Today we welcome amazing YA writer Lia Habel.
Lia Habel was born in Jamestown, NY, and has lived there the majority of her life. Her first book, Dearly, Departed, is a sweeping tale of zombie-living romance set in a cyber-Victorian/steampunk future. When Dearly, Departed sold, Lia was swimming in debt incurred from her studies and years of un- and underemployment, with only a few dollars to her name. Miss Habel enjoys attending anachronistic and steampunk events, watching zombie movies (she has watched over a hundred of them), commissioning ball gowns, and collecting Victorian and Edwardian books. She is incredibly grateful for the opportunities she has recently been given.
Being a neo-Victorian/steampunk clothes horse 101
by Lia Habel
Being asked to write about steampunk always terrifies me, because I hardly consider myself an authority on the subject. In fact, my personal vision of steampunk is far from pure, as I tend to mash it up with cyberpunk, dieselpunk, and as many pretty, sparkly things as I think I can get away with. Rules never suit me, even in a subculture made for breaking rules – which is why, when I attend steampunk events, I tend to dress like a little Victorian princess rather than an airship captain or mad engineer-by-day-burlesque-dancer-by-night. I have the greatest respect for airship captains and mad engineers-by-day-burlesque-dancers-by-night, but I like being that pop of sugary sweet pastel in the middle of the room, the one who maybe looks out of place. Philosophically, you need the lady to define the plight of the urchin, and vice versa.
But let’s leave philosophy behind. Let’s talk about clothes. Today I want to speak to the fantastic teenagers I’ve met at the schools I’ve visited, the ones who come up to me afterward and whisper, “I need to dress like this.” Okay, darlings. This is what you do. This is Lia’s 101 level class on being a neo-Victorian/steampunk clothes horse. The first two suggestions will be very broad, everything else gossip.
1. Experiment. Don’t box yourself into one style right off the bat. If you have the opportunity and the inclination, try wearing something Elegant Gothic Lolita-esque and adorable, try dressing like a dandy (I don’t care if you’re male or female – tuxedos are sexy), try being a construct or automaton, try playing a dark and alluring Victorian cabaret singer. Playing dress-up is the best way to figure out which styles speak to you, what works for your budget, and what sartorial direction you want to wander off in first. And keep in mind that you can go back to the drawing board at any time, and have more than one style of dress!
2. Figure out who you want to become. I once heard an academic talk about something called “performative language,” which is basically the idea that certain types of language act like magic spells, forcing something to become true through sheer power of words alone – for instance, saying, “I do” at the altar. It is “when saying something is doing something” (J.L. Austin – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Performativity). In steampunk the same holds true, for you can adopt any persona you like simply by saying it is so. Declare yourself a duke? Then I shall refer to you as, “Your Grace.” Want to be the head of some dark, esoteric cult? Fine, end the world, just don’t proselytize at my hotel room door. So you’re a young lady enrolled in the local boarding school? Is it true what they say about your literature professor, Mr. Brown? Everything can be done, and everything in a spirit of play. The whole wide world is open to you.
3. EXPOSE! Visually wander through steampunk and Victorian fashion blogs and sites. I love doing this, as it gives me ideas for accessorizes to scout out, color combinations to try, and holes in my wardrobe I need to fill. Some of my favorite sites are http://treselegant.tumblr.com/, http://oldrags.tumblr.com/, and http://my-ear-trumpet.tumblr.com/. And if you can, visit a Victorian costume museum. They’re like candy shops full of delicious things you can never taste, but they’re a great way to educate yourself.
4. MAKE! Alas, I used to make much more than I now do, but I’m very glad that I at least attempted a few outfits and suites of accessories. Making your own items gives you a sense of accomplishment and allows you to build a wardrobe that’s perfectly suited to your needs. Whether it’s by knitting, embroidering, welding, or sewing, there’s certainly some craft out there you can undertake. (And half the fun of thrift-store shopping and dumpster diving is repurposing the items!) If nothing else, maintaining a large steampunk wardrobe requires knowing how to properly repair and clean various garments. A few hours from now I’ll be sewing a torn petticoat by hand, for instance, and I see engineers fiddling with their mechanical arms and lighted top hats constantly at events, performing small repairs and adjustments.
