SP: A Disarming Conversation
Captain Locke unstrapped his service pistol and set it on the bed. Then he returned to the foyer where he’d kept Lady Keye waiting.
“Is that all the guns, Locke?”
“Well, uh, that’s all you could see. I still got a derringer strapped to my ankle, and a sawed off on my back under this coat.”
Keye rolled her eyes. “They will pat us down at the door. You especially.”
Locke turned to go back up the stairs. “Fine.”
Have you ever noticed how many steampunks are carrying weapons? Per my own metric of differentiating between a Dicken’s enthusiast and a steampunk, odds are good the weapon itself is steampunked and that pushes their costume across the line. Now that’s not true of all steampunk costumes. Nor is there anything wrong with costumes featuring weapons. But if your outfit relies on them, I’d like to give you some ideas.
Don’t Take Your Guns to Town
There are some conventions that disallow weapons of any kind. Even props, which is what we’re really talking about from a steampunk costuming perspective. Now, rather than pitch a fit over that because our costuming plan is ruined, I see an opportunity for creativity. We shouldn’t begrudge somebody else’s sensitivities at their own place.
Our goal is to forgo a weapon, NerfPunked or otherwise. They’re fun to make and often signal an adventuring character type. But that’s not the only way to be steampunk. So what are our options?
The Default Costume
But before we start, consider this idea. I created one identity for steampunk, Kensington Locke. Over time, I built up different outfits for this same character based on situations he might need to operate in. So there’s adventure mode (with a gun!), man-about-town mode (aka date night in Houston), and envoy to Japan mode (with Aetheric Sword). Okay, two of those have weapons. But I’m prepared to go unarmed, still within my narrative.
To generate some ideas, it might help to approach steampunk costuming from a generic standard, and then deviate. Let’s pretend you’re coming with me to Dickens on the Strand in Galveston, Texas. So, you pull out a Victorian outfit. A suit or a dress, let’s say. Now with the dress, we don’t wear those styles nowadays, so if it looks period, you’d be in good company.
Now you look like a cast member in a Dickens show. How do we steampunk it up? Without weapons?
What kind of role does your character play? That’s where it starts. It’s not just dressing up, but deciding who you will be. That might be based on the clothes you have or select.
Clothes That Pop
For the suit, you might get away with wearing a modern one. That’s a big reveal and ties to the best costuming advice I received from my steampunk friend Drew Heyen. Wear something that is dramatically different from our time period. Flip the collar up on a men’s dress shirt, bend the corners down and make a tie from a larger cloth. Now it stands out from a man in a suit to a man from another time.
Choose fabrics and clothing pieces that speak of the Victorian era yet springboard us into the fantastical. Wearing corsets on the outside, hiked skirts showing boots and mxing menswear in works for women’s garb. You won’t see many Dickensians dressed like that.
Garb that speaks of crossing boundaries. Pirates look cool because they wore the finery they stole blending ruggedness and elegance. An upper class toff armed for a night of vampire slaying is another. A female airship engineer in a top hat, racing to stop an errant automaton in the city. All of these things cross Victorian roles, sensibilities and social limits, which is steampunk motif unto itself.
I would say that our present imaginary costume qualifies as steampunk if we met up at a restaurant or went to work in it. In a gathering of steampunks, we need to twist the dial up. Some of these idea may not work for your intended steamsona.
An idea from Thomas Willeford’s book is a fancy box to hide your smartphone in. Make it larger and it’s a purse disguised as an aetherium tracker.
Jetpack or Wings
The safest way to board an enemy airship is by your own conveyance.
Ridiculous Fictional Medals
Never wear a real medal you didn’t earn, but feel proud to wear the Republic of Texas Air Cavalry’s award for perfect attendance.
Steampowered Walking Stick or Parasol
I have no idea how it works, but it doubles as a lightning rod in a storm.
I like these for their subtle complexity conjoined with a subdued outfit. An otherwise ordinary gentleman, except for his metal hand. Draw attention to it for its detail and craftsmanship. This is a turn from Victorian’s notion to cover or hide such an injury.
You don’t have to file a protest when you learn an event disallows weapons. Integrate the narrative. The locale has required all weapons to be turned in at the gate. So walk about as someone whose weapons have just been confiscated. Maybe even reach for the familiar grip that’s no longer there, like an absent lover.
Harnesses and Bandoliers
The straps cross the formal lines of dress with utilitarian style, delineating form and function.
For some, goggles have become cliche. I see them as a silent signal for “hey, I’m a steampunk,” like gears artfully assembled as decoration. Whether on your hat, about your neck, or dare I suggest, on your face, goggles remain a standard of the steampunk multiform.
Job Specific Exaggerations
If you’re a mechanic, carry a large pipe wrench (recommended fake, those are heavy). A doctor? How about a doctor’s bag with some scary implements sticking out. If you’re an airship pirate, how about a sextant that you use now and then to triangulate on your target. Signal your role through something unusual and noticeable.
Is That All?
I’ve barely scratched the surface of steampunk costuming without weapons. The equipment we carry might indicate our skill or signal our power, it should not be the only thing that defines us as people or as characters. Otherwise, if you dropped your gun and a stranger picked it up, who are you? That’d be a shallow definition of self, indeed. Knowing that some events might not allow weapons, I encourage you to plan your outfit to operate with or without.
Captain Locke rounded the corner to find Lady Keye standing over an unconscious butler as she returned a suspicious object to her reticle.
“I thought you said no weapons.”
Key smiled demurely, “My dear, I did bring my wit. And a sap. They never check women’s things too closely.” She turned to the door, barring their way to the basement. “Now shall we get this open?”
Pulling a pen from his breast pocket, Locke stepped forward and said, “Well, I did grab this exploding pen from my desk before we left.”