Steampunk in the mysterious sub-continent of India

Once I got started working on my purple and gold sari fabric bustle I started thinking about designing a costume that was not unlike Dragonfly Designs by Alisa‘s Steampunk Geisha costume. Something that would combine something multicultural, along with the Victorian steampunk aesthetic. While I’m sure that I can (and will) wear the bustle without the remainder of an Indian-inspired costume, I also thought it would be interesting to explore further. My one problem (and it’s a doozy) I’m not really all that interested or experienced with Indian fashion.

So… time for research!


Photo From McKay Savage's flicker roll

I’m pretty comfortable with a monochromatic colour scheme.  Give me a  colour and I’ll find shades and tints and be happy.  I’ll find analogous colours that go with it… blue, blue-green, green… ahhh lovely.  One of the first things I noticed looking at Google images of Indian costume…. Colour.

There are colours that are brighter than I really would generally wear.. (though as I write this I am wearing a black cardigan with a black pair of yoga pants and a reasonably bright pink top (not as bright as the pink in the above photo though…), and MORE colours than I would ever wear together.  Like the above photo.. orange and pink… blue, pink and green, pink and lime… so much colour!   I did notice a number of monochromatic colour schemes though, but I do think that for this to really feel like something inspired by the fashion of India, colour is a really big factor.


Photo from Amazing India

Again, this is something very different than what I’m normally accustomed to.  I generally wear small prints, or solids.  A few stripes and plaids perhaps, but nothing too bold.  The above photo is actually a fairly tame use of pattern compared to some of the other things I saw… but.. more colour!


From Fashion Clothing Today

Accessories, trim, and other bling seems to be really important to the look as well.  The top photo shows the women wearing multiple bracelets, rings, and anklets -and other reference photos I came across showed the same thing.  This Lehenga might be for a wedding, and thus really bling-ed out.. but I think that this is also something I could consider in the costume.


One other thing that I think really is iconic, is the scarf or veil.  Almost always sheer or semi-sheer, almost always colourful, sometimes decorated (and sometimes not), but I think that a head-scarf or shawl-scarf will be an important part of this outfit as well…so then comes how to wear it in an interesting way?

Why reinvent the wheel?

So in my research I also wanted to see what people were already doing, blending Indian and Steampunk together.

The first two I found on the Brass Goggles forums, posted by an individual with the handle “Stella Gaslight” (click for the forum thread)

From the Brass Goggles Forum, photo from user Stella Gaslight


From the Brass Goggles Forum, photo from user Stella Gaslight

These are really just using sari fabrics in otherwise Victorian/Steampunk costumes.  Still a really nice use of the fabrics, and not unlike my gold and purple sari fabric bustle.

The band Sunday Driver often apparently dresses in a blend of Steampunk and Indian – though I find that it looks more Indian, even though it might sound Steampunk.

Photo from the Sunday Driver Facebook page.

Flickr user GothPanda also posted a photo in her photo stream of a pair of Indian-inspired Steampunk costumes.  I like the one on the left better – a choli top (or rather, a short-sleeved, tightly fitted black top with a round neckline), an underbust corset, a long full skirt, a draped scarf (pageant-style), a bustle, and a belt over the corset and scarf.

Polyvore Steampunk

The above is a Polyvore collection called Bollywood Steampunk created by a user named Pirate Buddah.  This seems to sum up a lot of the different ideas out there, from the embroidered slippers to the henna decorated hands.  It’s not dead on for what I have in mind, but it’s another good inspirational image. (Or, collection of images, as the case may be…)

Other discussions

Although I didn’t get a lot of clear direction, it was interesting to see some other discussions about an Indian interpretation of Steampunk.

I think that the notion of blending Steampunk (which to me always seems inherently Victorian, and British) with Indian fashion seems to make sense. There was strong British influence on the Indian people (as colonial ruling class does) and likewise there was a romantic notion of India in Britain (as seen in the old post cards of ‘belly dancers’ and adventurers).  From the Tor website, I found this (copied directly from G.D. Falksen’s article The world is not enough…but it is such a perfect place to start :

“The Indian subcontinent is especially viable for explorations into steampunk in part because of its cosmopolitan nature and in part because of its position as a key portion of the British Empire. Its role as a British colony makes it a natural recipient of Europeanized steampunk, but this should not undermine India’s own unique voice in the genre. Remove the British from the equation (perhaps by a dramatically more successful Indian Rebellion in 1857) and a wholly indigenous adaptation of technology becomes possible. However, it must be remembered that India has a long history of absorbing and blending diverse ideas, belief systems and sciences, and there is no reason to think that it would not give a unique look and feel to its steampunk even while subjected to colonial rule.”

