Introduction: Who the Heck Am I?
I’m an artist and designer, a teacher and an author, a bit of a nerd, and a costuming enthusiast. I’m Laura Meyer, and if you’ve been to TeslaCon or other steampunk events around the Milwaukee and Chicago areas in the last dozen years, you may have seen me.
I always have several projects going on; in 2022 alone I published a book, “The Victorian Collection: Advanced Costuming Techniques”, started writing a steampunk-themed murder mystery game, and showed a line in the 2022 TeslaCon Fashion Show. I believe costuming should be a fun endeavor that’s accessible to all interest and skill levels.
So that’s me… now what is this all about?
Part 1: The Look
Steampunk, essentially, is the idea of taking fashion, design, technology, or other aesthetics from the age of steam power (roughly 1770-1914), and altering, retrofitting, reimagining or anachronistically “punking” it in some way. Steampunk can include alternative timelines, music, and more… but we’ll be looking specifically at fashion in these articles.
However, deciding just what steampunk fashion looks like is very open to individual interpretation. Frequently cited as inspiration are works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, as well as modern films like “Wild Wild West” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”. This is not exhaustive though… and neither will the looks nor costuming ideas found within these articles. In this maker-centric subculture, nothing is less welcome than the statements “You can’t do that”, or “THAT’s not ‘steampunk’”.
So, know that these are common looks, but they are NOT the end of what you can do. (Dieselpunk, rococcopunk and atompunk are proof of that!) Your imagination is your only limit.
That said, there are elements commonly seen at steampunk festivals, events and conventions around the world:
Corsets - Corsets worn as foundation garments, corsets worn as outerwear, renfair style corsets, corseted jackets, vests and tops.... You’ll find every type of corset in a steampunk crowd!
Vests - Vests are a popular and easy way for all folks to get the feel of a bygone era. Depending on the fabric and style, they can say “adventurer/explorer”, “a night at the ball”, or anything in between.
Hats - Hats, another fashion throwback once commonly seen on folks from all walks, are seen in a variety of shapes and with many types of trimmings. From brimmed straw hats, to classic bowlers, to three-cornered “pirate” hats, steampunk enthusiasts enjoy finding or making a topper to their liking.
Goggles - Seen on one of those hats as often as they are on bare heads, goggles appear frequently! They can be plain, painted, lit up with electronics or added onto with all sorts of ephemera, but it would seem that in the steampunk world, there is much need for eye protection!
Rayguns - Okay, not specifically “rayguns”, but the weaponry carried and created by steampunk costumers could hardly be mistaken for modern firearms. From repainted Nerf guns to complex “frankensteined” fabrications, there’s always a story behind one’s steampunk artillery.
Bustles/bustled skirts - Tie-over bustles that add ruffles as you walk away, the construction beneath to give your posterior a boost, or gathering up your skirt front to show off boots or hosiery… whichever “bustling” you’re referring to, you’ll see plenty of it in steampunk fashion!
“Victoriana” - There are costume details and shapes that say “old fashioned” or “Victorian” to us, and these are popular in steampunk crowds; puffed sleeves and shirts with ruffles, lace details or high necks, long flowing skirts, suspenders, gloves, spats, canes with interesting handles, decorative umbrellas or parasols.
Brown! - Yes, the color brown, variants of brown, and earth-tone color palettes. There are plenty of folks who dip into bright colors, and those who favor black, but browns and earth tones can be a good place to start as they’re easy to coordinate with each other.
The steampunk look is accessible to anyone, regardless of sewing or crafting abilities, and those in the subculture enjoy different levels of involvement in the creation of their own styles. I’ve broken it down into three general categories- those who are looking for ready-to-go outfits, those who can take items and modify them, and those who create from scratch. One approach is not better than the other, and this choice often reflects the amount of time steampunkers can or are able to put into it, more than anything else. Steampunk is all about doing what’s right for you!
The Creative Soul
You can have a lot of luck with online shopping sources for basic outfit pieces, but don’t neglect options that may already be in your closet. Review the list above and start pulling items out that may be combined in different ways to make your new look. Also keep an eye out for unique or old-fashioned-looking jewelry or accessories like belts, handkerchiefs, purses/satchels.
