Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How to Be A Steampunk In the Summer

Well it's definitely summer, at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.  Here in Texas we're getting settled into the three digit temperature routine of "hide indoors or scurry from air-conditioned spot to air-conditioned spot."

Dealing with the heat is bad enough, but dealing with it in steampunk costume?  That's a whole different thing.  In general, I'll admit I avoid events that require me dressing in full steampunk rig in the summer.  At least in the outdoors.  But given that I've also attended events in December where the temp was in the 90s, I still have some advice for dressing steampunk when it's hot.

Tip #1 - Wear cotton.

The outfit in question: bare shoulders,
 but dying from synthetic fabric.
I've learned a valuable lesson over the years: how much clothing you're wearing doesn't matter as much as what that clothing is made from.   It can be counterintuitive, but sometimes you'll be much more comfortable in multiple layers of cotton clothing than if you were wearing something that shows a lot of skin but is made of a synthetic fabric like polyester.

I personally learned this after one day at the Sherwood Forest Renaissance Fair when the temperature was climbing.  I chose my outfit based on the weather, leaving my arms free instead of wearing something with sleeves.  But both my skirt and the sleeve-less jacket I wore were made of two layers of polyester and it trapped all my body heat against my skin.  I became ill that day from the heat, when I'd normally have been fine.

On the other hand, my Victorian bustle dress is made from all cotton, and even with appropriate period layers (or, ok an undershirt, a petticoat, and corset) it wears very well in the heat.

The reason is that cotton breathes, while synthetic fabrics do not.  Cotton wicks heat away from your body and allows air to get to your skin.  This is why you should always line all your clothing with cotton, even if the exterior is synthetic.  If you look at how actual Victorian-era folks survived the heat, it's because they had natural fibers in their clothing, in particular cotton next to their skin.  My husband has reported that his one pair of wool trousers are actually cooler to wear than his synthetic cargo pants because they are thinner and breathe better.

Tip #2 - Adapt your outfit for summer, or create a summer outfit.

Are there parts of your outfit you can do without, like jackets, coats, gloves, etc?  You will normally see steampunk gentlemen remove their coats and roll up their sleeves in the summer, but keep their vests.  Because VESTS.

Ladies, now is the time to wear an overbust corset on its own and to hike up those skirts.    It's easy to convert a long skirt to a shorter one with the assistance of garters or purpose-make skirt hikes.   Or tuck them into a belt.

But what about making a summer outfit?  It's a great excuse to experiment with shorts, short skirts, bloomers, and other underwear-based looks.   Look into the Steampunk Lolita look for inspiration.

My go-to summer outfits are either my bustle skirt or my patch corset outfit.  The corset is thick, but it leaves my shoulders and arms completely bare, and the extremely ruffly petticoat and overskirt are short, 100% cotton, and also completely period, since they are actually accurate can-can skirts.

The downside is I've found myself freezing indoors at some conventions because of high air-conditioning.  So I'm adding a light hand-knitted shawl to this outfit for those situations.

I've seen other smart steampunk summer outfits, from a Native American steampunk outfit to variations on saloon girls and "I'm running around in my underwear" costumes.

I'm actually freezing in this picture,
hence the neck wrap.

Tip #3: Pay attention to your body's "hot spots"

The human body loses heat from some places more than it does from others.  So think of all those areas that you've been told need to be especially protected in cold weather: your head, your neck, your hands and feet.  These are areas you should pay attention to when designing clothing for high temperatures as well.

We all also have individual differences in where we will be bothered the most by being overheated.  For me, it's my feet.  If my feet are too hot, I'll be miserable, which is why I never wear closed shoes in the summer.  Someone may be very bothered by having their head covered, while someone else is comfortable with it.

But consider what your steampunk outfit normally covers.  This is especially relevant when it comes to hats.  For many, a hat is a necessity for a steampunk outfit.  But a high-quality wool hat is going to cause overheating in the summer.  Leather also traps heat and doesn't allow your head to cool.  So consider leaving your hat off.  Or modify it, by adding air vents (I've seen this done in a few stylish ways).   Or, perhaps best, get yourself a style of hat better suited to summer.   Pith helmets were originally designed for hot climates, and the large-brimmed ladies hats of the Edwardian period are ideal for keeping the sun off.

Shoes are a bit trickier, but see my post on Steampunk Summer Shoes for some ideas.

Tip #4: Incorporate cooling accessories into your outfit

This is steampunk, right?  Gadgets and whatnots are enthusiastically encouraged.  So why not include some accessories that will help keep you cool?

The most obvious choice here is a hand fan.  Victorian ladies wouldn't have ventured to a crowded ball without one.  I wear a wooden fan that I've painted to look like brass attached to my belt via a retractable badge reel.   Gentlemen may feel a hand-fan is too feminine, but they always seem to appreciate a breeze from one.

Parasols were another period solution to avoid heat.  Check out my tutorial on recovering a parasol.

One of the keys to staying cool is hydration, so keeping water close at hand is recommended as well. Using a leather water bottle holder of any style is a great way to keep yourself feeling your best.

Finally, we're steampunks, right?  Why haven't I seen anyone with a steampunk'd portable mini-fan yet?  You could build a brass one, or if you are less mechanically inclined, paint up a little plastic one.  Great....one more thing I need to do now.  :)

Stick around.  All this week and next I'll be bringing you posts about how to steampunk in summer. 

Anyone have any other tips to share?  Do you have a summer steampunk outfit?  Email me a picture at steamingenious (at) gmail.com and I may post it on this blog next week!


  1. I just love you blog, and all you costumes. I do 1880's costumes and belong to a reenactment group. I'm so happy that we are adding a steam punk parade and costume contest to our Rendezvous weekend this year. Sometimes it's hard not to steam punk my costumes since I love it so much. Now I get to this year and be in two parades. Again love your blog it's so much help!

  2. Welcome to the blog, Ginger! Steampunk is so much fun, it is difficult NOT to include it sometimes. On the other hand, it's easy to steampunk up Victorian recreations.

  3. I love this, thank you. The advice about cotton is great and definitely makes me glad I did stock up on so much cotton for my clothes making!

    I have been recently thinking about how to fit Steampunk clothes more into my everyday life when I get such a thing as a job. (At the moment I work from home and can wear whatever I like) Ruffly shirts and nice jackets yes, but what to wear skirtwise? I am not a fan of short skirts, I would wear ankle length every day if I could. Any advice on this?

  4. I do quite like a-line skirts like longer 'lolita' skirts though, so I suppose I could wear them.

    1. Sorry for not getting back to you. I'm a fan of long skirts, too, and I used to wear them a lot when I had an office job, although a lot were plain sheath type skirts. What about petticoat style skirts? I have one black one I made from this tutorial that works well for normal wear.

      Also fishtail style skirts or something with an uneven hem like this.

    2. Thanks, good to know! I am sure the complaint that I would not be able to move properly to work in them would not be a very good one anyway, given that I have spent a large portion of the last few years doing almost everything in longish skirts. I also find long skirts do let the air move around your legs in summer and can actually be quite cool! With my apple shaped figure tight skirts aren't really going to happen, but as long as I wore something a-line I could be fairly happy. And if it did have to be shorter, some ruffles might help. I am also thinking of making as you say, some petticoat type skirts, like Victorian inspired, but narrower and simpler. :)

  5. Summer is the perfect season for the Victorian lady explorer style costume, cotton twill skirt, split or not, in tan or khaki, a cotton muslin shirtwaist/Gibson girl style blouse, a pith helmet with silk scarf veil, and a parasol. And then of course various Steampunk accessories like goggles, compass & map case, etc.
    Boringlibrarian in Waco