How about Captian Nemo?  From Wikipedia:

“Captain Nemo, also known as Prince Dakkar, is a fictional character featured in Jules Verne’s novels Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1874).  Nemo, one of the most famous antiheroes in fiction, is a mysterious figure. The son of an Indian Raja, he is a scientific genius who roams the depths of the sea in his submarine, the Nautilus, which was built on a deserted island. Nemo tries to project a stern, controlled confidence, but he is driven by a thirst for vengeance and a hatred of imperialism (particularly the British Empire) and wracked by remorse over the deaths of his crew members and even by the deaths of enemy sailors.”


So… I think that I might need a bit more research, or time to sit down and think about some of the ideas that have come up.  Perhaps a chance to look at some Victorian costume along with some Indian costume and see where there might be overlapping ideas… (like the yellow and orange suit waaaay up at the top of the page, and it’s similarity to Victorian bathing costumes for instance… )  Maybe time to get sketching!


My title ‘mysterious sub-continent of India’ is straight out of a comment Raj made on the Big Bang Theory while trying to woo some gal. I thought it was cute.  I have no idea if India is mysterious or not.  I also know that there are some that don’t like summarizing all of the religions, cultures, classes, and histories of the people who are in the geographical area all as being “Indian” (just like someone in Vancouver’s East Side likely lives a very different life than someone in rural northern Quebec or in a fishing-centric village on the East Coast) but I’m rolling with it… because being so separated from that culture myself, its a good place to START.

Steampunk sari bustle

I have been inspired a few times by the Multiculturalism for  Steampunk blog, along with the costumes from Dragonfly Designs by Alisa.   From that, I thought about making a steampunk costume using some purple and gold sari fabric that I picked up a few years ago.

Since I didn’t have a lot of the fabric, I thought that the most interesting (and versatile) item to make would be a detachable bustle.  I thought that it would go well as the shot of colour in an otherwise all-black ensemble (goodness knows I have enough of that!) but I also already have a purple velvet skirt it might work with, and a purple top as well that is in the same colour family so it might be somewhat versatile.  I also have a gold corset that I haven’t yet held the fabric up to that might work as well?  I love some of the looks of bustled skirts – but thought that THIS much purple with a fully bustled skirt might be just Too Much Purple…..

There really isn’t a pattern for this (there are plenty available of course, but I didn’t use one) so if you want to follow along and make your own – feel free!  Leave me a comment if you have any questions!

The first challenge of the fabric is to take advantage of the border print along both sides.  The width of the fabric isn’t wide enough for me to pleat up and use with the borders on each side, and the fabric has a cross-wise stripe, which I’d rather have running lengthwise instead.  Since I wanted to pleat up the waist a bit (but not a LOT) I measured the ‘waist’ to be twice what I wanted the finished width to be – which just happened to be perfect for the amount of fabric I had.  (Hurrah for good guessing when making purchases…)

The main body of the fabric cut apart and sewn back together again to form a large rectangle with a border at one edge.

So, to start out I cut the fabric in half, also removing strips to create the waistband.  Then I removed the borders from both sides of one panel of fabric, and off one end of the other.  The two panels (minus their borders) I sewed together, creating an almost-square fabric panel with one border at one end and a horizontal seam as in the photo above.  The three remaining border print strips of fabric I joined together to make a ruffle for the bottom of the bustle.

The rest of my materials - purple broadcloth for the lining, tulle for the interlining, and drapery notions for the drapes of the bustle.

Next up – the hunt for the lining.  My previous bustle had fallen a bit .. flat. It was nice, simple, but didn’t have the POOF I really wanted out of this one.  So, I knew that I wanted to interline it with tulle, which meant lining it with something so that the tulle wouldn’t catch on my skirt or stockings or whatever else I wanted to wear under the bustle.  I didn’t really want to go with a traditional lining fabric (too slippery) so instead I hunted down some purple broadcloth which is ~almost~ the same colour as the purple of the sari fabric.  While I was at the fabric store I also picked up some drapery notions – a tape that has rings already sewn on it (used for making roman blinds) and some drapery cord (also used for the blinds) although I might just use narrow twill tape for the final version like I did with my previous bustle.