You have many resources:
- Online shopping (sites for both new or used items). You can use the search term “steampunk’, sure, but you could also use “victorian”, “edwardian”, or even the name of a character or movie with a style you like.
- Local steampunk events. Besides larger events that have fantastic items by onsite vendors, groups sometimes have costume swaps. Even if you have nothing to trade, attendees may be willing to part with items they no longer use for a pittance.
- Commissions. You may know what you want, but lack the specific skills to make it. Refer to a “Jedi Crafter” friend or member of the community, and get it made for you!
- Friends and family. Have a sibling that sports a different style than you? Already made a couple friends in steampunk circles? They may be happy to let you shop their closets for an item or two!
- Thrift/resale stores. I cannot stress how great resale stores can be for fashion and accessory inspiration! Make a day of it and hit up a few stores in different areas of your city. Antique stores often have great items too, but higher prices as well.
- Look at home. Again, don’t neglect your own wardrobe- looking at your clothes with an eye for steampunk options may yield surprising results!
The Maker’s Mindset
If you have the time and ability to modify clothing or accessory items, more options with less expense can open up to you. Your resources are going to be similar to the list above, but you’ll have more ways to explore with the items you find.
*Note*- (And I know, I shouldn’t have to say this) If you shop the closet of a friend or family member, do NOT borrow an item to modify without stating your intention of changing it!
- Lace it up. Get a fitted, old-fashioned look for a jacket, vest, dress or shirt by putting in grommets or sewing on lacing tape, and lacing up the back with ribbon or shoelace!
- Use a few leather belts to create a custom harness or holster. Connect them with leather shoelaces or Chicago rivets, in existing or new holes. (Thrifted, this can be an inexpensive way to add leather/pleather accessories to your outfit!)
- Found the perfect boots in the wrong size? Cut the back and bottom off and add elastic, ribbon or leather straps around the instep and at a couple points across the calf to make boot covers.
- Bustle it up. A shorter skirt, cut in half and then with the two sides bunched up to the waistband, can make an easy tie-on bustle. Mitten savers, elastic straps with a clip on each end, can make great skirt bunchers if you’re looking to show off those boot covers. They’re easy to recover, too, to match your color scheme!
- Add or change buttons on just about anything, add lace, ruffles or any kind of trim (from your local fabric/crafts store) to give a custom look to a skirt, jacket, dress, etc.
Once you start modifying, you’ll see opportunities for it everywhere! (I take no responsibility in launching this addiction.)
The Jedi Crafter
If you are someone who enjoys (or think you would enjoy) making their steampunk clothing, accessories or weapons/props, the following may provide some additional resources as you explore the many creative avenues the steampunk aesthetic can lead you down:
- Clothing patterns. Truly Victorian is a great place to start for female-bodied patterns, as their patterns are user friendly and include advice on alterations and trimming. Historicalsewing.com/patterns-for-well-dressed-19th-century-gentleman has a solid list of patterns from a number of other suppliers
- A maker’s space. In my city, it is actually called Makerspace, but they are popping up all over… for a monthly or annual membership cost, you have access to a wide variety of tools and machinery that would normally take years and a small fortune to amass in the pursuit of an artisan craft or hobby. From 3D printers to lathe machines to spray booths, they are very useful for new and challenging projects!
- Reach out to your community. Don’t be afraid to ask other steampunks, at events or in online forums, for advice or ideas, or where they got a particular material, etc. Most people love to share about their projects and help others.
- Don’t get too caught up in authenticity. Have fun, whatever that means for you- don’t get bogged down in what fabrics, patterns, colors, techniques would have been used in the Age of Steam (unless that’s how you have fun!). Remember that it’s a reimagining, a punking of the source material, so know that you can be goofy, or whimsical, or fantastical, or sci-fi based, etc. in your personal approach.
Part 2: TeslaCon 13 Edition- The Curse of Anubis!
We’re going to Egypt!
And by “we”, I mean everyone at TeslaCon in the fall of 2023. If you’re not part of that “we” yet, maybe you should be!
