Jema Hewitt shows by example how to design fantastical Steampunk outfits without resorting to the same old clichés.
For those who have yet to discover the joys of “Steampunk”, it is a delightful subculture. It's a little like the Goth or Cosplay scene but rather than taking particular bands, established cartoons or a style of music as its focal point, it is based around a whole alternative reality concept, that of Victorian science fiction.
Steampunks attend conventions and have tea parties, they go on trips to museums and the theatre and travel on steam trains, generally having fun in costume. Meanwhile, the genre has also been filtering down to high street fashion, with pocket watches, military jackets and bustle styled skirts all making a comeback.
The Steampunk look is inspired by writers like Jules Verne and HG Wells, as well as modern literary and graphic novelists such as Alan Moore and Philip Reeve. It’s a highly visual genre, filled with ladies in bustles and gentlemen in top hats and tails, all taking afternoon tea and using glorious Art Nouveau styled technology. It has inspired many fantasy films, from “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” to “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and the new “Sherlock Holmes" film.
The key premise is this: What if the Victorians had access to a technology that was never actually invented? How might it have changed them and the way they lived? Imagine a world in which Queen Victoria holidays on an Aether-ship in orbit around Mars... a world in which Oscar Wilde writes his witty plays for a theatre on the moon... a world in which Charles Babbage’s computer was actually built, and powered by steam!
As my alter ego, Miss Emilly Ladybird - Adventuress, I design and create steampunk styled jewellery and costume. Many jewellery pieces are presented as fantasy gadgets that could do something exciting in the Steampunk universe, so I write a fantastical story in episodic form on Twitter. The stories and concepts behind the pieces are then displayed together with the item.
Most people costuming for Steampunk start with a character concept: a lady adventuress, a Victorian monster hunter, an airship pilot or a clockwork doll, for example. We also often have a special steampunk event in mind that our outfit can be shown off at.
For this gown I knew I was going to want to wear something spectacular for the Empire Ball, an annual event organised by the British Victorian Steampunk Society in historic Lincoln. Everyone makes a tremendous effort with their outfits at Lincoln, and within this amazing and eccentric Victorian world there are just so many sources for inspiration, from existing films of the fantasy genre to accurate Victorian museum pieces.
For me the truly wonderful thing with steampunk costume is that anything goes! No one can say it's “wrong” or “inaccurate”! This being said, it is true that for many people, the usual steampunk colours of choice are brown, black and cream, with brass accents and the occasional flash of red or purple. But.... I love bright colours, and as there are a lot of fantastic brown outfits out there already, I felt I wanted to really stand out at the ball.
I’d had the idea of an Absinthe Fairy outfit for years. I love Absinthe and the old bottle labels with their fabulous Art Nouveau styled fairies. I’ve been creating absinthe inspired jewellery pieces for a while and am using the fairy as one of the themes in my new book. The Victorians loved the idea of fairies and often dressed as them at fancy dress balls by just popping a pair of wings on the back of a ball gown, and I loved Kylie Minogue and the Bohemians in the film Moulin Rouge. So I took all those images and made a bit of a collage to see which elements were essential for “absinthe fairy” and what could be added to “steam” it up.
The absinthe fairy, I decided, was half society lady, half naughty mythical being, stealing drinks from the tables at bohemian cafés and then, like a magpie, appropriating bits and pieces of fabric and clothing and jewellery that took her eye. I wanted her to have a feel of the music hall, and lots and lots of sparkle.
Normally when I embark on a design I have a very clear idea of what the end result is going to be. The client needs to know what they will get and I need to know how to make it. I draw very clear pictures with seams, details, fabrics and so on all clearly marked. But for my own show pieces I like to work in a much more organic and painterly way. I build an outfit up in stages, making alterations to the design, sometimes quite major ones, as the dress takes shape in its actual fabrics (and that’s the scary bit) on the mannequin in front of me.
This takes real confidence (and possibly arrogance) to do. You need to be so secure in your ability to sew pretty much anything that the process of sewing becomes unimportant, much as a painter doesn’t think about the technique with which he’s holding his brush. You just look at the art evolving in front of you. Yes, I could just make a whole gown toile in calico, but then I wouldn’t see the colours and textures coming together in the same way.
The colour was the first thing that really cemented the design. Absinthe actually varies in colour from clear, through yellow and bright yellow green, all the way to bright emerald, depending on the brand of alcohol. I decided to use all of those shades somewhere within the dress.
In true “Gone with the Wind” style, I had some gorgeous lime green silk draped up as curtains in the bedroom, which I decided would be perfect for the main part of the gown. My poor husband's face when he saw me hauling the curtains down was a picture! From the bedroom I also appropriated an emerald green, heavily embroidered vintage silk sari that I’d been using as a bedspread – now slightly nibbled by my house rabbit - I draped these two fabrics over my mannequin in the studio and started to sketch some shapes and ideas.
I fancied doing something different to my usual bustle styles, and I hadn’t made an elliptical crinoline so I rather arbitrarily started there, as my silhouette of choice. The elliptical crinoline era is also about the biggest dress ever seen in the history of fashion, and I was up for something eye popping!
First I had a good rifle through my Godey’s Ladies Book of fashion, to get an idea of the authentic bodice and sleeve shapes.
I played with ideas of leather overlays with cog shapes cut out, toyed with appliquéing and embroidering elegant “A”’s all over the skirt, but decided that actually these were just superficial gimmicks to force the dress into being shorthand Steampunk.
Dejected, I went for coffee and cake with my friend Lyssa, and we discussed the true nature of Steampunk. It wasn’t about sticking cogs and gears on things, we agreed, it was about an attitude, a freedom to go fantasy Victorian, to be daring and slightly controversial... to wear one's skirts a bit short and show your ankles..... Aha!
