Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Concept to Costume: Steampunk

Hello! It is I, Sabine, and today I'll be showing you what I've been working on recently, my first from-scratch steampunk costume.


For a good steampunk costume, you need to have a strong concept. In most cosplay, when you're replicating a character, you already have that element ready, but for steampunk, you have to grow your own. There are many, many different kinds of people you can emulate, and if you don't have a strong sense of what you're doing, all you'll end up with is a mishmash.

For this costume, I decided to go in a different direction than most steampunk. Most steampunk emulates the dress of the middle to upper classes, so I decided to make a working class girl. Here's the concept I started from:

Madeline Ozell started out as a mill working girl; to be more precise, she was a spinner. Spinners occupied a middle position in the social hierarchy of the mill: not as fancy as the weavers, but not as desperate as the dye workers. In <em>The Classic Slum</em>, which you really should have read yesterday, Robert Roberts describes the attire of the spinners in the late Victorian/Edwardian era:

"[B]ecause of the heat and slippery floors, women worked barefoot, dressed in little more than calico shifts. These garments, the respectable believed, induced in female spinners a certain kind of moral carelessness. [...] Clogs and shawls were, of course, standard wear for all."

Needless to say, when the airship captains started poaching girls from the mills to work in their engine rooms, Madeline jumped at the chance.

Madeline's found that working on the airship isn't all that different from spinning; she's somewhere in the middle, between the fancy ladies and the stokers. Still, she's moved far up in the world, and her clothing is beginning to show it. She's still wearing her old calico shift, but she's replaced her homespun shawl with a fancier one and her clogs with a good pair of boots. She keeps the tools of her trade around her waist and her goggles and gloves securely fastened- for safety, you know. She's coarse but proud, with a tendency to mouth off a little, especially when she's embarrassed.

The Costume

The costume basically breaks down like this:
-calico shift
--drill and holster

The shawl I won't be discussing, because it was store-bought. It's not entirely accurate, but it's good enough for steampunk. The toolbelt I'll be detailing in a separate entry, because man this post got long fast, because this costume has a whole lot of pieces.


The pattern I used was Simplicity 7215. Far as I can tell, it's no longer available, but 9769 is apparently the same thing with new packaging and added drawers. This pattern is for an 1860's chemise; the only real differences between these and the shifts that mill workers wore (which I have been trying forever to find a reference picture of) is in the neckline, detailing, and length of sleeves. I probably could have gotten closer, but I also wanted something that would be flattering to my body type and easily accessible.

I bought the pattern and calico when I started this concept, which was, pfft, years ago. The calico is a lovely muted blue and brown vine pattern- I really couldn't tell you what brand it was or if it's still made, but I quite like it.

The pattern is complicated but not that hard (unless you intend to flat-fell all the seams like it tells you to, in which case you're a braver woman than I), so I only have a few notes on it. First of all, one of the reasons I chose this pattern was because of the sizing. I am, it must be noted, a large lady, and the pattern actually stops several dress sizes below where I needed it (I swear it fit when I bought it, but then I went to grad school...). However, whenever you're trying to size up a pattern (and we'll be doing a full post on this later), consider where exactly the size matters. For this particular pattern, the only real differences between the sizes were in the length of the sleeve band and collar. The collar was no issue, because it sits well down on the shoulder, so the only adjustment I made was increasing the length of the sleeve band.

Ignore my superhero pajamas.

The sleeves on this thing are a feat of engineering, but the dress proper took no time at all. All told, I finished in it maybe 4 hours (it would be considerably longer if you put in flat-felled seams, but I cheated). The other significant modification to this pattern I made was taking out all the lace edging (not character appropriate), which also cut my time a little.

All this, and I didn't get a picture of the shift on its own. Oh well. You'll see it at the end.

Pause to enthuse over buttons: Aren't these adorable? I saw them and had to have them, and they ended up going nicely on this dress.


Way back in the day, when I was still in college, I made one of my best craft purchases ever. I was perusing the Walmart sewing section, and some damn fool had put a whole bolt of vinyl on the $1 table. So, I bought a whole bolt of vinyl for $8 and have been schlepping it from apartment to apartment ever since. Let this be a lesson- always check the sales and the remnants, because you'll never know what you'll find.

So, I happened to have plenty of material on hand with which to accessorize. First stop was a pair of gloves. Since the shift is very pretty and very feminine, I decided to go with a heavier, industrial look for the accessories- and what better to use than all this vinyl?

Now, I don't know about you, but I ain't 'bout fixin' to make no damn gloves. I am aware that I could probably do it, but y'all, I have better things to do. So, instead of gloves, I went with armwarmers. I took some arm measurements and just BSed it from there. They weren't staying on great, so I added a wrist band to make them more stable. Because this is steampunk, and in steampunk we wear clock parts, I added some wristwatch movements for detailing.

Shameless self promotion: If you're perplexed as to how I did this but want your own, I am selling these at my Etsy shop ( I also sell watch movements like the type used here, if you have a use for them.


Every steampunk costume needs goggles; it's just a fact of nature. This one is no exception. I didn't make these particular goggles for this particular costume, but why not use what you have?

My goggles are built off of Hobart welding goggles ( I like these because you can take them completely apart for painting and such, and they're made of nice thick plastic, not the flimsy stuff. Basically, all I did was take them apart, cover the eyecups with vinyl, paint the screw on bits (that's a technical term) with antique gold acrylic paint, and paint a little reticle onto one lens cover. Super simple and cheap. I still need to replace the elastic band with something more appropriate, but hey, if they've got airships, elastic is nothing, right?


There are many options when considering footwear for a steampunk costume. You can rock big clunky boots or delicate little highbuttons, but the thing that unites them all is that they are very expensive. Here at Frenemy Cosplay, we are broke, so my choice was boot tops.

Boot tops are not nearly as hard to make as people make them out to be, especially if you choose to make pull-on ones. For these, which pull on and then are attached with tied garters, all I did was take a measurement around the widest part of my leg and make a tube big enough to fit over it (keeping in mind that the vinyl stretches a bit). I machine stitched them together, flipped them inside out, and added appropriate buttons. It was really quite a simple process- do not fear the boot tops!

Please ignore the fact that I wore the wrong shoes for these pictures. I swear they look right over my boots.

And with that, the base of the costume was done!

Final Thoughts 

I tried to make this costume as cheaply as possible, being that I had blown my budget on my Doctor Orpheus costume (post forthcoming!) and that, when I made it, I intended to wear it to only one con. On that score, I was quite successful; not counting the sunk costs of the things I already owned, it came out to about $30 US (for comparison, Doctor Orpheus ran me over a hundred).

Next time, we'll talk about the funnest part of the costume, the toolbelt. See you then!

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Sabine
    you really put a lot of effort into this post. And nice tutorials you've made! ^_^
    I'm Kevin from - a blog I share interesting things about cosplay. Just wonder can I write a guest post(maybe a cosplay tutorial) for your blog?
    If you are okay with that, contact me