The Gentleperson’s Guide to Alternative Event Uniform, repub’d here for the ages.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Alternative Event Uniform

Originally published on Carnal Nation, June 2nd, 2010 at 6:21pm

I am frequently asked by gentlepeople in the alternative/burner/circus/kink/goth/costume/steampunk community what the basic requirements for their wardrobes are, and how to find them.

Dressing appropriately for an event is a good start towards getting laid; it shows you care about the aesthetics and customs of your community.

For femme-identified people, it’s easy: you need a burlesque outfit, a circus outfit, a fetish outfit, a Victorian outfit, a Regency outfit, a pirate outfit, another fetish outfit, a goth outfit, a flapper outfit, a steampunk outfit, a Baroque/Rococo outfit (with a ship to put in your hair), a Renaissance outfit (’cause sometimes you have to go, cause your friends are performing), a Zombie Prom outfit, and a lime green fake-fur coat and pink lamé hotpants for the playa.

Most femme people I know have all these things handy; some weekends you have to go from the fetish dinner party to the steampunk ball to the clown sex party, and just change in the car.

For gentlepeople, however, the staples are different. Because exotic, period, fabulous or refined  male-identified or gentlepeople’s clothing is harder to find, and usually costs quite a bit more, gents must choose carefully. I offer here a list of items that will get the gent through a wide spectrum of events without disgrace, remembering that in most cases the gent or butch is merely a dark backdrop for the finery of the lady or femme.

Of course, if you go to a serious period event put on by a costume guild, purists will scoff at you no matter how accurately you dress, because your clothes contain zippers or aren’t hand-sewn; the scoffing is part of the event for them. Pay them no mind.

Men’s clothing has changed very little over the last two hundred years, so the Victorian/Regency/1920’s staples are easy.

First, you need the type of tailcoat called a morning coat, which is single-breasted and curves away back to its tails. You can get away with a morning coat at steampunk events, Victorian events, Edwardian events, circus events and pretty much anything from the 19th century. They are not cheap; you’ll spend $200+ for sure. But you can totally go low-rent on all the rest of the outfit, and save tons of money.

If you want to level right up, there are the utterly baroque and fabulous coats from Shrine in Los Angeles—tailcoats in black velvet, pirate coats in red brocade, Versailles coats in black tapestry. Not unreasonable at $250-$300. Alternately, you can also get a nice skirted riding coat at—or a cute topcoat from the Lip Service Step in Time line. You can get all your Renaissance crap at pretty good prices at DressLikeAPirate, too.

Another place with good Renaissance crap for men is the very well-respected Pendragon Costumes.

They do quite beautiful leatherwork, and come around to steampunk conventions with much cooler designs than anything on their kludgey website. And hey—black. leather. breeches. Kinky.

You need a waistcoat to go under your morning coat, and this just means a suit vest; you can pick one up at a thrift shop or from your dad’s closet. Get something in dark grey or black wool, or brocade. If you’re going to a fancy thing, you can sew fancy buttons on it. If you’re going steampunk, you can get these AWESOME cast pewter watch mechanism buttons for $1.98!! (This company also has super-nice steampunk gear cravat pins, gear buttons etc., and a selection of pirate belt buckles, Renaissance cloak clasps, and Viking pendants.)

Another place to get affordable and quite special vests is the etsy store tadaboutique, where vintage clothes are upcycled by detailing them with beautiful machine-embroidered designs of skeleton keys and airships and octopi: Most items are for women, but they do custom work and you can easily request a men’s vest with the design of your choice.

Note: while you’re at the thrift shop, pick up a crappy suit and pastel button-down shirt to keep in your closet.

That way on the day of the Zombie flash mob or Zombie Prom you’ll be on time to meet your girlfriend, instead of running around Salvation Army stores.

The Gentleman’s Emporium is a wonderful shopping resource, with an entertaining page of period men’s outfits for a wide variety of personas. My friends have had great success with them, including my friend Jake Von Slatt who was splendidly outfitted for Maker Faire last year in the Emporium’s steampunk styles.

A nice place to check for menswear is J. Peterman. They have these handsome shirts, and sometimes beautiful jackets. Reviews from my housemates, who’ve bought a lot of clothes from them, are uneven- quality is generally good, but sizing and construction can be a little unpredictable.

River Junction is a good place for period clothes too, with a million kinds of vests. And like the Emporium, they have lots of helpful information about sizing and how to measure yourself for clothes. Which gents need, because fitting period clothes should be done precisely; there’s no spandex in them.

Trousers are totally fakeable. You can wear the pants from your one suit.

Of course, if you want fancy pants, there are plenty out there; these are machine washable and pinstriped, yum! Pro-Tip: girls like men in pinstripes. If you want knickers, which Are Not Sexy (just sayin’) you can get them here.  If you want clothes people will tear off your body and eat, get Pinstripe Sailor Pants from Shawna Hoffman at Five&Diamond. Or the Western shirt with breakaway sleeves. Drool.

