Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that celebrates a world and time that never was, in which technology and science available at the time could have been used to create inventions, lifestyles, and aesthetic design. Most steampunk draws on the historical period somewhere between 1750 and 1920, when steam power was in its heyday. (Post-1920’s begins to segue into Diesel Punk, a related genre.) The term was coined by K.W. Jeter to describe works by Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and himself in a letter to Locus in the April 1987 issue.
Steampunk encompasses both science fictional inventions, such as airships, ray guns, and steam-powered rockets, and fantasy conceits such as vampires, werewolves, and fairy creatures.
So, you are new to Steampunk. You see the ornate corset, bustles, buckles, and top hats. You want to be part of this movement of imagination and innovation but you might be feeling a bit out of the loop because you are not quite sure what a "fascinator" is. Well, here are some tips for you to look the tip top shape.
If you have the opportunity and the inclination to wear a corset, do so. A corset is a great way to get the quintessential hour glass or "S" curve shape of the Victorian and Edwardian era. It is also very sexy how it squishes in and up all the good bits on a woman's body. I am a "plus sized" girl myself and nearly six feet tall, and I love my corset. I went with the under bust "S" curve shape popular in the late 1890's up until WWI. I have a kind of an "Unsinkable Molly Brown" meets "Mae West" kind of persona. I do know a wonderfully talented and skilled seamstress that constructed a corset that fits just for me. I can breath comfortably and I can move (although I can see why dropping a handkerchief off the floor could summon a suitor, because bending down an be challenging). I don't recommend operating a motor vehicle while all trussed up. The poster that a corset "inspires" is not conducive to driving, especially turning left. I often go to meetings "un-escorted" and have to drive myself. I will clasp up my corset in the parking lot and have a girlfriend either lace up or loosen my stays depending if I am coming or going before driving. Perhaps operating a motor car was not a big issue for women at the time.
There are several corset options available online and in stores. The "costume" styles that are available in lingerie stores may not be structurally sound enough for "tight lacing" styles. Unless it is your characters style, the store bought corsets bought in the lingerie section might look a little too much like, well, lingerie. They can be worn under your clothes which was really more of the style at the time.
If you want forgo a corset completely, that is okay. I nice vest is great. There is definitely the "adventurer" and "explorer" heroine who wears breaches, belts, and trousers. This is a strong persona which is definitely enjoyed and celebrated.
I have a few Steampunk styles. I have a few outfit styles that includes pants, vests, and buttoned up shirts with hats and goggles. I also have more "feminine" styles that include skirts, corsets, and complicated looking "Gibson" style hair. The whole idea of Steampunk is to try on different versions of yourself.
Hats and Vests. No really, it does not have to be more complicated than that. Frock coats, waistcoats, jackets with tails are certainly appreciated. There are interpretations anywhere from the Edwardian Dandy to "Mad Max" styled Diesel punk in leather and boots. There is also a military uniform interpretation I have seen which is really cool. In a pinch, a Thrift Store vest, nice pants, and a Steampunked nerf gun and you are set.
Accessories: There is no such thing as over accessorizing a Steampunk outfit.
Pocket Watches! Compasses for time travel, necklaces, broaches, cameos, umbrellas, parasols, walking sticks, Steampunked "weapons" (that are non-working and totally fake like Nerf guns) are all great.
Hats: Gentleman's hats can range from top hats, bowlers, to caps. Ladies can wear all the above, of course. I like to wear a bowler hat with two long braids sticking out.
No problem. The Industrial Revolution occurred all across the world. If your character is an inventor in China, then dress as that person would dress.