This chapter is for the folks that may have existing steampunk outfits or accessories/props, but are wondering what they can do to have some fun with the TC13 theme. Or rather, themes, because TeslaCon is always so story-rich that there is more than one concurrent theme to choose from. The official full title of TeslaCon 13 is “The Curse of Anubis and the Arcane Mystery Machine”, which already hints at so many wild and whimsical crossover costumes that could emerge.
Additional colors to keep on the lookout for:
- Sky Blue and Teal
- Off White
- Camel and Sand
Beyond general color schemes to get you started, there are a number of maker contests to stoke the creative fires.
The contests, as detailed on the TeslaconFans page in a 12/15/22 post, include:
- Water Recycler Backpack
- Head Coverings
- Faux Mummified Animals
- Canopic Jars
- Ancient Egyptian Jewelry
- Camel Hobby Horse
- Cloak of Many Features
These contests are a great way to get some ideas flowing as you put outfits together. Be sure to visit the TeslaCon website for more fashion ideas!
*A note on cultural and historical sensitivity: Egypt is a land that has been plundered by numerous nations over millenia for resources, treasure, and ancient artifacts. Sacred landmarks and remains have been defaced and desecrated, and efforts should be made to avoid ”poking fun” at such relics or events.
Understand that, in “creating” alternative storylines of the past, we should be better, and imagine better. The TeslaCon storyline features explorers, scientists, adventurers and others arriving to help the country and its people, not colonizers or oppressors. Therefore, it should be understood that (while khaki costumes and pith/straw safari hats are ubiquitous to the climate of the region) any uniforms or insignia related to the latter should be avoided.
The Creative Soul
The defining feature in the TeslaCon 2023 theme is the location: Egypt. The desert climate can play a big part in your theme-specific outfits. This can take you in the direction of someone native to the weather, in flowing robes and draped protective headwear, or a visitor from overseas preparing for an unusually harsh environment. The Head Covering, Water Recycler Backpack, and Cloak contests could all be a part of those outfits, should you choose to participate.
But I suggest getting the basics to start with, as a vintage look can be as simple as a shirt, boots and pants. Safari-style jackets are often beige or other natural colors, and tend to have four large cargo pockets on the front. Natural fibers (cotton, linen) will likely look more realistic, but are not necessary. Even if you choose to go in a different direction than the explorer/archaeologist, a light colored suit or skirt/shirt combo can be a fantastic outfit base, and easily found online or in resale stores.
*As with the natural fibers, keep in mind when choosing footwear, what will be comfortable for a full day. The boots may have THE perfect look, but that won’t matter if you need to get them off your feet after three hours!
Once you have the basic outfit pieces, work on some accessories- they can really give that special touch to your look! How about:
- A straw or pith-syle hat, or umbrella/parasol to shade you from the intense heat of the sun.
- A flowing scarf to protect you from blowing sand.
- A cross-shoulder bag for the traveler on the go.
- Useful adventuring items like rope, binoculars, a canteen, a belt pouch, goggles.
- Personal items like gloves, a pipe, cane, pocketwatch, etc.
The Maker’s Mindset
More thematic fashion ideas, as well as a rollicking good time, can be found in the 1999 cinematic masterpiece “The Mummy” starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. I’ve already established, and I maintain, that resale stores are a great source for outfit basics, and that goes for theme-centric pieces as well.
Of course, being comfortable with (or being ready for) making modifications to existing clothing pieces will really open up your options… you can:
- Make a safari jacket into a vest by removing the sleeves.
- Take wide-leg pants and taper them in sharply at the knee to create “jodhpurs” for your aviation/explorer look.
- Add buttons to a jacket, skirt, or vest for a custom look.
- Add netting and a strap to a straw or hard hat to create desert-proof style.
- Repurpose leather belts creatively to make holsters, “ammo belts”, and other accessories.
- “Harem pants” are an easily sewn outfit basic that can
The Jedi Crafter
As you’re honing and refining your look, the details, fit and special touches will take your outfits to the next level. You may find special props, guns and accessories from any number of vendors, or you may choose (if you have the time and desire) to make these items yourself, according to the look you are pursuing.