Having slaved over that crinoline cage, why not show it off?! Several people had played with just wearing a small cage instead of a skirt already, but I thought about how much more saucy and fun it would be to just get glimpses through the dress to the cage and frilly can-can style undies. Very French, very absinthe, very bohemian chic.
You can’t have a fairy outfit without wings. How else will anyone know you’re a fairy?
I am very fortunate in knowing many talented designers and makers, one of whom is my old college friend Ian Crichton, otherwise known as “Herr Doktor”.
His work as a props and model maker has been featured in many steampunk exhibitions and he’s universally acknowledged as being one of the most inventive problem solvers around. We’ve been trying to collaborate on a project for a while, so when I emailed him my little scrappy sketch of some “Steampunk wings” he didn’t laugh.
This was going to be the part that was truly Steampunk and mechanical, I had decided. A proper set of gadget wings, that looked artificial but were really cool, and best of all would actually move.
I started by drawing the butterfly wing shapes, and incorporating some cogs and gears on them instead of the usual eye patterns of butterflies.
I thought plastic would make a good lightweight but strong medium for the design to be cut from. Ian suggested using UV plastic which he could light up with LEDs. I drew the wings' outlines in Photoshop Illustrator and took the design to be laser cut.
I had also purchased a flying cow toy which I thought might make a good base for the flapping mechanism, but after playing with it a bit, Ian decided to build one from scratch using a small motor, purchased from a schools Craft, Design and Technology supply company.
I knew that Ian can read my mind, so at that point I just left him to it; sometimes the best results come if you allow an artist to just do their thing and interpret something their own way. And of course, the final wings were amazing!
The Corset and Undies
Now I had a bit more of a plan.... I was going to make the gown so it had a historical silhouette, but use some unusual fabrics and textures, and make it truly punk by following in the footsteps of Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano and showing my knickers.
I created the super curvy corset using the Charles Bayer pattern as a base (see my article for Foundations Revealed) and some lovely vintage green striped silk. The channels were black coutil and I flossed them with bright green. Although this looks quite historical, the colour choices are really eye popping. Green was a very popular colour for early Victorians, but the green dye was often made with arsenic, leading to illness and even death. This may be why green is considered by some to be an unlucky colour. I have yet to see an original Victorian corset in bright green!
I also created a black silk chemise, with plenty of lace, a more modern colour choice as pretty much all Victorian “linen” was white....and started debating on the style of bloomers to make. I always start making an outfit by creating the underwear. It’s only once this is correct that I can start toiling up the main dress. It also makes me feel like I’ve actually got somewhere on what can seem like an insurmountable task.
I thought about making bloomers, but I have several pairs of “drawers”, and to be honest, because I have a not inconsiderable derrière, they make my bottom look the size of Nebraska. Returning to my Parisian thoughts and remembering some pretty Edwardian knickers I’d seen in a museum, I decided to go with some rather over-the-top knee-length French knickers.
Normally I would have designed and made the skirt first, but I was feeling a little overwhelmed by the size of it, so I decided to pattern cut the bodice instead. I’d drawn a reasonable sketch of the bodice shape by now, so I used that as a basic idea, fitting it tightly over the corset. I’d also found some outrageously tacky lime green holographic sequinned lace. By itself was hideous, but layered over a heavy turquoise satin, patterned with peacock feathers, it suddenly looked magical and subtle. That was my front panel! I quickly grabbed other bits from my sample boxes and made sleeve overlays from another sari to tie the turquoise colours in, and spent ages box pleating ribbon for the front trim.
With the bodice finished and my deadline looming, I could put off the skirt no longer, but I just couldn’t think of a way of showing off the cage and blending all that rigid structure and space into a big swooshy lime green silk skirt. Then I had an idea....
Absinthe was drunk mixed with ice cold water, slowly poured through a sugar cube to sweeten and dilute the potent alcohol. This process turned the clear bright absinthe cloudy, and it was the gradual appearance of this cloudiness as the water fell drop by drop that gave rise to the whole “green fairy” illusion.... I needed a cloud in my skirt, a swirly dreamy drift of something airy and whimsical.
My sister’s wedding dress (which is a whole story and drama in itself!) had an underskirt with lovely tattered pieces of net; it looked ever so pretty and fairytale-like, whilst being extremely simple to create.
So I made a black lace petticoat and then cut a large section out of the front and side front where the crinoline cage was to show through. I bought some sparkly apple green tulle (fine net) and cut it into squares, hand sewing each one down onto the lace. I had a cloud.
I draped the green silk and the sari in swags above the net cloud underskirt and added trimmings of beads, flowers and bows.
I loved making this dress. It had moments of extreme frustration and artist's block, but overall it was fun to make and fun to wear, and of course proof that Steampunk doesn’t have to mean brown leather with rivets!
I had actually made the top hat first, before I started on the dress, while trying out a new mini top hat design for a workshop I was running.
The green hair is a long Cosplay wig that I fixed up into a more Victorian style. I do really think it’s the little details that really finish an outfit, making it a cohesive whole, rather than just a great frock. The basic ideas are pure Victorian - an up-do with a little hat - but the fact that the hair is green and the hat's a mini topper makes it very contemporary fantasy Steampunk.
The dip dyed gloves (below right) are another of my favourite accessories; I have a pair in appropriate colours for just about every outfit I wear. Long gloves were always worn in Victorian times, but the dip dyeing gives them a modern, arty feel.
I’m still looking for the perfect pair of boots. I’d love a pair of green leather button boots, but until I can afford some to be handmade (ha ha!) I’ve got a little black pair that’ll do for now.
You can find more of Jema's amazing creations at the following sites:
Gowns and corsetry www.bridal-originals.co.uk