So now that you’re all aware of how awesome steampunk is, you’re thinking, “But it’s so awesome! How can I possibly design my own steampunk costume that will be as awesome as everyone else’s?” Never fear, dear readers; I am here to tell you all about the world of steampunk and how understanding it will help you design your very own, very awesome steampunk costume!
The basic premise of the world of steampunk boils down to one simple principle: It is a world in which Newtonian physics are king. Imagine if no one ever bothered to learn about atoms, if Einstein had never come along with his theory of relativity, if the threat of world-wide destruction via atomic bombs had never been made possible.
That is the world of steampunk. It is very science-oriented, but with gears and cogs; pure mechanics. Nothing is digital, nothing is atomic, there is no quantum theory. Perhaps it’s so popular because it can be considered the layman’s science.
What makes steampunk different from most science fiction is the synthesis of science with fantasy—using science to create a fantasy world. Steampunk basically says, “Anything that can be done with magic can be done with science, and we’re the ones to do it!”
Let’s take flying, for example, which is a huge part of the steampunk world. Mankind has dreamed of flying from our birth. There’s the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus, who creates wings for himself and his son in order to escape their labyrinthine prison. There are records of an ancient Chinese man who attempted to reach the moon by strapping firework rockets to a chair. Leonardo da Vinci sketched theoretical designs for several flying contraptions, including one similar to the helicopters of today, but manually powered.
These legends attempt to use science to achieve their airborne dreams. More strongly in mythology, however, is the use of magic to fly. Witches fly on their broomsticks. Sorcerers use dragons as steeds. Vampires gain flight through the use of their demonic powers—in some myths they can fly in human form, and in others the vampire must transform into a bat. Fairies, pixies, and other magical winged creatures are able to fly, and often they can use their magic to give humans that power as well.
In the early 1900s, what had always been a fantasy for the entire human race became a reality. Using science and physics alone, the Wright brothers were able to break free from gravity. Their innovative designs set the groundwork for all mechanical flight as we know it.
And flight is everywhere in the world of steampunk. Great ships roam the skies as they once had done the seas. Entire communities are held aloft by mechanics. There is no magic involved here—just pure, physical science. Almost anything from science fiction can exist in steampunk–robots, computers, cyborgs–they are simply made using mechanical technology, the type of technology which existed in the early 1900s and late 1800s, which means they are simply different than how we normally think of them.
So what does this have to do with costumes?
Understanding the world of steampunk leads naturally to understanding the aesthetic of steampunk. Steampunk predates the Einsteinian physics of the 20th century and focuses primarily on the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Victorian clothing adds most of the influence to the style of steampunk. The women use structured undergarments such as corsets and petticoats. Men often wear vests with tailcoats.
Steampunk is a sexually equal world, so it’s not uncommon to see women wearing trousers or shorts. Anyone who desires will wear hats such as top hats, coach hats, derby hats or fedoras.
Pretty much anything that you find in Victorian clothing is used in steampunk. Prop guns are necessary for every sky pirate to have on their person (they are usually modded from toy guns). Parasols are a popular accessory, but not as popular as that staple and emerging icon of steampunk, the goggles.
Which leads to the second half of this dissection of steampunk style. Because mechanics are such an important part of the steampunk world, it is naturally integrated into the style. Watches are reconstructed, or just taken apart to use the innards to create other pieces of jewelry. The gear motif is very strong—gears are used to make jewelry, or are sewn onto the clothing. Sometimes gear designs are embroidered or printed instead of using real metal gears.
The color of the clothing often tends to reflect the colors of metal—oranges and yellows for bronze, browns and dark reds for rust, gray and black in various shades for other metals. Brown is one of the stronger colors in the steampunk aesthetic—it can also signify wood, a lighter-weight component out of which the outer structures of flying machines are theoretically made. Military colors are also seen, though a little less popular. Metal is used a lot in the clothing, in the forms of decorative studs, d-rings, rivets, chain maille, accessories, or basically any way that one can imagine.
Since flying is such a large part of the steampunk world, reasonably, traditional flying clothing is integrated into the style as well. The goggles I have already mentioned—I can’t even see a pair of goggles anymore without automatically associating them with steampunk. Aviator’s hats and jackets also show up frequently.
This is a nice delve into the theory behind steampunk fashion, but there really aren’t a lot of rules. Many steampunks will choose to have Asian influences to their style, or they will use fashions from farther back in the past, like the Renaissance.
The best way to become familiar with the aesthetic is just to do a lot of research and see what everyone else is doing. You’ll start getting ideas from that and pretty soon you’ll have developed your own steampunk style. Steampunk doesn’t have a strict society mandating rules of fashion.
If you want to do it, and if someone can look at it and say, “Yeah, that does look steampunk,” then there’s nothing stopping you from doing what you want.
All images used with permission.