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How to Dress Steampunk (or Steam Punk)

Updated on December 9, 2016

Dressing Steampunk

This is my friend (in real life) Ben, and he often goes to conventions in armor and clothing he fashions himself in classic Steampunk elegance.
This is my friend (in real life) Ben, and he often goes to conventions in armor and clothing he fashions himself in classic Steampunk elegance. | Source

What is Steampunk / Steam Punk?

Steampunk (sometimes called Steam Punk) is a subculture associated with the subgenre in literature. In a phrase, Steampunk can be described as an alternative time line where diesel and gasoline power were shirked in favor of steam power, where clockwork was chosen above electronic configurations of machinery, and where Nikola Tesla's technology was favored over Edison's.

Where Gothic (or goth culture) is related to harsh angles, lots of black, silver studs and the like, steampunk is a contrasted mixture of clockwork elements, metallic colors (gold, brass, bronze, copper, silver) and soft Victorian features like lace, structured corsets and colors as seen in the picture above! The nice part about exploring the Steampunk culture is that there is a vast amount of freedom to experiment and explore - similar to the thoughts and feelings of the time!

For additional visual aid, these are Google searches of "Jules Verne" (author of many adventure novels such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days) 'The Wild Wild West' (movie featuring Will Smith) and 'The Golden Compass' (a movie featuring Ian McKellan and Nicole Kidman) and part of the His Dark Materials book series by Phillip Pullman). The aesthetic you find from any combination of these sources should give you a good idea.

A Group of Steampunkers (at various levels of expertise)

This is a photo I took while in London doing research on the Steampunk genre. These are the wonderful people I met (I'm the fool in red on the far left) including my friends Ben, Kevin and Susie. They've taught me everything I know about the genre.
This is a photo I took while in London doing research on the Steampunk genre. These are the wonderful people I met (I'm the fool in red on the far left) including my friends Ben, Kevin and Susie. They've taught me everything I know about the genre. | Source

So How Do I Do It?

Not everyone has the tools or the time (or even the know-how) to make intricate armor or fancy eye-pieces like my friend Ben, so many people go a lot simpler. That's totally fine. Going Steampunk is much easier than it looks. All it takes is some smart integration of some old-fashion pieces and things you might even have in your house right now. Repurposing clothing and other items is the key to doing it "on the cheap", and if you have a budget that's a little more flexible, or skills that are more advantageous to the challenge (sewing, welding, tailoring, etc) then a combination of repurposing and crafting is in order.

To Start

See if you have any number of these items on this "checklist" . If you have even a few of them, you can start building your Steampunk look:

-vest (denim, cotton, leather, fake leather, suede, curdoroy...)

-tailored shirt or blouse: can have: darting down the sides, breast pocket optional, lacy details, bold buttons, ruffles, etc

-leather jacket (cut-off in 'motorcycle jacket style or not)

-plain khaki pants

-pin-striped work pants

-plain work pants: black, grey, brown, other dark colors

-dress shoes (for men)

-boots (leather, suede, fake leather)

-closed-toed heels or flats of nearly any color (for women)

-fitted dress (can have ruffles, pleats, lace and other embellishments. Brands should be avoided)

-Hat: beret, newsboy cap, Porkpie, Trilby - though these were fashionable after the Steampunk era, you can still use them

-plain brown, beige or black belt

-trench coat

-wool coat

-fur coat

-chain wallet

-fancy cufflinks

-nice watch

-jewelry that looks 1800s-esque or industrial.

If you do have a budget that's more flexible, here is a website I use to get unique pieces I couldn't otherwise. It runs on the expensive side, but the quality of each item you buy is worth the money. http://www.clockworkcouture.com

This is a good website if you're just looking for corsets. While they have a range of prices and excellent return policies, I want to warn that women who have torsos over 17 inches long may have trouble finding something in their size here: http://www.corset-story.com/

When in doubt, there's also always ebay and Etsy whether you need full pieces or small bits and bobs for embellishments.

Here is a woman who has combined some brown khaki shorts and a regular belt (bought in any retail store) with a pink corset, a Victorian-style blouse and a bolero-style leather vest. The shoes, fingerless gloves and bracelets are retail available.
Here is a woman who has combined some brown khaki shorts and a regular belt (bought in any retail store) with a pink corset, a Victorian-style blouse and a bolero-style leather vest. The shoes, fingerless gloves and bracelets are retail available. | Source

What Not to Wear: Steampunk

Some Guidelines to Steampunk

There aren't any real "rules" on how to achieve the Steampunk aesthetic, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise! The basis of the subgenre is experimentation and freedom to do so. However, there are ways to better hit that particular nail. This video should help you some, too.

So here are some guidelines to help achieve your look:

1.) Color

Many people would argue that Steampunk is comprised of mostly blacks and browns. Not only is this assumption detrimental to the pleasure gleaned from experimentation, but it just isn't correct. There are hundreds of colors available to play with in order to create an appropriately Steampunk ensemble; reds, greens, yellows, oranges, rusts, blues, purples, pinks, metallics - bronze, brass, gold, silver, copper - AND browns and blacks. The only colors I would advise avoiding are colors that are close to neon. This isn't because they "can't" be Steampunk, but because those colors in particular err on the side of Cyberpunk, which, while sharing many aesthetic elements with Steampunk, is a different subgenre entirely.

