From Conventions to Curators: Period Steampunk Fashions

A.K.A. My Museum Shopping List!

(If you read my blog regularly, this first part may sound familiar…)

Steampunk is a modern fashion movements that reinvents certain aspects and fashion facets of Victorian culture, putting a twist on the old style. Seeing beautiful fashions revived in new ways makes me excited, both as a historian and as an avid fan of dressing up! I am, however, terribly picky and pragmatic and I like to be able to make that if I’m going to invest in a dress, I’ll be able to wear it as much as possible–museum-wise and convention-wise.

In my years of costume-image collecting, I’ve discovered that there are hundreds of extant, real Victorian gowns that look modern enough they could have been made yesterday!

Steampunk

Here’s just a brief overview of Steampunk for those of you who aren’t familiar with the style. Steampunk is an alternate reality where Victorians developed advanced technologies revolving around steam-power and clockwork– think Jules Verne or H.G. Wells— though the movement has begun to develop a more futuristic, post-apocalyptic theme. That’s a really brief overview just so you get the fundamentals. Steampunk, like any fashion movement, has infinite variations! Steampunk can range from bionic men dressed as Abraham Lincoln (a favorite!) and ladies in clockwork fairy wings all the way to straight-laced aristocrats in impeccably detailed 1890s evening attire.

The hallmarks of steampunk fashion are:

Favorite time period: 1660-1750 (for fancy watches) and 1870-1910
Bustles
Corsets
Dusters, vests, and military Jackets
Utility belts, pouches, and satchels
Edwardian “active wear” like pantaloons, riding jackets, etc.
Hats, especially top hats (often tiny)
Big boots
Flying things and travel
Gears, clocks/watches, and keys everywhere
Gadgets, gizmos, and props galore
Goggles  and tinted glasses
Heavy ornamentation and layers
Often used colors include brown, burgundy, and army green
Often used materials include leather, brass, and  a mix of structured/draped fabrics

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Period Fashions and Accessories with Steampunk Flair!

Bicycling Suit, circa 1896

Accordion, circa 1860
(Not really a fashion, but imagine how awesome you would be if you took an accordion to Steamcon!)

Evening Dress, circa 1893

Straw Top Hat, circa 1820

Riding Ensemble, circa 1896

Carpetbag, circa 1860

Bonnet, circa 1887
(Complete with spiked studs along the rim!)

Pelisse, circa 1820

Wool Boots, circa 1860-1869

Day Dress, circa 1881
(I love the “gauntlets”)

Motoring Goggles, circa 1910

Dinner Dress, circa 1894

Steampunk’s other major theme is clockwork and watches, especially ornate ones. The wildly detailed watches are more of a hallmark of the 17th and 18th centuries rather than the 19th century, when the majority of the Steampunk mythos takes place. 19th century watches are rather plain comparatively. I just pretend that I invented a time machine, went back to 18th century Switzerland, and stole all their watches!

Antique Steampunk Watches

Watch, circa 1660-1670

Watch, circa 1710

Snuff Box with Watch, circa 1766-1772

Watch, circa 1753

Watch Mechanism, circa 1750-1760

Watch, Fob, and Chain, circa 1786

Steampunk is unbelievably fun to costume! You can be a pirate, a queen, a mad scientist, Darth Vader, a robot, or just a regular citizen that happens to carry around a oscilloscope laser cannon tucked quietly in your garter! The best part? You can be as historically accurate or inaccurate as you like and no one will bat an eye.

Bonus:

AWESOME CORSET!

Corset, circa 1890

A perfect hourglass!

29″-19″-29″

(Bust-Waist-Hips)

(71-48-71 cm)

Just in case the size is shocking, keep in mind that this corset was probably made for a teenage girl and some folks are naturally thin! :)

Recreating Shoes from 1500-1910

So you have the dress, the hat, and the jewelry, but no outfit is complete without shoes! What shoes should you choose to go with your period costume? You don’t want to get caught wearing a Victorian boot with a Renaissance gown or a pair of platforms with a Southern Belle dress! This brief guide provides a look into the shoe fashions of the most popular, upper-class costuming eras from the 14th to early 20th centuries. The best source for discovering period-appropriate shoes is to look at paintings from the era or originals. Humans are creative creatures, so there are many varieties and styles that were made in the period, but aren’t necessarily common, so if you find a period shoe that doesn’t quite fit the “norm,” it’s okay! Flat-soled Mary Janes have been in style since ancient times, and when in doubt, black leather or velvet flatters any foot no matter what era it’s in! High heel styles remained pretty much the same after about 1840, so if you can find a Louis or chunky stacked heel between 1cm and 4cm tall with the right toe-box shape, you’re set!

