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Creating a Victorian/ Steampunk formal woman’s gown costume

Steampunk has been all the rage for the last few years, building up a huge fan base even among other fandoms and communities. Being a cos-player, I have always been impressed with historical accuracy, creativity, and detailed work, but I operate on a budget. I wanted to come up with a great costume, at a bargain price, and share that with the costumers who have been watching the trend and wishing they could have fun too!

So, welcome to my introduction to the Steampunk tutorial. This first entry is just an intro to the costume, and a background into the world of Steampunk and Victorian dress. The following entries (all linked together using the categories “Victorian” and “Steampunk”) will each be dedicated to five different portions of the costume: the Dress, Bustle, Bustle Pad, Hat, and Accessories (which will include undergarments, ideas for historically accurate accessories, Steampunk-esque additions, and ideas for cheap shopping options and online videos to help you find all the portions of the costume). You can choose to make only one piece, or even to use one of the pieces in a non-costumed setting, such as a wedding, or prom. Each piece will be its own entry, for you to comment on, ask questions about, and use as a template.


What is Steampunk?

Steampunk is a genre of fiction, and thus has a whole troop of individuals who expand the genre in games, art, costumes, etc. Much like making up your own superhero to live alongside Ironman, or something. The basic premise is a reimagining of the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England; i.e. what it would look like if all Industry had been powered by steam, instead of coal. It features scientific advancements that are not historically accurate, such as airships, mechanized robotics, mag-lev and the like. Think H.G. Wells, but add to that classic science fiction canon, the elements of the supernatural, the bionic, and the exaggerated. There are many Steampunk events around the world, including hand-car races, balls, and even giant fairs.

Victorian Dress

Since the world of Steampunk, is, by and large, set in the Victorian Era, the clothes, (while certainly given modern spins, or tricked out with fictional additions like mechanical arms and ray guns) obey classic Victorian rules. As many know, the Victorian Era had a regimented style of dress that, depending on what one wore, could instantly make the social status of the wearer obvious to anyone looking. This is particularly true of female dress. While fashions did change, over that period, from large bell skirts to narrower silhouettes, hoop-skirts to bustles, waist cinching to corsetry, the rules are fairly simple, and there are a few elements that you certainly must have to appear Victorian.


No matter what style of Victorian dress you settle on, you will most definitely be wearing bloomers, several petticoats of different types, an under-chemise (like a loose fitting tank dress to prevent sweat stains from forming on the dress), a waist-binding apparatus of some sort (there are many types of corset, from a simple waist binder which looks like a wide belt, to a full corset that covers the entire torso and contains loops for stays or stockings), and a bustle undercarriage (these range from cage-like structures to soft padded poofs that sit beneath the gown to create that lifted bustle). You may wear stockings, but this depends on the style you choose. The earlier in the Era, the less likely you are to wear stays or stockings.


Gowns vary in type, ranging from the wide skirt to the bustled, and sleeve styles changed drastically. Left over from the Edwardian period, poofed sleeves were the first major trend, then over time, sleeves were lengthened and narrowed to become more form-hugging, until, toward the end, the bell sleeve became quite prominent. Generally, your gown was a clever construct, worn over all the above mentioned undergarments, creating one smooth and complete image.


Women never left the house without a bonnet or hat, usually quite lavishly decorated (usually with bits of ribbon, lace, or flowers, but feathers and beads were also used), a shawl/cape/coat, a pair of gloves (usually kid), a reticule (or small purse with wrist strap), an embroidered handkerchief, boots or slippers, and sometimes an umbrella or parasol. Jewelry was generally not worn in public unless it was a special occasion, or the woman was well-guarded. Though the empire was wealthy, and upper-class women were loaded, it was considered poor taste to wear your diamonds while on a stroll in the park. Thus, the clever invention of the cameo, which was as close to a photo as Victorians got, and could double as a piece of decoration. Most often, jewelry was simply flowers, ribbons, or lace. Sometimes carved ivory or wood, would grace a garment, but these were more expensive and exotic items.

My Costume

Most people, when thinking of Victorian England, latch onto the image of the highly corseted waist, the tight sleeves, the cocked hat, and the back-swept bustle, and because of that image, that’s what I chose to make. Except that mine is meant to be a versatile costume, which means there will be certain variations from a truly historically accurate piece. It consists of a gown, a corset, a detachable bustle, a hat, and some accessories.

This tutorial will show you how to construct that quintessential Victorian look with bargains found on the internet and thrift stores. My costume is also altered to fit the convenience of a convention, so that you will not have to carry around smelling salts as the real Victorians did. You can take off the bustle and wear it with a different dress, when usually the bustle was a part of the gown. You can dress it up or down, and if you would prefer to use 100% expensive-looking materials, you can do so, making your dress as high-end as you like. It’s all up to you.

Please enjoy, and feel free to send me images of your completed costume, so that I can add them to the entries!

P.S. these entries will be posted as I complete each portion of the costume, so if you haven’t found every piece you’re looking for, check back in a few days.

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