2.) Shape

The shape of your ensemble is going to look much more convincing if it is tailored to fit your body. It should not matter what size or shape that is - nor what gender you happen to be - because the Victorian elements of the Steampunk aesthetic rely on fit. Clothing during this time was well tailored, especially for those who could afford it. The "bee" shape was most popular here, especially for women as it supposedly gave her the "most desirable shape". Much of the Steampunk genre comprises of crafts made with expertise and love; another reason to veer towards fitted garments. Handiwork and craftsmanship are held in high esteem in the Steampunk genre because it was also upheld during the Victorian era. This is why many "Steampunkers" carry pocket watches, goggles, top hats and home-made 'ray guns'. These items all encompass the epitome of craftsmanship, and many of them may have been made by the Steampunker by his or herself.


My friends and I standing in front of a steam train in London while I studied abroad and researched 'Steampunk.'
My friends and I standing in front of a steam train in London while I studied abroad and researched 'Steampunk.' | Source
This is a miniature top hat that I made according to the tutorial I posted in the hyperlink "mini top hat". An old T shirt, a cereal box, lots of glue, and random odds and ends!
This is a miniature top hat that I made according to the tutorial I posted in the hyperlink "mini top hat". An old T shirt, a cereal box, lots of glue, and random odds and ends! | Source
I made all his own clothes, including the white shirt from an old cami, the vest from an old pair of jeans and the eyepiece is from an old pocketwatch chain attached to a watch face. Added ribbons and buttons.
I made all his own clothes, including the white shirt from an old cami, the vest from an old pair of jeans and the eyepiece is from an old pocketwatch chain attached to a watch face. Added ribbons and buttons. | Source

3.) Embellishments

Since there was such an appreciation for the attention to detail in the Victorian era that carries over today in the Steampunk genre, it is ideal (but still optional, so not obligatory) to add little embellishments to pieces in order to make them special, to make them have character. Embellishments can be done by adding lace, ruffles, bustles, buckles, gears and other clock parts (so long as they appear to be serving a purpose like in the video!) and a lot of other things. The allure of the entire Steampunk genre is the freedom to take ordinary things and to repurpose them how you please in order to achieve something Steampunk. It shows cleverness and an abundance of care placed into your outfit.

4.) Accessories

If you have already assembled a few clothing items but still aren't sure if they are "Steampunk enough", then you have the option to utilize a few accessories to achieve the aesthetic. Common accessories you may encounter at any Steampunk convention are goggles and other interesting eye pieces, top hats or miniature top hats, ray guns, leather holsters, and sometimes alchemy beakers. Some other accessories I suggest you can incorporate are things easily attained or made yourself: take a stuffed animal or a doll / figurine and make it Steampunk clothing (as I have!), carry around a leather-bound, possibly embroidered journal, if you can acquire one, have on you a pirate spyglass telescope. If your outfit has interesting items included in it, then it has character.

5.) A Theme

How better to get achieve 'character' in your Steampunk outfit than giving it a theme? If you have amassed a plethora of possibilities for your Steampunk ensemble, but aren't sure how to combine them, or fear that if you combine them all the outfit will be too 'busy', then assemble them with a central idea in mind. What is your aesthetic supposed to emulate? If you have a pin-striped shirt with a vest, are you a bank teller? If you have a ruffled skirt, high leather boots and some goggles, are you a woman of the night or an airship crewmember? Having an idea as to what your outfit is supposed to represent can help organize your pieces and give you a put-together look. Again, this returns to the thought and care Steampunkers appreciate and strive for in their own outfits.

Don't Just Accessorize! Characterize!

Here is an example of ingenuity and theme: this woman took a character and made her outfit representative. All together she has a thematic costume that is both impressive and colorful.
Here is an example of ingenuity and theme: this woman took a character and made her outfit representative. All together she has a thematic costume that is both impressive and colorful. | Source

In Conclusion

So, to summarize, Steampunk is a subgenre that relies on fit, ingenuity and lots of creativity. Knowing how to take old things and make them new, or to take new things and fashionably antiquate them are part of what the genre is all about. Have fun with assembling your pieces, and if you still need help even after reading this article, then follow the links that I showed you and maybe do some additional research (down below!) Happy Steampunking!

Additional Resources

Some Do It Yourself (DIY) projects for beginners:

Goggles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTeg8rO7SwQ or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2Q6cBuHk8g

Journal Cover: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-TETqg36_s

Bangle Bracelet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqQpyanj0L4 (all her materials you can find at Michaels or other Craft Stores!)

Some DIY Projects for the Advantaged:

Bustle: https://youtu.be/lN5CjZaNH8Y

Ring: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaC4SoCNDnE

Cufflink Bracelet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1dMPVfmE24

Power Pack backpack and other interesting items: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naTLUYCedP8#t=168 (this is part one of a small series)

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