Some ideas specific to this year’s theme:
- Take the time to age or weather your outfit or accessories, for that “just rolled out of bed and into a sand dune” look.
- Punk up a small lantern or cage, and add a battery operated light, or a small stuffed animal…traveling with an exotic pet?
- Embrace the “arcane” part of the theme with accessories focused on the mystic arts- mysterious looking books, flasks filled with unusual substances, just about any accessory inscribed with strange markings (a search for “arcane symbols” will yield a plethora of options)
- Both ancient and modern Egyptian beading and beaded netting provide a challenge for jewelry or an accessory.
Part 3: ‘Punked Innovations
Okay! You have an outfit- maybe even two or three. You have some accessories, goggles, and have achieved the look you had in mind when starting. You’re set! You even have a fancy outfit for the TeslaCon Grand Ball! What ever could be left?
Well, again, none of this is obligatory, and subject to whatever you find yourself having fun with.
You may choose to take the next steps in your journey with gadgets and some characterization or backstory! Running around a convention with your newly crafted steampunk character is on the creativity level of a live RPG, but without anyone in charge.
Alternately, you can enjoy strolling the con just as much, in your outfit, as yourself.
*A note on steampunk weaponry. PLEASE research ahead of any event that you go to, and find out their specific policy on prop weapons and guns. Every event is different. You will save yourself time, and probably a headache as well. If you would rather not deal with those policies, you could focus on other types of gadgetry for your steampunk ensemble!
The Creative Soul
At some point in the building of your costumes, you may decide you want to start developing a steampunk character or persona (“steamsona”). Of course, a name and occupation is a place that many people begin, but you may find inspiration in a particular item. Gadgets/props can give you a place to start with character development, and the most impressive variety of both will often be found at conventions and events, where you can see them in person before buying.
- Steampunk name generator- just search it online for a wide variety of options. I just used it to come up with ”Lucrezia Philomena Lovegrove”. My friends call me “Creezie”.
- “Airships” to join- Other folks whose characters have similar occupations or interests may have guilds or “airship” groups that you can join. Some of these groups host games, parties, panels or other events at conventions, and can be a lot of fun.
- Vendor items are great for starting your character and building further inspiration- if you’re going to an event, check the list ahead of time to visit vendor websites and get an idea of what you’ll find.
The Maker’s Mindset
Once you have a name and general idea of what your character does for a living (or doesn’t do, as the case may be), you may want to develop your backstory a little more deeply. Alternately, you may decide to create two different characters, depending on your mood, whether you feel like dressing up or being more comfortable, the type of event, etc.
- Connected costume items- Create versatility by coming up with outfit pieces that can be interchanged with each other for your character/s, just like the clothes in your own closet. This would be based on the character’s style and preferences, background and occupation.
- Character-specific props and gadgets- Props, weaponry, and gadgets can be developed the same way, specific to one character’s style and background. Alternatively your more practical items could be useful with every character, like an all-purpose bag, or something that conceals a phone or water bottle.
- Remember that characters don’t equal consent… Just because your character, “Cyrus Batterbee” is a shady PI who’ll gladly break some kneecaps for the right bidder doesn’t mean you can be swinging a bat around. Be considerate of others, and have fun! That’s really what this is all about. Check out the creativity you see all around you, and enjoy!
The Jedi Crafter
Show don’t tell - the best writers can tell you something about a character without explicitly stating it. A well-developed costume can do the same. How can you communicate your character’s occupation through their costume? Their worldview? The type of things that they like to do, the circles they travel in?
Little giveaways - A lot of people find that, as they develop a character, they have small creations, favors or mementos that they make and give out to friends at events. It’s a practice similar to ones seen at burns and festival events. If you have your outfit, props, gadgets and character set, this could satisfy the burning for a creative project!
Get involved! - As you delve ever more deeply into the area of steampunk, history, Victoriana, literature, etc that has caught your interest, spread the knowledge and fun by getting more involved- Plan an outing for your local steampunk group. Host a panel or seminar at an event on that thing that you know so much about now… there are always folks new to steampunk who are wanting to learn more!