Note: The vamp of the shoe is the part that goes over the top of your toes and foot. The toe box is the part surrounding your toes, usually in a rounded, pointed, or square shape. To learn more about shoes and to understand what a toe box, vamp, etc. are, take a gander at this handy diagram:

 Quick Guide

1500-1650 – Leather and velvet chopines or decorated flats

1650-1790 – Louis heels, high vamps, buckles, fancy mules

1790-1830 – Pointed flats, flat/low-heeled ankle boots

1830-1870 – Low-heels, square toed, button ankle boots and pumps

1870-1900 – Medium-heels, high-top boots, high-vamp heels

1900-1910 – Medium-heeled boots, low-vamp heels

 1500-1650

Make Your Own Tutorial by Francis Classe

Custom by WithNowhere2Go

Vintage by StarletsVintage

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1650 – 1790

New by americanduchess

 Vintage by MetropolisNYCVintage

Vintage by kathrynebordeaux

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1790-1830

Vintage by whitedovenycvintage

Vintage by threadechoes

Vintage by DearGoldenVintage

______

1830-1870

Period Antique by badgirlvintage

New by  fugawee.com


Vintage by mystiquevintage

_________

1870-1900

Period Antique by nickiefrye

Vintage by kenaione

________

1900-1910

Period Antique by charlesvintage

Vintage by ChicasVintage

Vintage by sandyscoollectibles

Tips and Tricks:

Dancing and formal shoes can be decorated with a myriad of shoe clips and rosettes to make them fancier. It’s a good way to dress up a basic black shoe, especially if you match the rosette or clip to your dress!

Stockings are just as important as the shoes you are wearing. Patterned knee or thigh-high stockings in opaque colors enhance any footwear!

For further information, check out Shoes! The History of the Heel from 1500-1910

Shoes! History of the Heel from 1500-1910

The Cinderella Dilemma

Beginning in Roman times, but bursting into popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries, platform “chopine” shoes were what the fashionable girls, especially in Spain, were wearing. These heavy chopines were made from stacking layers of cork or cotton and stitching them together with a fine silk, leather, or velvet cover. At the height of their popularity, they totted at an amazing 40cm (20 inches) or more! When they were taller than 14 or so centimeters, chopines were almost impossible to walk in and required canes or escorts to help the noblewoman walk. The horror stories of pregnant women falling and laws banning brides from falsifying their height at weddings led to a decrease in the chopine’s popularity. By the 1600s, wooden heels began to replace the chopin. Both men and women snapped up these new heels and the elevated shoe would remain popular for both sexes until the late 19th century.

 

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1700-1800

18th Century Shoes were all about romance and opulence. Ladies’ shoes were delicate affairs made from silk and brocade. These whisper-thin slippers couldn’t survive much outdoor walking, so most came with matching “pattens,” which were an extra sturdy sole that tied onto the bottom of the shoe. Heeled shoes were all the rage, but since they were carved from wood and not very sturdy, most heels were between 1cm and 6cm high, though some overtly sexy fetish shoes with enormous heels have been found. The heel wasn’t located right under the heel, as most are today. They were waisted (or wasted) heels, called Louis heels after the French king, placed closer to the instep. Almost all footwear sported a trendy pointed toe and a myriad of gorgeous, ornate buckles. One of the most famous shoes from the 18th century is a delicate pink mule flying through the air in the paintings of Watteau and Fragonard.

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1800-1820

Regency shoes (as discussed in this post as well) also had pointed toes, but instead of high heels, they were flatter, with only the smallest heel on walking boots to elevate the pedestrian out of the mud. Slippers were still the favored shoe and were fashioned of silk or cotton, often elaborately printed.