5. SHOP! I know some decry the fact that one can buy a suitable steampunk wardrobe, now, rather than being forced to make one – but I love it. I love knowing that my money goes to amazing artisans and seamstresses and designers, people who love the same things I do. I’m not the least bit ashamed. Now, certainly the best way I know of to expose yourself to these fantastic sources of frippery is to attend steampunk events with dealer rooms – normally there’s quite a good selection of corsets, hats, and accessories, which when added to a blouse and skirt will get you instantly on your way. Etsy.com is also a fantastic resource, and many steampunk brands with separate websites also maintain an Etsy presence, so you’re sure to find them. Etsy is also great for finding seamstresses willing to undertake custom projects, which is how I found the designer/seamstress to fill my first custom gown order. All in all, just talk to people – that’s the surest way to find what you want or learn how to build what you want to build.
“All right! We shall shop! What should we look for and what should we do with it?” My humble tips:
– Corset and boots first. A good corset and a good pair of boots will form the foundation of any wardrobe. Try heavyred.com, clockworkcouture.com, corset-story.com, or fairygothmother.co.uk. For your first corset, I would recommend one in a color and material that can be worn on top of other items as your first layer of clothing. And be sure to get steel boning! Plastic looks cheap, will break, and won’t do anything for your figure.
– Don’t try to find accessories for a gown after you’ve purchased the gown – you’ll end up scrambling and looking either too cute by half or hastily thrown together. I prefer my ensembles to build organically by purchasing what I like when I see it, regardless of whether it will go with anything I currently own. After a few months or a year, when I suddenly realize that I have an awful lot of navy blue items, that’s when I start searching for a navy blue dress to go with them. Suites of matching items can also usually be paired with a neutral-colored dress, thus freshening it up. So, my big hint: LIKE IT? BUY IT.
– Be sure you have the space and conditions to store your items. A lot of my gowns are heirloom-quality material, and I treat them as such. I store them in acid-free paper and boxes, or wrap them up with acid-free linen in storage. When I dry clean them, I insist that even the smallest items be dry cleaned to wedding gown preservation standards. (And then I dance for twelve hours in them, but at least I try to make up for it.)
– What can you get cheaply? Long skirts, stockings, suitable-looking blouses (either from thrift stores or modern stores), some accessories (hit up craft store sales for fake flowers, ribbons that can be made into sashes and chokers, and interesting buttons to liven up plain jackets – and be sure to check out the wedding section for pretty white trims, usually insanely cheap), gloves and jewelry trinkets (believe it or not, some of my favorite gloves came from Hot Topic and Claire’s – you’d never know it to look at them).
– What should you TRY to get as cheaply as possible? Gloves, fans, and handkerchiefs. These are invariably lost, ruined, or stolen by shy, pining would-be suitors* after one long evening – I use my satin opera gloves once, usually. (*This has never happened.)
– What should you spend the most money on? Your corsets (my favorite corset cost me $300, and I’ve had it for about 6 years now), your really high-class ball gowns (from places like Azrael’s Accomplice – http://www.azacclothingcouture.com/), your good black top hat, and your shoes (support! And buy them large enough to wear socks in).
– What are some items no one ever thinks to buy but which are versatile or really punchy? Dickies/collars/sleeves – basically detachable shirt pieces that you can tie or pin into any dress you like in order to change up the style or fill in an area you’d rather be filled. Civil War shops are great for these, as they were a staple of 1860s wardrobes. Sashes and belts are a fantastic way to change up an outfit or cover an elastic skirt waistband (try Premier Designs Historic Clothing for the latter – http://www.premierclothing.com/Extra/21-home-page/).
Now! Go forth and explore! And if you find a shop that’s really remarkable, point it out to me, will you?