The classy clockwork couture of steampunk
November 18th, 2011
09:04 AM ET

The classy clockwork couture of steampunk

When people see steampunks wearing one of Rex Norman’s sculpted top hat creations, complete with something that appears to be a coal-burning furnace inside, Norman likes to say that it makes “their face fall off” in utter bewilderment.

Check out our gallery of gorgeous steampunk fashion!

Other designs, like hats and masks that look as though they’ve been welded out of cast iron, tend to have a similar effect. And when Norman isn’t pursuing another stupefying hat design, he modifies thrift clothing into steampunk elegance, in addition to selling coats, epaulets, custom spats and goggles.

By day, Norman is a freelance artist for magazines and newspapers, and he considers his custom steampunk creations to be a fruitful, fun hobby.

From his online store, Kostoom Arts, Norman receives requests for budget-friendly, clockwork “mods” to thrift store finds and custom-made, mind-boggling hats from all over the world. He is just one of many in the online universe, providing a unique service to the steampunk community that he loves.

As the ultimate marriage of historical aesthetics and creative eclecticism, steampunk inspires artists to bend the limits of their imagination in order to create wearable, functional art.

They come from various backgrounds, but all of them have arrived at their passion for the subculture because of its alluring aesthetic and the seductive idea of selective or alternate history. And honestly, who wouldn’t want to dress up in a jaw-dropping Victorian-inspired costume?

If its healthy representation at conventions such as Comic Con and Dragon*Con the past few years are any indicator, steampunk can also be a lucrative business opportunity for these crafty individuals. A wide range of steampunk items, from elaborate full costumes to lace collars to corsets, are easy to find on sites like Etsy and eBay.

Travis Lilly has found success as a full-time corset designer and seller on Etsy with his Lilly’s Workshop store. Lilly taught himself to sew while he was in the Navy, and once his wife developed an interest in steampunk after spying it at Comic Con, he started making designs just for her.

Soon, other people began requesting his corsets, and Lilly decided to open a store part-time during his last two years of college to help pay for school. After graduation, his love of making corsets remained, and he has turned into a full-time designer.

Lilly makes the patterns for his vegan-friendly faux-leather corsets, which can take about a day each to craft. His most popular seller is the labor-intensive utility corset, so named for multiple pockets and pouches incorporated into its sleek design. He plans to expand his line of corset designs and enjoys making them more than any other apparel.

“It’s the more technical side of costume and fashion design,” he said. “The corset ties it all together because everything else is so easy to find, but to distinguish yourself as a Victorian, the corset is a staple item. It’s really easy to go to a Ren fair and pick up an appropriate overskirt and blouse that will get you by, but when you put on the corset, you’re instantly steampunk.”

Lilly’s designs fill a niche on Etsy and a demand for corsets in the steampunk community. Similarly, Charlotte Scott of Alice and Willow on Etsy began incorporating steampunk elements into her Victorian costume designs as the requests flooded her inbox.

She made steampunk part of her regular line and also created patterns for her two most popular sellers: the Freyja and Alessa corsets. Scott developed the patterns for herself, but they translated so well to customization that she soon began designing them for everyone. And while she sells these items in her store, each piece is a labor of love that fuels her desire to create.

“I've always been creative and come from a family full of creative people,” she said. “I know that even if I'm having a bad day personally, I can always make something beautiful from a pile of fabric that will hopefully go on to make another person feel amazing when they wear it. I think that's really my main reasoning for doing it.”

Costume designers Kristine Hawthorne and Belinda Barry, of Helene Hawthorne Fashions and Romantic Threads respectively, have also found success with incorporating steampunk elements into their Victorian gowns. Hawthorne’s best-sellers include ruffled lace collars or skirts with steampunk flair. Barry specializes in elegant steampunk wedding gowns and likes to combine the aesthetic with Marie Antoinette-inspired fashions.

“I started to do historical costumes for myself, then for friends and now as a growing hobby selling online,” Hawthorne said. “I also love sleek modern designs, so combining the two seemed only natural.”

Hawthorne and Barry also have discovered that working with steampunk-oriented photographers and models greatly helps their business. Appealing backgrounds, full make-up and the inclusion of steampunk gadgets and hats help showcase the full aesthetic and allow online shoppers a chance to see the designs in motion.

Steampunk designer Anthony Canney has been creating steampunk designs for years, but he didn’t even hear the term until four years ago. With his parents both being Civil War re-enactors, Canney was making his own costumes at 14. But after learning about the aesthetic mash-up of Victoriana and futurism, his collections have become increasingly steampunk-centric.

While Canney designs for men and women, he features menswear prominently because it isn’t as common. For his women’s designs, he loves using exposed corsets and hoop skirts over fitted dresses in his latest collection. His Etsy store, House of Canney, even features corsets for men. These exposed corsets, both for men and women, help define the steampunk movement as inherently rebellious and sartorial, especially as they challenge past definitions of gender and formality.

