Sartorially Steampunk

Upon attending the Steampunk NZ Festival 2017 in Oamaru I met a few shy souls who clearly enjoyed Steampunk but were somewhat reticent about dressing up. I understand that… for the first Ironfest Festival I attended back in 2014, I was quite reluctant to dress up too. I didn’t know what to wear and maybe I’d make a fool of myself. Three years later I love putting my costumes together. And it continues to be a rewarding journey! 

While I’m by no means a Steampunk fashionista, here’s a few things I have learnt along the way:

1. Start with what you already have

If you are interested in Steampunk, you are probably already attracted to a certain aesthetic that will lend well to your first steampunk ensemble. For me it was a beloved skirt by NZ designer Trelise Cooper (circa 2005). It was black, asymmetrical, with a pseudo bustle bunched at the back. I paired it with a (newly purchased) corset, an embroidered bolero jacket over a plain black t-shirt, pinched my partner’s bowler hat and that was my outfit. Admittedly I bought the corset specifically for the outfit, but just needed the excuse to commit to something I already wanted to buy!

Some items you may have in your wardrobe already that could work with a steampunk outfit:
  • waistcoats - this works well for women if you don’t have a corset, and for men, can be paired with a crisp white shirt and cravat
  • bolero or short chopped jackets (for the ladies) - looks great with longer skirts and help cinch in your waist
  • leather belts - slung low on hips, useful for attaching gadgets, holsters and other treasures
  • military style jacket - think marching band or anything with rows of shiny buttons
  • long striped socks - for the girls, hitch your skirts and show off your legs resplendent in stripy socks underneath; and for the guys, think penny farthing cyclist!
The Trelise Cooper skirt that started my sartorial Steampunk journey!

Back view of skirt to show the twist of material creating a bustle.

2. Search out second-hand

That first time dressing up was such a thrill! From the moment we set foot into the Lithgow showgrounds for the 2015 Ironfest, we were stopped and complimented, asked for photos and even interviewed for the local TV station. I felt like such a star! I was hooked.

After exhausting my wardrobe for Steampunkery items, I started the search for other items to go towards my next outfit. Continuing my sartorial Steampunk adventure was a bit daunting and potentially expensive! To keep costs down I began to trawl through the second-hand shops. I live in a small town in rural NSW. Shopping here in general can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair and the op shops are at times slim pickings, so I didn’t just stick to the charity stores. Fortunately there is also a pre-loved designer fashion store in town. I’ve made friends with the shop owner and asked that she keeps an eye out for clothing specifically for Steampunk outfits.

I also did a bit of online research and found this helpful article: 

And then I turned to online stores, in particular eBay and Etsy. Again, I started with what I know. There are certain local fashion designers that I like, who create clothing with romantic elements which, dressed up the right way, look a bit Steampunk. I scoured eBay for hours looking for clothing by Trelise Cooper, Verge, Dogstar, Boo Radley also shoes by Miz Mooz. I lost whole days in Etsy looking at anything tagged as “Steampunk”.

My second Steampunk costume was a mish mash of items bought from Etsy (googles, bolero and gypsy blouse) and eBay (another Trelise Cooper romantic-style skirt) paired with red boots bought the previous year at Ironfest. I was going for an adventurer-type look and came off looking a bit rag-tag gypsy. I still had a fun time, but in hindsight, didn’t really look all that Steampunk!

Another Trelise Cooper. More Steamflunk than Steampunk!

3. Go Back to Basics

Looking gypsy at Ironfest 2016 was okay… Steampunk is meant to be fun, right? But I felt I’d missed the mark. What the hell is Steampunk anyway? I had to go back to basics, and the best advice I found online was along the lines of "Start with Victorian and embellish.” More online research showed that Victorian fashion is far more conservative than the outfits we wear today. High collared shirts, buttoned up all the way to the top and long skirts. My eBay searches became much more specific - "ruffled shirts" throwing up some interesting results. Eventually I found a fab coffee-coloured frilly shirt (by Kaelyn Max II) with the most amazing sleeves; hardly worn and reluctantly for sale by the previous owner. What a find that was! Not that it’s essential to keep to a specific palette in Steampunk, but I found it easier to keep to browns, blacks and greys. Luckily I didn’t have to wait till Ironfest 2017 to try my next outfit and attended a Steampunk dinner in October 2016 with fellow Steampunkers from the New England. Getting closer to the look I wanted, I wore my newly eBay-acquired, coffee-coloured ruffle shirt, my ol’ fave Trelise Cooper bustle skirt with a brown adventurer type corset purchased at the previous Ironfest Festival. 

Love those ruffle sleeves! The Kaelyn Max II shirt.

4. Invest in Statement Pieces

Along the sartorial journey I had been acquiring some statement pieces. Essential for any female Steampunker is, of course, a corset. Best to do this in person for the ideal fitting. Happily Sydney’s Serpentine Gallery is a regular stall-holder at Ironfest and for the previous 2 years I bought a corset each time - the first in black brocade and the second in brown faux leather. An added bonus to buying in person was that my partner had a quick lesson in how to tie a corset! Other worthy investments have been hats. What is Steampunk without a bowler or top hat? While you could make your own, I personally think it looks so much more polished to invest in a really great hat. Again, best done in person to ensure correct fit and that it suits your face.

Steampunk essentials!

5. Create a Steampunk Persona

It’s been 3 years on this sartorial journey and only now am I creating my Steampunk persona. A lot of “how-to” articles online on dressing Steampunk recommend creating a persona to inform what to wear, but I found I was all at sea with the different Steampunk archetypes and I didn’t know who I was amid all the new information. Along the journey I’ve discovered that drinking tea is an important aspect of my persona. I recently acquired a tea cup holster to embellish my outfit. Also, I have adopted the Doctor Who stance on weapons (no guns) and instead opt to carry a parasol. With a good foundation, my Steampunk persona is much stronger than it would have been 3 years previously. My persona is quite close to my real personality. This isn’t necessarily the case for everyone - Steampunk has the potential for creating a persona very different from your own personality. For me, I like to imagine myself in alternate realities as I am. It makes it more real for me… so, my Steampunk persona is a tea-drinking, time-travelling, suffragette-badge-wearing lady of leisure (the lady of leisure aspect is also based in reality, in that Victorian lady adventurers tended to be wealthy women, with the means to finance their travel).

Steampunk Suffragette Sister!

6. Next steps…

My wardrobe is filling up and my persona has taken shape. The next step for me is to make friends with a seamstress (short of learning how to sew for myself). This will open up more opportunities to create outfits that suit my personality and more importantly fit me well. Remember, Victorian outfits were quite tailored. 

I definitely NEED to make friends with someone who can sew!

If only I could wear Steampunk every day…

The journey continues...
Photo credit: @thecriterionhotel (facebook)


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