Dressing Your Characters! (Steampunk Edition)

Normally I don’t go into detail describing clothes. Even though I write fantasy, and the clothing my characters wear look detailed and fantastical in my head, I try to limit descriptions of anything, including clothing (especially clothing) to one or two paragraphs. Or I’ll drop hints during the narrative or dialogue that give the reader a few clues about what the characters are wearing, and let them fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. Usually readers don’t like lengthy descriptions.

But if you know steampunks, you know they love their fashion. There’s a scene in Cobalt when Kate and Ania need to change their clothing to blend in with a less fancy crowd. Because of a condition Kate has, her own clothing needs to be adjustable, and a couple times I thought it was needed to remind the reader of that fact, so it didn’t look like I was being careless and forgot.

But mainly, I just wanted to have some fun dressing up the girls in some cool steampunk outfits! There are a couple of pictures at the end of this post that slightly inspired Kate’s clothes, but read it first and then tell me if I painted a decent enough mental picture.

It’s off with the girly petticoats, and good riddance!” Ania cut into Kate’s thoughts by tossing a garment at her head. “Here’s a pair of trousers that would suit you. See, the fabric is flexible, and there’s a drawstring waist. Milek, get out of here. Women are getting dressed.”

Milek shrugged and headed down the hall to pillage some more. Ania removed her dress and petticoats, then pulled on a plain brown tunic with some black breeches. “It’s a lucky thing Stark is a small man.” She selected a leather belt with many little compartments, hooks, and loops attached to it, and strapped it around her waist.

Kate looked at her trousers with distaste, not wanting to wear anything that had touched that man’s backside. “It’s threadbare. The seams are starting to wear out along the seat.”

“It can’t be helped, it’s the most adjustable item of clothing I could find.”

“Why can’t I just keep what I’m wearing?” Kate had grown fond of her shift with elegant, flowing sleeves, and the embroidered bodice.

Ania eyed her friend’s cream-colored skirt that might have been constructed with just a few too many ruffles and bustles. “You could keep the top, but we’re no longer luxury passengers. We’ll be traveling in questionable company at best. That skirt’s a bit too enticing, and impractical for traveling on a merchant ship. Come here a moment.”

Ania found a small pair of tarnished scissors in their pile. Kate stifled a dismayed cry as she started snipping around the circumference of the skirt, until the lower half fell to the floor in a heap of of silk and lace. Her bare legs stuck out of a skirt that barely reached mid-thigh.

“There. Now put the trousers on. What’s left of your skirt will hide the threadbare spots.”

The faded brown pants fit snugly around her legs, easily tucking inside her boots when she pulled them back on. She looked at the chopped-off remnants of her skirt with a regretful sigh. Leaning down, she tore a strip of lace from the ruins, then tied her hair back.

“Look what I found.” Milek took two steps into the room, then stopped dead. “Oh, can I come in?”

“Well, you don’t see any bosoms hanging out, do you?” Ania started lacing up her boots.

Kate caught a glimpse of polished silver and gleaming faceted blue in Milek’s hands. “What is it?”

He held it out to her. A black leather belt and sheath, etched with swirling designs, encased a delicate silver hilt embedded with round sapphires. Like miniature globes, they shone the exact color of Cobalt. She grasped the handle, carefully pulling it out of its leather casing to reveal a slim blade, gleaming blue-white from the light of the real Cobalt lamps in the room.

“The wardrobe in his bedroom,” Milek explained in a hushed voice. “I found a hidden compartment full of personal items. I have a feeling they belonged to the other Cobalt-touched he’s abused in the past. I left the others where they were, but I thought this suited you. And, after what you did for Ania, I think you deserve it.”

Kate didn’t know what to think about taking something that had once belonged to another person like her. One who wasn’t lucky enough to get away. She looked over at Ania. The other girl nodded, her eyes appraising the wickedly sharp blade and the expertly crafted belt. “I think the knife’s previous owner would be grateful if you took it away from that evil man.”

Hesitating a moment, Kate sheathed the knife, then strapped the belt around her waist. “In that case, I think we should take all the things out of that secret compartment. Dr. Stark shouldn’t keep any of it.”

“Agreed.” Milek grabbed a pack from the pile and went back down the hall.

Halfway through attaching her own knife to a loop on her belt, the same one Kate had used to cut out the parasite, Ania stopped to give Kate a second glance. “You look just like a pirate now.” She laughed. “You know how I feel about pirates, but–once we’re in the streets of Murdock, it won’t hurt to give others the impression that they’re better off leaving us alone.”

I love Magdalene Veen’s vagabond steampunk style, but since Kate is 12, the half-skirt would be topped with a more modest shift and bodice. This skirt is very cool, though, just about what Kate’s would look like.

I have this exact same chemise and corset, from Damsel in this Dress! (Except mine is burgundy with gold embroidery. The color of Kate’s, if I remember correctly from a previous chapter.) The bodice’s lacing makes Kate’s top as adjustable as she needs it to be.

Rather than brown leggings, these are tights, yet have the same kind of look with the pants under the shorter bustled skirt Ania “made” for Kate:

Hmm. Although I didn’t model Kate after myself (she’s too skinny, lol), the clothes she wears in this scene pretty much describe the type of outfits I like to put together. *sheepish grin*

Now I need to ask your honest opinions. Am I describing too much in this scene? Did I balance the action and dialogue well with my descriptions of their clothing? Or did I let my love for steampunk fashion overwhelm my storytelling?

And, as always, I want to know your methods. How do you describe something your character is wearing? Especially if it’s something unusual or has a specific design or function, such as Ania’s belt or Kate’s knife?

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7 thoughts on “Dressing Your Characters! (Steampunk Edition)

  1. I usually don't go into a lot of detail about what my characters are wearing unless, like in your case, it's an important part of the scene.

    I wasn't really sure what a steampunk outfit would look like, so your descriptions actually helped me out. I think you described just enough so that the reader knows what the characters are wearing, but they don't know the exact thread count of each article of clothes.

    Nice post! I really love the outfit with the skirt and tights.

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  2. Okay – you need to explain to me what “steampunk” is! Seriously – I need a post with a definition because I'm slow like that. However… LOVE the freaking clothes! Heck ya!

    I like description in books. Not big long lengthy paragraphs, but I hate when I get no visual. So I keep the description short, or weave it into thoughts, actions or dialogue. 🙂

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  3. A good, short definition of steampunk is Victorian science fiction, and it has a growing cult following. I've been into it for a few years, but you can count almost my whole life if you consider that I always loved the whole literary/movie & tv element, without knowing what it was called (but of course, back in the 80s it wasn't called steampunk). Nowadays, there's steampunk music, conventions, fashion, etc!

    Cobalt is more of a dark fantasy with steampunk elements. I'm having a ton of fun with it, but I have a feeling it's not going to be long enough…

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  4. I think it depends what the author PERSONALLY enjoys. If you're into fashion, you'll tend to explain their clothing more. I'm not. However I am into photography, so my landscapes and settings can get pretty descriptive. Cute clothes though, even from a novice like me.

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