustic and battle worn.  As modern weapons are standard in post apocalyptic period, they can and should show up with this, but should be offset with futuristic items as well.  What is also common is the addition of barbaric looking medieval hand melee weapons to point out the essential barbarous nature of what civilization has become.  

What is more critical with all of these sub-genres is that you try to wear things that look decently constructed of more natural fabrics and/or leather, and that you add both time period appropriate (matching the type of clothing) accents as well as a few obviously out of time anachronistic, generally futuristic weapons and/or gadgets, preferably both.  This mixes historical flavor with science fiction very intentionally.   If someone were a real time traveler, they would generally have to hide the fact, (thus we are more subtle than some as we pointedly get very into character) but it is far more fun to have some elements glaringly out of time period.  The reason these are generally gadgets or weapons is both because they attract more attention, and because they could be put away or hidden, if necessary, when not in use, but pouches and clothing would be hard to hide, so they should generally fit whatever time period your basic ensemble is set for.  Items that will add "Steampunk" aesthetic generally to any ensemble include, but are not limited to: leather (brown most common as the color just looks better with brass), rivets and buckles (brass preferred, but could be nickel plated-silver)

General ideas to add “Steampunk look to any outfit include the following:  Add brass, leather, buckles, goggles, corseting, spats, and interesting hats as well as anything with gears.  I know that may sound flippant, but it’s true.  How good the finished product comes out depends on the amount of thought and time that goes into how you use these items.  Here are a few suggestions.

 Corseting of any type (lacing going through grommets from two sides to draw in an area of clothing to make it more form fitting) can be added to almost any type of garment that is a bit too large in that area and is sometimes even used as pure adornment such as on a hat. Goggles are extremely important as a sign of preparedness for dust storms, snow storms, driving sleet/rain, or other exotic forms of weather (and can sometimes be made functional as well such as with magnification lenses), a period era hat is desirable that matches the type of clothing worn. 

All shoes should be of natural materials (or at least look like they are) of older manufacture design, and lean toward leather.  Please try to avoid tennis shoes all together, but if foot problems make that impossible, then try to get them in a very dark color and cover them with spats that hide the laces entirely.  Actually spats are preferred for all shoes and garments from 1800s forward, and sometimes before that especially if armored with small plates over leather.  Actual armor pieces such as bracers, greaves, helmets, and especially metallic or robotic arms, legs, etc,  can be made very decorative, yet functional, but need to suit the type of ensemble, character, and look, and It also helps, if appropriate to character type, to add anything related to tools, direction finders (such as compasses, astrolabes, sextants), telescopes, brass, gears, clockwork, and (strangely enough) cephalopods (octopi or squid-relates to one of the best loved early source novels 20,000 leagues under the sea and another symbol of literally being “ready for anything!”)

For Ladies:  Actual Corsets or bodices (similar to corsets, but actually intended as outer wear as opposed to corsets which are worn as outer wear only by very disreputable women historically, but are typical and desirable outer wear in the modern re-imagining of the Steampunk subculture.  This is kind of like the tendency to wear lacy mini skirts (very common with Steampunks), or much better, skirt lifters that draw the front of the skirt up high enough to show off garters holding up the hose, yet still cover the front like a mini skirt.  Bustles are also highly desirable, but can be made cheaply by layering ruffles over an old purse attached to a decorative belt or ribbon that can be tied on at the waist.   It was historically thought to add sex appeal if a woman had plenty in the rear.  Today it is a classic symbol of Steampunk wear and if, as I mentioned you sew it over an old purse (obtainable at any thrift store) it has more thickness and is extra storage.  My wife, who is a bit of a “Pirate Punk Fop” likes to say that she likes to store her “booty” over the booty.  Just an idea.  Do what you like, but have fun doing it!  
Admiral Ramon Leon del Mar,  
1st Admiral, Kali's Hourglass

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