What I love most about Steampunk costumes is that although the aesthetic is inspired by the Victorian era, it is not a strict reproduction. Your own creativity and inspiration are at the heart of Steampunk fashion. There are no rules, yet everyone who wears a Steampunk costume manages to look like they are all from the same era. Even as Steampunk has evolved from just throwing a few gears on goggles and wearing an outer corset to looks incorporating gothic, military, boho, and vintage elements, it is still an element of the Victorian style that keeps the costuming grounded in steam-powered history.
While I would love to say I am a Steampunk costume geek who spends a hundred hours on each costume, I am not. I love collecting bits and pieces and making a new costume for each event in a matter of minutes. With a handful of what I consider Steampunk Costume Essentials, a new look is always waiting for me. Whether you are going to your first Steampunk costume event or need some ideas on how to change up your existing costume, these are costume pieces you need on hand:
Steampunk Costume Essentials
Since the Steampunk movement is inspired by the Victorian era, the basis for all costuming has a Victorian flair. What does that mean? Well, for me it is a lot of lace, heavy brocade, velvet, bustles, granny boots, ornate hats, gloves, and extravagant old jewelry. Since this is also the age of steam, colors tend to be black or brown with maybe a splash of other rich jewel tones like deep purple, emerald green, midnight blue, and ruby red. The current trend I see now ignores all the dark colors and embraces off-white as its color palette.
There is also a trend of Steampunk cirque, with a vintage circus appeal using stripes. I used this idea for my Steampunk meets Moulin Rouge costumes.
Starting at the top of your body, you need a blouse or shirt of some sort. I look for lace or ruffles, black or off white button up blouses with a high neckline. The blouse could have long sleeves with even longer cuffs or short puffy sleeves for summer styles. Lolita fashion is a great resource for Victorian/Steampunk styles tops. The current boho trend with lace inset shirts and low neck peasant style tops are another good source of Steampunk friendly shirts. A few years ago, I found a plethora of lace inset blouses at Forever 21. You just never know where they will show up, so just keep an eye out and buy it when you see it.
A few looks I have seen simply add a crop jacket over the top of a corset to give it some sleeves. If you are comfortable showing off that much skin, by all means, ditch the blouse and do something like this. Short vests also look good over corsets or in lieu of corsets altogether (a good tip for maternity Steampunk costumes).
Just about every woman wears a bustled Steampunk skirt as part of her costume. They can be long, hi/low, short, or very short. The length isn’t as important as how they are styled. A plain long skirt can be gathered into all sorts of bustle effects (see this chart for bustling ideas). Some skirts come with bustle ties, but you can easily add some ties of your own so you can adjust them however you want. For the non creative types, there are some good ready to wear Victorian Steampunk style skirts for sale too with more plus size Victorian Steampunk Skirts here.
A lace dress can work well instead of a skirt and blouse combination. Many women wear a dress with a corset, vest, or belt over it. The look is similar. OR you can go for a traditional Victorian bustle or hoop dress and use accessories within Steampunk fashion.
An alternative to skirts and dresses are pants or bloomers. I love the look of ruffled Victorian bloomers, also called pantaloons, under a short skirt or on their own with a corset and accessories.
The other item almost all women’s Steampunk costumes have is a corset. These aren’t Victorian underwear, but instead worn on the outside of clothing. Corsets can be leather, brocade, damask, lace, or any other fabric that fits your overall look. Underbust corsets are an alternative to full bust squishing (or enhancing) corsets. Most costume corsets are not designed to support a bust like they would be if worn as underwear. You may find some more comfortable than others. For serious costumes, making a corset or having one made for you is the best option for a comfortable fit. A custom fitted corset should never hurt! A costume corset…. might. Keep it loose enough to breathe and move around in. Wear a strapless bra underneath if you need support.
Steampunk Boots and Spats
Your shoes can make or break your outfit. Victorian era shoes were mostly all lace up or button up boots. Some people call them “granny boots” or “witch boots” for their old antique style. Lace up boots are back in fashion this year, so they should be easy to find. There are even a few brands that make “Steampunk” style boots complete with buckles and gears. Short boots or very tall boots all seem to be especially popular. Are knee high boots Victorian? Heck no, but they look awesome under a short skirt.
Consider transforming plain boots with the addition of boot socks (cuffs) or spats that fit under the boot or completely over it. It’s such a fun accessory to add. They are on my wishlist for my next Steampunk costume.