 

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1820-1860

Early Victorian or Romantic shoes were still low-heeled, but all those delicate slippers wore out too easily to be economical and comfortable, so boots began to come into fashion for both men and women. Early Victorian boots were made like Regency walking boots, but in finer fabrics. Button-up boots became popular and the addition of a flexible gusset allowed for easier wearing.  Square toes replaced pointed as the preferred shape. By the American Civil War in the 1860s, heels were beginning to rise. Instead of placing the heel close to the insole, however, these new heels were located at the very back of the shoe (Dancing pumps, however, retained the inset waisted heel until the invention of the steel heel support in the 20th century) . Ironically, as shoes became more practical, ladies wished to have their feet look as thin as possible, a trend that began with Madame Pompadour in the 18th Century and would continue into the 20th Century. Some women would tape their feet smaller or even sacrifice a toe to fit into narrow boots. Narrow, tight shoes became as ridiculed as over-tightened corsets as the 19th century wore on.

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1860-1890

In the 1880s, high-top laced boots became popular and remained so through the 1910s. Queen Victoria’s mourning for her husband created a fashion trend toward darker colors, but by the Gay Nineties, all manner of boots were made, some still study, practical leather for public walking, but many in bright silk brocades and embroidered with patterns, fluffed with ribbons, and decorated with beads. A slightly rounded-point toe and highly-fitted silhouette marks the late Victorian shoe, creating a dainty, lady-like look with a slight edge so popular with Neo-Victorian fashionistas today. Beginning in the 1870s, shoes gained a heavily sexuality of their own. A woman flashing her ankle from beneath her heavy skirts was as taboo as flashing her breasts. Super high heels became all the rage in the underground, tottering to massive heights in the fetish community, just as they do today.

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1890-1920

The much-overlooked Edwardian shoe saw the lowering of the boot-tops back down to the ankle, and pumps became common for everyday. The Edwardians loved dainty, airy decoration as opposed to the heavy Victorian style which had reigned for nearly a century. Sturdier mass-production methods allowed heels to become slimmer. Since less fabric was needed to hold the shoe together, Mary-Jane styles with low-cut vamps and thin straps allowed patterned stockings to peep through. As the Edwardian period came to a close, skirts became less voluminous, so matching your shoes to your dress became a necessity.

All of the pictures in this article are linked to to sites detailing each section, so feel free to click and explore!

For more information about choosing the right shoes for your period costume, visit Recreating Shoes from 1500-1910

Recreating Regency Style

A Quick Costume List for the Well-Prepared Lady:

  • High-waist dress
  • Shawl, cape, or jacket
  • Gloves
  • Hat
  • Flat Shoes

Regency style– also called Empire or “Jane Austen” style after the famous author– is one of the simplest  casual costumes to put together and can be made visually accurate with very little effort. The most important aspect is the gowns silhouette. While super-high waistlines were haute-couture, any waistline above the natural waist is acceptable, especially if you have a larger chest. Pleasantly plump ladies were quite in vogue! For shoes, you can modify a simple ballerina flat with some ribbons. Satiny, silky materials are best or leather if you want to wear your gown in winter. Stick to flat ankle boots for walking shoes. If you want to be a real Regency lady, don’t wear lace-up boots that go above your ankle! I recommend raiding vintage shops, thrift stores, and your older cousin’s closet for vintage pieces if you don’t want to make your own. The empire silhouette resurfaced during the 1960s and 1970s and some top-notch vintage examples can be found ready-to-wear! (Plus, they usually have a good punch of personality)

High Waist Dress

Custom by gillygray

Vintage by seesong

Shawl, Cape, or Jacket

Saka’s on Amazon

Gloves

whyteboots

Hats

Vintage by carmenandginger

Vintage by midwestisthebest

Flat Shoes

Vintage by calliopevintage

Old Navy

Notes, tips, and tricks:

Want to wear a cropped jacket but don’t have the money? Buy an inexpensive jacket with a top half you like and trim it to just below your dress’s waist. Then use iron-on hemming tape to finish the edges.

For an Austen look on a budget,  buy any full-length sundress with puff or caps sleeves and tie a wide ribbon around it just below your bust.

To complete your look, curl your hair, put it up in a twist, or both!

For more information about Regency style visit The Regency Lady: Upper Class