Like Canney borrows from the best of historical Victorian fashion and juxtaposes it with “rule-breaking” sexuality, self-taught costumer Gretchen Jacobsen immediately fell in love with the flexibility of steampunk as it applies to fashion. As soon as she saw it, Jacobesen knew she had to take up the challenge, both for herself or for any custom commissions she might take.

“Unlike a historical re-enactment, steampunk doesn’t have set rules,” she said. “What I saw is that people who were very serious about steampunk worked at a very high level, they were great designers, very visual people, the aesthetics were strong and I wanted to be sure that when I made my leap into it, I could present at that level as well.”

Jacobsen’s fascination with steampunk has also caused her to create a persona to accompany the costumes she designs for herself. She identifies as the “part-time lion tamer,” based on an experience she had as a child when a circus wild cat trainer allowed her to hold a baby tiger in her arms. Because of this character who Jacobsen has developed for herself, her first design was a safari bustle dress. Her other costumes are closely related to this identity as well.

“I love the open-endedness of steampunk,” she said. “Even though there are set ideas or concepts you need to sketch within, you can bend those. I love to dress up, but you have the flexibility where I can be a part-time lion tamer or I can be me, and that they’re not so far apart when you’re in steampunk. There is a certain glamour to it.”

Want more steampunk? Check out our recent coverage:

'Bioshock: Infinite and America's could-have-been Steampunk past

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soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. etsy

    It is really a nice and helpful piece of info. I am glad that you shared this useful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

    April 12, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  2. Killbuck

    Perhaps the fashions shown are influenced considerably by the tastes or preferences of the writer and editor- and does demonstrate just about anything is in, and from, the eye of the beholder. Men all too often get left out of the photo shoots. I'd encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about this aesthetic (which is all around us now days) to image search the web and find what appeals to them. After all it's just one article. - Killbuck of Kostoom Arts.

    November 27, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  3. Bet

    I'm no expert on steampunk, but these look more like they belong at a Civil War reenactment.

    November 20, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  4. Mike R

    I like the steampunk outfits in the "Van Helsing" movie with jackman.

    November 19, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  5. rabid goon

    another gimmicky, trite, moronic fashion trend for simpletons.

    November 19, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • bob

      and another troll who can't abide anyone else enjoying themselves.

      November 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  6. asgardshill

    The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen pretty much ruined me for anything else but steampunk. Yes I know it plummeted at the box office, but the clothing was extraordinary.

    November 19, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  7. Dizzyd

    It sounds interesting, but I hope the corsets are a lot more comfortable than the originals from the Victorian era.

    November 19, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  8. T3chsupport

    Steampunk + Lolita is win.

    November 19, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  9. RabiaDiluvio

    The easiest way to explain steampunk to an outsider:
    Remember those victorian era illustrations of what the future would be like? Imagine if they were true.

    Steampunk is like the present re-imagined from the mind of someone in the late 1800s.

    I would not personally wear anything that looks too costumey and over the top, but I do enjoy looking at steampunk designs.

    November 19, 2011 at 8:31 am |
    • JJ

      I have the same reaction.

      November 20, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  10. Patrick

    I would say only 2 of the photos contained in that entire spread in the link are even remotely able to be considered Steampunk. The rest is just Victorian Era influenced dresses. Steampunk specifically requires technology to make it what it is. Look it up elsewhere for better examples.

    November 18, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Willow

      You're wrong, and you're probably one of the people who adores non-working gears and gauges tacked onto apparel. Stop trying to push your opinion onto steampunk fashion.

      November 18, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Voltairine

      I agree. Did anybody who was involved in the creation of this article even LOOK at some steampunk outfits first?? O.O

      November 18, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • RabiaDiluvio

      Horse doodoo. There is always some goggle-wearing jerk in every crowd who thinks he can define steampunk for the rest of the world. You are not the voice of authority on the matter. Stop trying to be.

      November 19, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  11. NyteShayde

    It is definitely one of the more interesting and creative costuming genres that I have seen crop up in recent years. Interesting use of industry and history.

    November 18, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  12. Vlad

    Joe, I have non idea why you would waste your time to post an insult to others you will never meet. Seems pretty cowrdly to me. Perhaps if you move out of your mom's basement and find some friends you may be less inclined to feel the need to troll. The steam punk interest in the sci-fi and fantasy crowd is only growing. It is by far the most attractive of the sub-culture fashions. Fun with costuming! Enjoy!

    November 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • NyteShayde

      Vlad, lighten up.

      November 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
      • Sudarmanto

        nice! And that cover is hawt! I'm hard at work etniidg, so am not doing NaNo this year, but good luck to all those who are! Ohhh, and one tip, dont' worry about etniidg the first draft. Just write!