I tore and seamed the lining to match the fashion fabric, and then came the tricky part… with renovations in the house, I don’t have a cutting table.  The floor was too low, the bed too soft and wide, an so I settled for doing the rest on the ironing board.  It really illustrated that I REALLY need a good cutting table to make the things I want to make effectively!

Sewing the ring tape down to the layers of fabric

First I laid out the fashion fabric, wrong side up, then the tulle, then the lining, and then finally the ring tape in five panels down the length of the bustle fabric.  I tried pinning, then basting, and then sewed the top and sides, and returned to pinning again.  This was a really frustrating part of the garment.  I ended up having to unpick things a few times because with all of the layers things shifted a lot.  I think that if I were to do this again, I’d make sure my cutting table was available, and perhaps baste the tulle onto the lining first.  I was glad at least that I didn’t plan to sandwich everything – that would have made the process even more difficult!  The tulle was also in three pieces which probably didn’t help.  (Having been rescued from a petticoat/tutu-esque garment that didn’t really work out…)

I thought a bit about how to put these layers together…. did I want to attach the rings to only the exterior and tulle fabrics – then line it so it would be clean and smooth on the inside?  I discounted this because I thought then the lining would bag if I didn’t secure it to the outer fabrics…. and it would make playing with the rings very, very difficult.  Still, perhaps if I had a good dressform to work things out on, and want to do a non-transformable one in the future – it would be nice not to ever see the tapes.  Of course, I could get super -fussy and cover the tape with matching fabric.. (yeah, not going to happen) or use just rings themselves and hand-stitch them on like I did with my black bustle (also not going to happen) but I think I’ll be happy with this result.  The nylon tape will also self-support some of the poofs as well… (Rather than the cotton tape that these rings also come on.)

The interior with all of the rows of ring tape sewn down.

So once that was all done (and mostly looked good… though there are definitely some flaws….) I hemmed and gathered up the long strip of border print, and first straight stitched it, and then serged it to the bustle at the hem.  Since the bustle has (nylon) tulle in it, it won’t respond well to being pressed, so I considered top-stitching the ruffle down, but think that for the time being I can leave it.  I can always go back and top-stitch it later.  To get a nice full ruffle, you should allow for 2.5-3 times the length of the fabric to be gathered.  I have a ruffle foot for my machine – but it’s hidden by our renovations, so I gathered it with a wide and long zig-zag.

The border-print ruffle added to the edge with the border print

Next I looked at the waist area – figured out how wide I wanted it and added in the back pleats.  I started out with fairly deep pleats, but then had to narrow them a bit.  I just start out with pinning them in place, and then once they were the width I wanted, I straight-stitched them to keep them in place.  I didn’t bother serging them down, since they’ll be inside the waistband.  I wanted the bustle to sort of wrap around my hips a bit, since I felt that my other bustle was a bit too small.  This ended up changing mind you as I proceeded.

Pleating at the waist

So next I could see how it was going.  I started by using thread to tie up some of the rings  on the underside of the bustle, and then when I kept tying them and untying them, I switched to using paper clips to arrange the way I was connecting rings.  Once the bustle is ready to go, I’ll switch those to ties.  I fussed around with the depth of the balloons (I can’t think of a better way to describe them…) and how they connected, and with the depth of the skirt itself.

I found that with different placement of the clips I could get different looks – for instance, with one method of clipping the rings, I got something similar to the Truly Victorian 1880’s Butterfly Detachable bustle, where as with other arrangements of the clips I got something more like Truly Victorian’s Bustled Apron Overskirt (without the apron part!)

I ended up wanting to make the bustle less wide than I had originally planned, and will have the sides tucked in, instead of flat against my  sides.  It was kind of hard to fuss with, without a waistband, but I think it will turn out nicely!

Using string to tie up the rings - these were replaced by paper clips after I fussed some more, and will be replaced by cord when the garment is complete and ready to wear.

So… since the renovations have hidden my interfacing, I’ll be putting this one on hold for the time being!  I think that the end result will look something like GraveRobberGirl’s Steamunk/Victorian bustle – (but longer) though I like the idea of being able to move the ties in the rings to different spots to create different effects.

One view of how the puffs will look - I adjusted more from here, fussing around with it, but it gives the idea of what the final version will look like.