Some Costuming Thoughts for On-The-Go Steampunks
Hello! I’m M.K. Hobson, author of THE NATIVE STAR and I’m simply tickled to be here on Candace’s Book Blog to help wrap up her Steampunkery month.
I’ve been intrigued in 19th century aesthetics and culture since I was in grade school, lo these many decades ago. In high school, I ran around in waistcoats. In college, my goth punk look was rife with distinctly steamy overtones — along with my pink hair and nose ring, I wore black crinolines, high laced boots and old Victorian watch fobs. While my primary creative outlet has always been writing, I’ve always really enjoyed costuming as well. During high school and college I was very active in student theater productions, and I always tended to gravitate toward the costume department. The smell of fabric burning under the iron! The sailor-like swearing at each broken needle or heel-caught hem! Costumers were a salty bunch, my kind of people. After college, however, I got away from costuming because I had a small child and it was just too labor intensive, mess intensive, and cost intensive. But now … steampunk has arrived! And now my daughter is almost a teenager (and likes wearing costumes of her own) so I have started making costumes again.
One of the reasons I write about the mid-19th century is because it is an aesthetic that really calls to me. I love the complex dresses, the many little accessories–hats and fans and watch chains and fobs and handkerchiefs and all those little elegant things that we in our modern life have replaced with blackberries and other technological gizmos. 19th century costuming, however, comes with a wide variety of challenges:
- Time. I’m going to put this one first, because it’s just that important. In sewing, understand that everything will take longer than you think it will. Items you imagine you’ll be able to “toss off” in a weekend will take you a month. Plan accordingly.
- Foundation garments. Before you can even begin to think about sewing a dress, you have to sew a whole suite of foundation garments, up to and including a corset. This is because your finished garments have to fit OVER your undergarments, and you can’t take proper measurements until your undergarments are done. For the most part, foundation garment sewing is pretty easy (the occasional flat-felled seam here and there notwithstanding), but fitting and finishing a corset is a whole different kettle of fish. It requires patience, skill, practice, and not a few specialized tools and supplies. Also, if you’re making petticoats or a bustle skirt, I hope you’ve got a line on cheap broadcloth, because you’ll be buying a metric bustle-ton of it.
- Patterns. So you’ve got your undergarments sorted, you’re ready to make the dress—how? Well, if you know how to draft a pattern, you can get inspiration from the Fashion Plate Archive from Bunka Women’s University Library (http://digital.bunka.ac.jp/kichosho_e/index.php). But if you don’t happen to possess advanced spatial cognition and a degree from FIT, there are some modern sewing patterns available drafted from actual historical patterns. I have used and liked ones from Truly Victorian (http://www.trulyvictorian.com/) and Laughing Moon (http://www.lafnmoon.com/ — I really like their corset pattern), but there are many others to choose from. You’ll be tempted to skip the step of making a toile (or muslin), but don’t—especially when it comes to bodices. 19th century bodices were generally trim and form-fitting, and to get that sleek look you’re probably going to have to make lots of alterations, especially if, like me, you are much taller (ahem) or much larger (double ahem) than most human females.
- Materials. One nice thing about steampunk is that a sense of fun, wit, and beauty take precedence over historical accuracy, so if you want to make an intricately detailed tea gown out of PVC vinyl, you’re certainly welcome to do so; it will likely earn you an appreciative “what-ho” from those of the masculine persuasion. At the same time, however, some level of historical accuracy is appreciated—and you should at least *know*, when you’re running around in an intricately detailed PVC vinyl tea gown, what materials said teagown would actually have been made from, otherwise you’re really not in on the joke, are you? My point is, feel free to be creative with your selection of materials, but take some time to research how it actually was—it’s a lot more fun, anyway!
- Styling. This is what makes or breaks a steampunk outfit, and what almost led to my downfall with the infamous “purple dress” I made this year for a series of cons (including Steamcon). I gave myself plenty of time to make the foundation garments and the dress … but when I got down to the wire I realized I hadn’t given myself enough time to complete and/or find the elements that would be necessary to style the outfit — things like the headpiece, the jet jewelry, the elbow length gloves. Luckily, I had just enough time to pull it all together, but it was a mad rush, and I risked being caught with my (ahem) bustle down.
- Transportation. Here’s another thing to take into consideration, especially if you want to trot your costumes around at a con. Transporting a full-on Victorian ensemble is no small task. There’s a reason all those Victorians lugged steamer trunks around with them. Hats have to have boxes, dresses have to have bags, and let’s not even talk about the individual requirements of parasols, fans, and bowlers. With Victorian gear, it’s not always a matter of space, it’s a matter of cushioning and padding, because so much of the delightful frippery is eminently crushable or breakable. Feathers are a particular nuisance. I find that tissue paper and those hard-sided plastic storage boxes you can get at the Dollar Tree are your best friend.
- Maintenance. Speaking of those plastic Dollar Tree boxes, make sure you get an extra one and fill it with sewing supplies — needles, thread, scissors, extra buttons, hem glue, two part epoxy, etc. At Steamcon I had to resew, by hand, the entire train of my skirt just before a panel. Nota bene: if you make a skirt with a train, the train will get stepped on. A lot. If by some incredibly fortunate occurrence you don’t need these things, someone else at the con certainly will. Through such trials of fire are lifelong friendships forged.
To sum it all up, costuming is a lot like writing. It can be intensely rewarding, depressing, thrilling, despair-inducing, infuriating, and uplifting. But just like writing, you don’t have to launch into a novel right away. Start short: maybe assemble a costume from found elements from your local Goodwill—you’ll be amazed at what you can repurpose. Then, when you’re ready for a bigger challenge, get sewing! We can’t wait to see what you come up with.
M.K. Hobson’s first novel, THE NATIVE STAR (www.thenativestar.com), is now available from Bantam Spectra. She blogs about history, costuming, writing, and other amusing things, at her Website, www.demimonde.com
Fantastic to have you here M.K.! And love the tips! I’m anxious to get on finding/making an amazing costume myself. Maybe if I get a new sewing machine…
The Giveaway: CLOSED
M.K. Hobson is giving one lucky reader a copy of her book The Native Star. I reviewed this book here, and gave it a 5 moon rating. This book really was very nearly a Once in a Blue Moon book and I think it may end up on my favorites for this year list. I loved that it felt like a mix of YA and adult. Though it’s an adult book it wasn’t full of sex (no sex actually), though it had plenty of sexual tension!
Leave a comment about your favorite Steampunk wear. What is the clothing or accessory item that you find the most intriguing?
Leave contact info as well! Must be 16 or older and open to the US/Canada only. Ends Dec. 15th, 2010
Thank you M.K. Hobson for the giveaway!
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