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Color in Steampunk

Ladies and gentlemen,

Recently I have noticed some people who have developed the mistaken impression that steampunk cannot have color (that it must be some kind of monochrome, like grayscale or brown), which has led to their second-guessing their wonderful, colorful, truly steampunk creations and outfits. I would like to take this moment to reassure everyone that this is not, in fact, the case. Steampunk is not brown, or black, or white, or gray, or any other single tone. It can sometimes be misleading given that most of the photographic and film references for the 19th and early 20th centuries are either in sepia tone or grayscale, but in fact the Victorians and Edwardians were color-loving people. Women's clothing especially was very colorful, and while men's clothing grew more somber as the decade progressed, they still found ways to keep things interesting. And of course, in a steampunk setting, access to more vibrant chemical dyes, machine-woven patterned fabric and international trade all make it possible (indeed, likely) for a "steampunk outfit" to be more colorful, more vibrant, more intricate or highly decorated than even a period Victorian outfit.

Because of the largely monochromatic status of photography during this age, paintings and colored drawings are generally the easiest way to get a feel for the color of clothing, and these make remarkable references.

-G. D. Falksen


( 67 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 18th, 2010 05:20 am (UTC)
I can only say YES!! THIS!!!

I have no idea why "too colourful" is ever a worry when it comes to steampunk stuff.
Feb. 18th, 2010 08:50 pm (UTC)
It's quite true. "Too colorful" is never a problem in steampunk, but sometimes people second guess themselves in that regard and so I prefer to periodically reassure people that they're doing it right and that they have more options rather than fewer.
(no subject) - full_metal_ox - Feb. 18th, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 18th, 2010 05:23 am (UTC)
Well said sir! Colour! It's the way forward.
Feb. 18th, 2010 08:53 pm (UTC)
Thank you sir! Keeping up the colours, what!
Feb. 18th, 2010 05:26 am (UTC)
Oh ! That floral-patterned ballgown makes my heart go pitter-pat. Thank you for this post!
Feb. 18th, 2010 05:34 am (UTC)
Lovely pictures! Where did you find them all?
Feb. 18th, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC)
Looks like a lot are from wikimedia commons. It's a fantastic source for public domain images (ie, you can do whatever you want with them, including make huge profits!)

Feb. 18th, 2010 03:06 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for these images any time I hear someone apologise for being too colourful I always have the urge to hug them before reassuring them it's untrue.

I've always loved the image of Ingres Princess Albert de Broglie for a slightly morbid reason, I used to have a class with a large print and on first glance it always looked as though she was leaning against a headless body rather than a chair.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - tibialmusician - Feb. 18th, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 18th, 2010 05:50 am (UTC)
I adore the blue frilly dresssss
Feb. 18th, 2010 05:59 am (UTC)
Quite an astonishing selection, sir! I rather appreciate the bustled gowns in kimono silk...alot <3
Feb. 19th, 2010 12:57 am (UTC)
There's actually a whole set of those somewhere out there. They're quite magnificent. I'd love to see someone reproduce one of those gowns.
Feb. 18th, 2010 06:17 am (UTC)
I would like one of each of the gowns and the coats, please. That includes the gentlemen's clothings.
Feb. 18th, 2010 06:59 am (UTC)
Fabulous selection of photos and wonderful examples of color!
I don't understand why people would think color and steampunk do not mix. Photos in the 1800s may have been sepia but the people behind them were certainly not. ;)
Feb. 18th, 2010 07:14 am (UTC)
i imagine part of the reason for lack of colour (in Great Britain anyway) is that a large percentage of the community are/were Goths, thus favouring blacks/browns, etc.
Feb. 18th, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
There is a heavy influx of goth everywhere adding to monoscale colour schemes (Victoriana, go figure), not just GB.

I suspect a lot of the brown focus comes from the sepia-toned photos, the emphasis on leather because of the "mad scientist" and durability angle, and the looks of brown with brass and wood.

During the Victorian age, wood and brass were simply there. For steampunk, they become an important part of the aesthetic. And, it's easier to base your outfit colours on the wood and brass colours than to complement them with something brighter.
(no subject) - athenaprime - Feb. 18th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 18th, 2010 07:23 am (UTC)
I love stripes, myself.

(no subject) - puzzleoflight - Feb. 18th, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 18th, 2010 08:26 am (UTC)
YES! THIS! Thank you! ^o^/ I have always been a fan of colorful. Color preference varies from person to person of course, but I'm willing to bet that a number of Victorians in the past loved themselves some colors as well =D

Feb. 18th, 2010 08:44 am (UTC)
Wow, what a visual feast! I definitely agree that colour shouldn't be dismissed in Steampunk, since the Victorians loved it. At the moment I don't have an actual physical outfit (it just lives in my head, and in drawings for now!), but in my head I've always wanted it to be colourful. Particularly green, teal or blue. Maybe combined with browns or blacks, but definitely with at least one vibrant colour.

For some reason I had it in my head that Steampunk was so brown/grey/black because it was often based on military uniforms. But actually, they were often quite colourful too. The bright red regency uniforms immediately spring to mind!
Feb. 19th, 2010 01:03 am (UTC)
It's true. Uniforms were often among the most colorful and elaborate clothing styles. It wasn't until the early 20th century that most military groups began shifting to drab colors, and even then there was reluctance. The French marched into the First World War wearing bright red and blue, and when they reluctantly "drabbed things up" it was with just a much paler shade of blue.
Feb. 18th, 2010 08:52 am (UTC)
I keep meaning to post pictures of my Great Great Great Gran's wedding dress from 1839 - it's unfortunately faded to grey (vegetable dyes) but was originally a brilliant blue, based on the remaining colour in the embroidered wire trim and some colour bleeding in sweat stains.* (She had a small corseted waist, but was also well under 5 foot so it was in proportion to her height.)