Vintage or period-styled pants are a good choice for FTMs or butches who want to pack, as well.

Period style pants are cut higher on the waist and a little more generously in the hips and thigh than contemporary pants, and many have a charming adjustable buckle arrangement in the back, to better fit your booty.

You need a shirt, too. White is most versatile, or striped. Here’s the clever thing: if you get a shirt with a detachable collar, you can attach either a wing collar or turn-down collar. And the collars are quite cheap.

If you want to go fancy, Brooks Brothers has a detachable collar shirt for $225—yikes!  But interestingly the wing collar itself is only $20.

Here again, period style works well for butches and transfolk, as shirts were cut much looser in the chest and torso a hundred years ago.

You can also do what innumerable goth bois and ballroom dance-attending boys do: fold up the collar of a white dress shirt, then starch and iron the tips of the collar over to form faux-wings. It looks ok, and it’s a goodwill gesture to the spirit of a costume event.

You should probably get a ruffly shirt at Dress Like a Pirate, too. You can wear it for your pirate outfit, your Renaissance outfit, and your 17th-18th century nobleman/adventurer outfits.

The most silky ruffly gooorgeous shirts are at Retroscope, a company that I have always enjoyed doing business with enormously. Great service, great prices, fast shipping, and photos of smoking hot goth boys. What’s not to like?

Check out some of the Gothic Aristocrat/Visual Kei styles: so femmey, yet you’ll get so many blow jobs.

The Step in Time line from Lip Service is producing some really cute men’s wear. Yes, there are the usual Lip Service objections: cheap overseas manufacture, clothes cut for elongated posthuman bodies, irritating website, annoying pre-ordering etc. But some of the shirts, vests, and pants are really nice! Love the ruffled shirt in their custom key fabric, and also the pink and black striped shirt from the Lolita Candy line—perfect for a circus event!

What about neckwear, you ask?

Well, you can wear a cravat or ascot, which is basically a piece of fabric tied around your neck, thuswise: see this video or this diagram for tips on how to do it.

You can use a piece of fabric about 10” wide and 55” long to fake it, or you can make one using the instructable. You can buy an Eco-Ascot of organic silk, if you care about that whole planet thing. Or you can wear a jabot, if you’re a real dandy. That’s a lace ruffle thing that buttons around your neck. Super easy to put on, and soooo gothic in black.

If you wear a cravat or ascot, you will need a cravat pin, which is a stick pin.

I wouldn’t normally recommend yet another etsy seller with “steampunk” accessories made by gluing gears to things and overblown airshipfic, but the fucking awesome Air Kraken stickpin is pretty special.

I tried really hard to find you guys a tie tack with a squid, but no luck.

You could probably use the etched metal octopus, squid or zeppelin pins from this etsy seller though. You can get a keyring that says “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies” there, too. Wanty want want want! And awesome pendants. Most etsy sellers will customize things; you could probably get a squid pin made with a tie tack or stickpin back just by asking. Also available on etsy: a typewriter key tie tack, to match your girlfriend’s typewriter key necklace. I have a necklace from this seller and it’s nice.

This seller also has awesome cufflinks, including ones made with the many-sided dice that you guys use in that weird game with trolls and elves that you were playing in high school while I was fucking pairs of hot sixteen-year-old runaways on NYC rooftops.

And I did find you squid cufflinks, Don’t say I never did anything for you.

Another option is to wear a regular necktie tie, and tie a larger knot like the Victoria, which looks old-fashioned. The useful tie site has fairly humorous instructions on how to make a duct tape tie. You could make one sitting in your camp at Burning Man this summer.

Gears, topological maps, lorem ipsum, botanical illustrations of wormwood, octopus tentacles, an argyle pattern made of skeleton keys, vintage circuitry, Underwood typewriter keyboards—

The most wonderful, clever, cool, beautiful neckties ever come from CyberOptix Tie Lab, aka “toybreaker” on etsy.

they have so many amazing things, hand silkscreened on silk and microfiber. God these people are great.

Projector Tie Workshop (“projector” on etsy) has fabulous silkscreen prints, too: computer circuitry, dna helix,  boy scout knot diagrams (handy for that formal-dress bondage event), whips, chains with a padlock, and a tasteful illustration of handcuffs (also handy for formal-dress bondage events).

And there’s a Space Invaders print, for you über-geeks. I’m not linking to it, find it yourself if you must.

So you can have a stupendously cool tie. But be prepared for everybody asking, “Where did you get your tie?” Or you can wear a bowtie. It is less likely that people will have sex with you if you  wear a bowtie though, so you might want to stack the odds by a) wearing a completely awesome one from toybreaker and b) being smoking hot.