Stockings and Leggings
Between a short skirt and tall boots, a lot of skin could show unless you add some fun stockings or leggings. Leggings or pants can also be worn instead of a skirt, if you like. Consider pantaloons (bloomers), too, for a fun Victorian look. Stockings are popular in wide stripes, lace or crochet patterns. Solid colors can work well if your outfit already has a bunch of patterns in the other pieces. I love to see all black or brown costumes with a pop of bright red or purple or black and white stripes. A bit of color or pattern can make your costume standout from the sea of monotone costumes.
Just like Victorian era events, Steampunk events tend to be in winter. All those layers make the costumes quite warm. For especially cold days or just because a Steampunk jacket is awesome to have, I highly recommend getting one. The military style jacket with buckles, belts, chains, ruffles, lace, corset ties, and whatnots seem to be the popular look this year. Striped jackets are also still “in” and are among my favorites. Steampunk jackets are almost an alternative to blouses and tops. They are usually thin, not bulky, tailored to add to the costume instead of cover it up. Usually, they are worn unbuttoned/unzipped and may be secured with a wide belt.
Many jackets are not jackets at all but short shrugs, crop tops and bolero jackets that cover the arms and not much else. I love this look but its hard to find ready to wear. If you have some sewing skills you can get almost any jacket and cut off everything but the sleeves, a partial back, and most of the front. Hmm, maybe I should take my own advice and try this?
Top hats and mini top hats seem to be the typical hat choice for Steampunk costumes. They certainly do come from the Victorian era (not mini ones, exactly). Hats are one place most crafty costumers put in a lot of effort, decorating a plain hat so that it coordinates with the rest of the costume. This could mean adding belts and buckles, gears, goggles, flowers, veils, feathers, and fabric trim. At the very least, I usually try and change out the feathers on my hats to match whatever pop of color I use in my costume. (Tip: A great place to find feathers, besides a craft store, is at a fly fishing sporting goods stores. Many of the feathers are still natural, not dyed bright colors, and I think they look more “Steampunk” that way.)
You certainly don’t have to wear a hat with your costume. I sometimes just style my hair kind of “messy” Victorian and toss on a hair accessory such as a feather clip, bow, or large jewelry piece.
Steampunk Goggles or Sunglasses
What would a Steampunk costume be without goggles? Of all the essential items, this is the most classic one to include, and yet (confession time) I never included them in any of my costumes. Why? Because people who make their own goggles always have really awesome looking ones. My store-bought pair just doesn’t look as good. One of these days I will get crafty and use one of the many tutorials online to transform my boring goggles into fabulous Steampunk goggles (shop goggles here).
Don’t be like me. Get yourself a pair of awesome goggles and make them a standout piece of your costume! Or follow the latest trend and wear vintage sunglasses instead. They can be simple round, wire-frame glasses with tan or green lenses or more elaborate Steampunk sunglasses.
“More is better” when it comes to Steampunk costume accessories. The more “stuff” you can load on, the cooler your costume becomes. Steampunk jewelry is one way to add more “stuff” that also makes a great conversation starter. I always get compliments on the jewelry and accessories I wear. Consider a necklace or choker, a bracelet or wrist cuff, earrings or ear cuff, and a big brooch/pin. Consider jewelry made of lace or brass with motifs of gears, clocks, trains, hot air balloons, birds, insects, keys, globes, and cameos. There is a lot of great custom jewelry on Etsy with custom prices to match. I usually find great stuff in the cheap jewelry stores and even the supermarket.
I said above that you can’t have enough accessories, and I mean it.
- A pair of fingerless gloves is a great addition. Lace or leather, knit or velvet. It all works!
- A cape or shawl instead of a coat is a nice softer touch, especially on a costume that’s more romantic Victorian than dirty Steampunk.
- A wide belt or several thin belts. Not just for around your waist but as a shoulder holster, a crossbody strap, a leg strap, arm strap, or bag handle. Belts seem to be the way to go as a pretty accessory and useful device to carry a …
- Gun. Probably not a real one (although my hubby took his revolver once, which is allowed in Nevada) but a “steampunked up” plastic or metal one would be great. Mine is a “pirate” gun I found during a Halloween costume sale. A little paint can transform any toy gun into a Steampunk weapon.
- A pocket watch on a chain is a great accessory to hang from one of your belts- plus, you always know what time it is.
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.