        November 16, 2012 at 12:50 am |
  13. Joe

    N E R D S

    November 18, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Sam

      Go back to making their fries.

      November 18, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Sandy

      Yep, and proud of it. Gee, we're creative and intelligent. Nothing wrong with that.

      November 18, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • SueS

      Yes, I am a nerd... and proud to be one! Steampunk gives me the opportunity to indulge my love of Victorian fashion without having to be 100% historically accurate. I can mix decades and cultural influences as pleases me to make an aesthetic and fun outfit... and not be considered incorrect or outlandish. The other day, I decided to wear one of my bustled skirts and a blouse to go grocery shopping... judging from the number of compliments I got from the general public, they appreciated my taste in fashion.

      November 18, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Billy

      Joe, you say that like it's a bad thing. Don't make me show up at your job and unplug the Slurpee machine.

      November 18, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  14. Derek

    It would be nice if these designers also had some good threads for men. Tophats are great, but it's hell trying to find a tailor to make a suit.

    November 18, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • SueS

      Derek, try http://www.gentlemansemporium.com/mens_victorian_clothing.php If you're handy with a needle and thread yourself, you could also start with a tuxedo vest and jacket and tweak them to your liking.

      November 18, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  15. Jorge

    A bunny suit with a spiked collar would be fun release from having to wear conservative workplace clothing every day. Once when I was off the company nickel a colleague with which I have a 'polite' relationship came up to me at a mall and said " I see that you're wearing grubby duds today." "No," -I replied- "These are my 'get out of my face unless you want me to embarrass you in public' duds." After a stuttered apology and some water cooler gossip at work about my double personality, I was never annoyed by anyone from work on my free time again.

    November 18, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • rabid goon

      so, you're proud of being an antisocial idiot? (of course, we all know the little BS anecdote you posted never occurred outside of your mind).

      November 19, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  16. Sarah

    I LOVE steam punk. I've been wearing a steam punk costume to my renaissance festival for the past few years. I have to shamlessly plug the designer, she is so wonderful to work with. http://www.etsy.com/shop/SilverLeafCostumes?ref=pr_shop_more

    November 18, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • ggkthxnore

      Wearing steampunk to a renaissance fair is a douchy thing to do.

      November 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
      • NyteShayde

        ^ Word

        November 18, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Riograce

      IMO, it's tacky as hell to wear steampunk garb to a REN FAIRE. Either dress as a mundane or make an attempt at medieval/Renaissance garb – doing anything else is just a pathetic plea for attention. If your garb is as good as you say it is, go to a *steampunk* event and find admirers in the proper venue.

      November 18, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
      • Grayhorse5

        Leave her alone. For goodness sakes, if someone wants to wear something other than Ren Faire clothes to the Ren Faire, more power to them. I've worked many Faires in my life, the whole point is to have fun. If I see a cool costume while I'm working at my booth(which sells higher-end Renaissance clothing) , I complement the person on their awesome duds. I see all sorts, and I enjoy it. I see no need to be snooty about what people wear, if they are happy wearing it, then that is great!

        November 18, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
      • RJKL

        Why is that any different from the people who come dressed as fairies and Vikings and such? I hate to break it to you, but there weren't many of those running around England during the Renaissance. Hell, even the kilted guys are doing it "wrong", and almost none of the more "realistic" looking garb worn by patrons is actually period accurate. It's FANTASY. People are there to escape and have fun.

        My Faire has an entire weekend catering to Steampunks called "Time Travelers Day". People love it!

        November 23, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • RJKL

      I'd also like to point out to everyone above calling this poster "douchy" and whatnot... Silver Leaf is a vendor at several Renaissance Faires.

      Also, Ren Faires have long catered to the "homeless" groups. Why do you think there are so many Pagans (hardly a feature of Renaissance England)? Although it is starting to change, not many areas have Steampunk events.

      November 23, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  17. dragonwife1

    I have to say that of all the "costume" looks that are out there, I consider steampunk to be the most beautiful. My husband and I both created our own "modern steampunk" costumes for Halloween this year and everyone loved them. It's definitely a fun release from having to wear conservative workplace clothing every day! Hopefully I can find enough time to elaborate on the basic ones I created this year, so we can expand our wardrobes.

    November 18, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • RJKL

      I've actually started incorporating a Victorian/Steampunk look to my office attire, and my boss appreciates it because it tends to be more formal and professional-looking than what others are wearing. It's pretty easy... long skirts, nice blouses, and a vest are all it takes. Little Steampunk touches (like a pair of earrings made from fuses, or a clockwork pin) make it fun. On my more daring days I'll even throw in a fascinator.

      November 23, 2011 at 5:23 pm |