It might be said that you know a genre has hit it big when it has more than one archetype. Steampunk probably has hundreds, but there are a handful of “character archetypes” that I’d like to discuss today. If you’re struggling to come up with costume or character ideas, these will hopefully help you get started. I don’t have a full complement of photos, but feel free to add your own!
Note these are not ALL the Steampunk Archetypes, just the most common ones…
First, there’s the ever-present Airship Pirate Captain. This character has the tendency to be a mixture of Mal from Firefly, Captain Jack of Pirates of the Carribbean fame, and Indiana Jones. The character will most likely wear more pirate-esque clothes, may be male or female, but likely carries more weapons than anyone else. The gadgets are not as necessary to the image as the style. Charming rogue is the name of the game.
Next, though less common, is the Airship (non-pirate) Captain, whose attire is likely more militant. Naval Captains fall under this group because there simply aren’t enough Naval Captains to get their own category. This is a more lawful good type, but they still have a roguish quality about them. They are most likely well-decorated and may fall under the category of the Modern Major General of the Pirates of Penzance.
Now we have the Pilot (Airship or biplane). Amelia Earhart falls under this category and it is more often characterized by women in the Steampunk genre. This person is a speedster, constantly dresses as though they are about to hop into a plane, always has goggles, likely has a scarf, and certainly would never be caught without boots. This character looks like Indiana Jones in aviator form, and is likely obsessed with the air. They don’t necessarily have the confidence to be a Captain–or they are a loner, or they understand that there are more captains than airships in the world. This person might also pilot a dirigible.
Next is the explorer, who is likely to dress as an individual just coming back from Safari. They likely have something like a weather vane or goggles on their safari helmet, probably have whiskers (if male), and likely dress in khaki. They might carry compasses, spyglasses, fairy nets, scientific objects or any number of varietal “exploration” tools. This character is likely eccentric and certainly will be entertaining on a field day. He likely will have a monocle on him somewhere.
Now–and I’ve edited this post to add this forgotten (but vital) archetype–you’ve got the Airship (or whathaveyou) Mechanic. She can be male or female and sports engine grease and a knack for making the mechanical magical. They tend to love their machines and desperately want you to respect them. Sometimes they just need a coal-smudged hug. A great example is Audrey from Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Next is the Highborn Lady or Gentleman of the aristocracy, whose clothes are of unquestionable cut. These likely wear either a glorious range of colors or none at all, sticking strictly to black. Both ladies and men are likely to wear tophats, and pocket watches are an absolute must. They may or may not carry weapons, but are just as likely to have parasols, canes, monocles and fancy jewelry. They may wear tailcoats and will surely have neckware. Accessories are not as important as fine cut cloth. This is the most Victorian of the Steampunk stereotypes.
Now we have the Gambler/seedy gentleman/lady of questionable background. These are likely to dress in a western style, often show more skin than they should, and might include such well-dressed entrepeneurs as Howard Hughes or span all the way to the devilishly handsome lady with bare ankles who runs a brothel. These often wear bowlers rather than tophats. They aren’t poor, but they are certainly industrious. Women will likely have pinstripes on them somewhere and men may wear waistcoats without ascots, sleeve garters, etc for example.
Now there is the inventor, who might also be eccentric and certainly is intent on showing off their latest gadget. This character tends to be similar to the airship pilot or the gambler, but with more handmade objects. They might blow something up. They are fond of jetpacks/wings/other flight objects. They likely carry unusual wristwear.
Finally, we have the Mad Scientist, whose view of the world really comes down to “can I weld/redesign/rebuild/reproduce that or blow it up?” They are likely to wear lab coats (not period), leather aprons, other big coats and simple enough clothing, but literally be covered in gadgets and strange objects. They might go the route of an alchemist and carry phials and vials with toxic chemicals. They enjoy freaking out their fellow Steampunks.