* My Mum would point out that they're actually from perspiration, as sweat is a dreadful word.
Feb. 18th, 2010 07:03 pm (UTC)
I saw a ball gown at a museum once that was described as "flame-colored" - it probably was under gaslight, but under modern florescent lighting it could be more properly described as "safety orange"!
Feb. 18th, 2010 08:56 am (UTC)
Wonderful pictures. And yes, it can't be stressed enough that colorfulness does not need to be limited to one's character's background.
Personally, I'm making an outfit for the World Steam Expo that will be shades of purple with red trim.
Feb. 18th, 2010 09:02 am (UTC)
I agree. Color definitely has a place in all of this. I think my downfall is... I don't know, is it a downfall?..... anyway! I've just always worn a lot of black and brown naturally and really have to force myself to wear color. I think that's one of the reasons I was so drawn to "steampunk."

But, I'm in the process of making a white skirt and jacket right now. Well, it's about half cream, half white and... no, that's not right cuz there's a quarter brown too, so.... whatever percentages that all works out to! And I have 6 yards of mint green fabric that I'm still thinking what I could do with that.

I LOVE that third pic of the blue ballgown! The painting technique is amazing! It's as though you could reach out and touch the taffeta and hear it rustle!

All of these pics are incredible! What a library! I can't say which I like better!

I went into a crummy little beads and notions store in downtown LA fashion district Tuesday and in their backroom, I spied an original late 19th century print of three ladies sitting in a parlor and I did a silent "Squeeeee!!!!" They had several framed prints, including an original Erte print, that were all for sale. I actually thought about asking to buy the Victorian until I saw the prices. The Erte, no surprise, was like $5,400 and the Victorian was $650. Anyway......!
Feb. 18th, 2010 11:01 am (UTC)
Yeah, when I plan out my outfits they always have at least one main color that isn't black, brown, or white.

I'm getting really tired of people dubbing steampunk as 'goth with goggles'.
Feb. 18th, 2010 12:34 pm (UTC)
Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I think you hit the nail on the head with the idea that people get into the bland colors because of the photography of the time. It's very hard to imagine a world in color from photos--but you're right, the paintings and prints, and especially the extant garments show a myriad of color. I think Hollywood to blame as well--though costuming gems like "Titanic" help dispell the myths a bit--I know they did for me as a teenager. I just saw "Gangs of New York" for the first time during the snowstorm, and though the plot was not really accurate, the clothing (for everyone but the prositutes and some of the poor women--don't let me start on Cameron Diaz) was very well done. I nearly fainted at the insanely bold color combinations that the put the upper class ladies in. Lovely, indeed.

Another thing I'd like to add--color combinations didn't match to our modern eyes. Green, pink and maroon put together sound gross to modern ears, but may have been perfectly lovely and acceptable in 1880--just like all other areas of fashion.
Feb. 18th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
When I was a little girl, I'd look at the photographs my grandparents had and I thought that the world actually used to be those colors. XD

I recently had a few friends who pooh-poohed Rachel McAdam's navy-and-magenta combo in the Sherlock Holmes movie, but I thought it was fab. I love really intense, "shocking" color combos, and I think the world could use more of them.
(no subject) - heidilea - Feb. 18th, 2010 03:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - morganwolf - Feb. 18th, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - full_metal_ox - Feb. 18th, 2010 11:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heidilea - Feb. 19th, 2010 12:07 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - waster60268 - Feb. 18th, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mlleviolet - Feb. 19th, 2010 08:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 18th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC)
I like brown.
Feb. 18th, 2010 02:15 pm (UTC)
Oooooh, lovely. <3 Thank you for the pictures!
Feb. 18th, 2010 02:30 pm (UTC)
The book "Fashion" published by Taschen has tons of great photos of actual period clothing from the Kyoto fashion collection. Absolutely worth looking up at your library or bookshop.

Also, not only are victorians fond of colors but they like to mix colors and pattern that the modern eye would find atrocious. Some of the more common colors are a vomity pea green, mauve and ochre. During the victorian era is the first time that synthetic dyes are effectively manufactured. Couple that with the commercial weaving of fabrics and you get all kinds of craziness most modern people would define as a "fashion train wreck".

Calico fabrics start being manufactured in 1689. The first manufactured dye was mauve in 1856 (it was actually more of a bright magenta color) and is followed in this order - magenta, violet, brown, black, madder, green(bright olive) , red, yellow and lastly blue, with other derivatives inbetween and after.
Feb. 18th, 2010 11:19 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty hooked on the Dover books. They're inexpensive & inspiring.


Feb. 18th, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC)
Oh what lovely images, thank you so much for sharing!
I think a well choosen bit of colour makes a lovely addition to steampunk actually.
I just also love brown a lot which is why I don't always opt for colour myself :)
Feb. 18th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
Awesome thank you for sharing as someone who designs steampunk and other clothing or victorian fanstasy and goth I almost feel a little relived now that I can make steampunk in color! I have done it is purple but was always a little shy about it becauseit felt unsteampunk, Thank you!
Feb. 18th, 2010 03:37 pm (UTC)
Lovely pictures. I believe the discovery of aniline dyes opened up brighter colors and the Victorians took advantage of the new technology. I wear a lot of black in my day-to-day life - and I'm not goth! - and that love of black "colours" my Victorian garb. However, my black walking suit is a lovely paisley damask. Black, yes; plain, no.

Aniline dye time line:

Feb. 18th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
*giggles* I used that exact table in a panel at Windycon about colors.
(no subject) - sveethot - Feb. 18th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - evafriedel - Feb. 23rd, 2010 03:21 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 18th, 2010 05:30 pm (UTC)
So many lovely pictures DD: I wish I could get many of them in prints!
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