Thrifting Steampunk: Creating Costumes on the Cheap

I was lucky enough to be involved with the Circle City Aerodrome’s stellar Steampunk immersion weekend this month. In my role as Madame Belle, I hosted a burlesque Cabaret, acted in a Penny Dreadful (complete with staged public fights), and emceed a ball. It was awesome.

Because I arrived on Friday and didn’t leave until Sunday, I needed several outfits. Fortunately, Steampunk lends itself to taking stuff you find, deconstructing it, and using the pieces to build something new. Which means with enough time, you can create some pretty fab stuff by thrifting steampunk.

Figuring Out the Character

My Madame Belle character is the proprietor of a high-class entertainment establishment (draw your own inferences). She’s not a mechanic or a gearhead, but someone who puts a gloss of propriety on her less-than-savory business. As a result, her clothes have more of an upper-class socialite feel than a leather-and-cogs aesthetic. Here are two day outfits I created for the weekend.

Penny Dreadful Introduction

Belle at right in an almost entirely second-hand outfit. Photo by Matthew Mayer Photography. (
Belle at right in an almost entirely second-hand outfit. Photo by Matthew Mayer Photography. (

This is an example of a no-sew costume put together entirely from pieces that required no alteration. I needed to throw it together quickly for a pre-weekend photo shoot.

Believe it or not, that fantastic yellow silk-and-velvet jacket came from Goodwill Outlet. The corset was from an earlier costume, and underneath it I’m wearing a 1930s nightgown that belonged to my grandmother. The skirt is a floor-length number from a Goodwill.

The earrings are from a friend who found them at a garage sale, and the truly fab pendant watch was a birthday gift from a friend.

Actual money spent by me: The corset I bought last year for about $35. The skirt was from a retail thrift store for about $4, and the jacket from the Goodwill Outlet for probably $1.

The At-Home Ensemble

Mixing and matching pieces to get the most out of them. Photo by TheMOX. (
Mixing and matching pieces to get the most out of them. Photo by TheMOX. (

I hosted a tea salon on Saturday, and this was my daytime outfit. It has a vaguely tea-gown air without actually being a tea gown.

The skirt is from last year’s ball gown, with some of the elaborate trim removed. (It was originally a 1940s wedding dress.)

The base is the same 1930s nightgown as above. The jacket is another Goodwill Outlet find. It’s soutache that was originally over a silk lining, which shattered when I tried to clean it. So I ripped out the lining and did a little mending.

Actual money spent by me: The jacket was a Goodwill Outlet find and probably cost about $1. The hair ornament I already had. I spent $40 on the wedding dress last year that I altered to use as the skirt; this is the third costume it’s made an appearance in.

Day Costume Summary

1. You can create a character and then build a costume around it, or you can create the costume first. You might find a truly fabulous costume bit that helps inspire the character.

2. Building costumes with separate skirts and bodices allows you to mix and match later.

3. Don’t turn your nose up at stuff your relatives and friends give you; great stuff comes from attics and garage sales.

4. Goodwill Outlet is a costumer’s dream.

5. If you’re going to wear a costume for a long time, make sure it’s comfortable. The at-home outfit doesn’t have a corset, which was a deliberate choice. If your corset is custom made, you might be able to do a full day in one. My corsets are not of the custom variety, as I cannot justify a $500 corset, no matter how fantastic it is and what amazing things it does for my figure.

Up next: Madame Belle Goes Formal.

Fraudulent Farmgirl
I teach garden and homesteading skills—the stuff your great-grandmother knew how to do. But if there's a faster, cheaper, or easier way to do it, I'll find it!By day, I design earth-friendly gardens for Spotts Garden Service. By night, I don my Wellies to become the Fraudulent Farmgirl. On my small urban homestead, I've ripped out the front lawn to plant vegetables and fruit trees, turned the garage into a chicken coop and grown enough strawberries to feed half the neighborhood.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *