I was reflecting upon Steampunk genre's ever-increasing popularity and decided to undertake a short discourse on the basics of my approach to the Steampunk style of clothing and costume.
My approach is one based firmly in history and historical research. This comes as no surprise, as I hold a degree in History, and am a great advocate of reading primary sources and viewing original photographs, cuts, or drawings as a source of inspiration for my personal costuming.
To begin, for the purposes of this little article, Steampunk is Victorian Science Fiction, or What Would Have Happened If The Nineteenth Century Was A Time Of Even Greater Innovation (I think that the first one is catchier, myself, and better for a sound-bite.) As G. D. Falksen has said during lectures and in his writings on the matter, Steampunk begins with the Victorian, and adds on.
The Victorian era was a time of incredible development in terms of manufacturing, technological development, and discovery. From the Jacquard Loom (a very early punch-card-controlled device) in 1800, to the steam locomotive in 1814, to the diesel engine in 1892, and all of the various strange and wonderful things in between, it was a time of what appeared to be unlimited potential.
Steampunk poses the question, "What if that potential had indeed been unlimited?"
What if punchcard computers had become capable of being self-referential, and the Difference Engine had been able to provide the computing power that our mainframes do today?
What if Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had invented the eponymous airship in 1871, when he first got the idea, rather than 1900 when the first Zeppelin was launched?
What if airships had become the primary means of transportation, the way that airplanes are in our modern world? What if steam trains remained the fastest way to cross the country? What if coal was bottomless and water plentiful and the steam engine was the most sensible choice in technology?
Abney Park sings of being Airship Pirates. The Difference Engine (a wonderful book) imagines a world full of clackers, kinotropes, and a very, very angry underclass. The ethos, if not the official time period, is Victorian in the first case, and explicitly Victorian in both areas in the second.
Steampunk, to summarize, is informed and inspired by the Victorian era, and based strongly upon the technology and aesthetic considerations of the era. "Technology" in the previous sentence obviously refers both to technology that did actually exist, and technology that had been invented or conceptualized or described, but did not actually exist during the time period specified.
What, then, is Steampunk Fashion?
To begin with, as many on this community have said before (and shall, no doubt, say again,) there is no "Punk" in Steampunk. The name is the unfortunate offspring of the Cyberpunk genre being seen as a parent to the Steampunk genre, and recieving a name in the same vein. It is just as correct to say "Gaslamp Fantasy" or "Victorian Science Fiction." I feel that we are tasked with breaking the assumption that to be Steampunk means you must be dirty, grungy, safety-pinned together, possessed of spikes and leather, torn denim, or Converse All-Stars. If you want to wear those things and can find a way to explain them in your ensemble, sure, go ahead; the Steampunk Fashion of which I speak, and which I practice, however, relies heavily on a Victorian basis for the clothing. The world which I described above as the Steampunk one is essentially Victorian; therefore, the fashion of this world is follows suit.
This is not to say that I am a re-enactor, a thread-counter, or a person hell-bent on every Steampunk enthusiast wearing hand-tailored garments that are documentable by six pictures or portraits showing style, cut, fabric, and embellishments. I understand that this is an inherently creative genre, and I don't want to stop things like forfaxia's insanely genius concept detailed here. That said, it is my desire to see costumes (or garb, or clothing, or whatever you wish to call it) that reflect the era in an appropriate way, and don't appear immediately to be Your Dad's Old Suit Bits. (Not that there's anything wrong with re-using clothes. Hell, if I'd had things to re-use I'd be $500 richer for these damn costumes alone. Let's not even talk about accessories.)
Therefore, a question: Is Steampunk fashion the clothing that an inhabitant of the world would wear for their everyday (or even special) occasions? Or is it modern clothing with a Victorian flair to it? Is it a hybrid of the two? Is it taking the Victorian silhouette and making something that fits the look, but is entirely modern? Is it taking a Victorian outfit and adding on feathers and gears and making a Steampunk Haute Couture creation?
I believe that the truest Steampunk fashion lies in taking the Victorian as a base, and working from it. I have no issue with adaptation—if I did, I would have long ago killed the aforementioned forfaxia for some of her creations, which deviate from any documentable outfits and range well into the "entirely fictional, but still damn cool" category. She goes far afield from the bustle dress that she used as a base for Kapitan von Grelle, and yet if you turn her into a solid black silhouette, she is unmistakeably Victorian. This, to me, is the best approach: What you wear as your Steampunk Fashion should represent the clothing worn by you, or your character if that's your fancy, in a world that is Steampunk in its conception. This means that your clothing is inherently Victorian (as I do not treat here with "what would the year 2010 look like if steam power ran everything?") in its nature. (It also does not necessarily mean that you must be covered in clockwork, gears, or even wear goggles. Each item is a choice, not a dictated rule.)
Each person approaches this genre differently, informed by their own experiences and interests; their style will be affected by this approach. Someone who loves to sew will create a style that is heavy in orginal garments, or non-current items—bustled skirts, dresses of an archaic or unique design, suits in cuts that do not get made these days, or military uniforms that never existed. Someone who does not sew may cobble together a costume out of pieces of suits from goodwill, or purchase a three-piece suit and add bits and embellishments to it to "steam it up"; neither of these approaches is right or wrong, inherently. As with all things, it is the application and execution that determine whether or not it is done "right".
Accompanying this little article are four illustrations. Above the cut are an illustration from an 1898 publication, The Cutter's Practical Guide (available here,) of a Hussar uniform jacket made from its system. To the right is a photograph of myself, with a jacket made from that very set of drafting instructions. Below those is a costume that—to me—embodies the proper approach: her dress is a late Victorian/early Edwardian style, with a few liberties taken; the ray-gun clearly places her within the steampunk genre—and yet she does not wear goggles, gears, or brass studs on her outfit. (The image is found at the artist's DeviantArt.) The last illustration is taken from The Cutter's Practical Guide. It details the fashions for that year, and illustrates the variety of silhouettes available to the costumer (for men, anyhow—because women, you're lucky and have half a billion patterns and books to draw from. Men are not so lucky, and must scrounge a little more for our source materials.)