Once you have clothes, you’ll need a hat. Take it off indoors if you’re seated in an intimate setting such as a dinner, at a costume guild event; they’re super twitchy about that. There are complex rules that govern doffing and wearing hats. But most of the time alt-culture people just ignore them. Leave your hat on; nobody wants to see your hat hair.

Now, what kind of hat? Top hat, bowler, derby?

Girls have a love/hate relationship with men in top hats. On the one hand, the elegance is undeniable. Men in top hats look kinda fabulous. On the other hand, wearing a top hat seems to bring out the pretentious douchebag in a lot of guys, and also causes spontaneous Fake-English-Accent, which is like panty epoxy to me.  A colored rather than black top hat is refreshing. The wonderful Berkeley Hat Company has a red one, and one of my beloved ex-boyfriends got a fabulous burgundy one at Dickens Faire in San Francisco.

An alternative that’s still elegant but less pompous is the John Bull topper, which is very popular in these parts with gents who do working-class costumery and machinery type art, such as the Kinetic Steamworks folks.

A bowler, also known as a derby, is still less pretentious—a bowler says, “I am doing this costume thing with a light heart and a dash of irony.”

Unless paired with ear plugs, deliberately ugly railroad overalls in striped ticking and hipster facial hair, which says,  “I’m a fucking hipster burner slacker who will date your best friend and spend all her money on rebar and PBR.”

Still, bowlers are charming, and affordable.

For 20’s daytime wear, a driving or Ivy cap is a great deal; they cost like 30 bucks, and with a nice white shirt, khakis and suspenders no one will be angry at you for showing up at the Gatsby picnic looking intrusively anachronistic. You can also wear a boater for early 20th-century daywear, but almost no one looks good in those. Super-cool San Francisco hat specialists Goorin Brothers has nice Ivy caps.

Don’t get a pirate hat; they’re annoying.

I had a boyfriend once who wore one ALL THE TIME and everybody was ALWAYS saying ARRR, and “where’s the pirate?” Better to wear a scarf over your hair when you’re doing the pirate look, and save the money for a smoking hat or fez. You can wear silk pajamas from a thrift shop and a Chinese robe for a depraved turn-of-the-century opium den look!

A nice cane is a good accessory. Handy at that dungeon party, and a clever way to smuggle Red Bull (or vodka, I suppose) into a club. And maybe a pocketwatch. The UK jewelry company Alchemy Gothic has a whole line of steampunk jewelry, the Empire Collection; some it is hokey, but some of it’s cool.

For shoes, you can just wear your dress shoes, if you got some for a job interview once.

Or get a pair of cheap dress shoes at Target, or wear your Docs. Nobody looks at guys’ shoes. If you do care about shoes, Demonia is about to release a steampunk line, and the men’s boots are kinda cool. There’s costume-type pirate boots that would last for a few parties or festivals. Or if your stock just vested and you have money to burn, get some Fluevogs. You know you won’t be sorry.

If you are completely insane for fashion awesomeness—like another beloved ex-boyfriend of mine—you can get the Spiral Tabi boots from AyyaWear that the Romulans wore in the new Star Trek movie.

It does kind of help if you’re smoking hot, like my ex-boyfriend, if you’re going to wear Romulan shoes though.

If you’re wearing a cool outfit at an event where people are dressed up, be prepared for the “Garber’s Grab”: a total stranger reaching out and grabbing the fabric of your clothing and examining it, often accompanied by “Made or Bought?” This is NOT a come-on; it just means you’ve succeeded in wearing something interesting enough to catch the eye of a costume fiend. If they really like your clothes, they’ll start examining the seams and talking about fabric.

Remember that clothes carry a message, and that if you’re dressing like a Victorian barrister or a Medeival nobleman, you should be at least enough of a gentleman to have condoms in your pocket and own a Hitachi Magic Wand. If you’re dressed as an Airship Pirate, own a couple of Abney Park albums. Better still, own all their albums. They’re my friends.

Most importantly, wearing a pirate outfit does not give you a license to be forward or a dick to people, and using a fake English accent is Not Sexy.

Renaissance garb is also Not So Sexy, generally. It’s the chest hair: wax your chest or button up your ruffly shirt, please. If you reach for someone’s hand to kiss it, do it slowly to give them the time to refuse and shake instead. No wet kisses on the hand unless you are CERTAIN they want to fuck you!

Finally, you can provide a lot of information to those you meet and wish to hit on at costume events, ballroom dance parties, clown sex parties and BDSM clubs by flagging, whether in a pants pocket or as a pocket square.

It’s not just for kinksters and LGBT folk: the hanky code is useful clothing shorthand for anyone in alt culture.

And there’s an app for it.

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About Suzanne Forbes

Suzanne Forbes is a traditionally trained figurative artist who makes documentary art of queer culture and Berlin life. She also works in mixed media. She is a former New Yorker who immigrated to Berlin with her third husband and their two cats. Her work is crowdfunded by the support of her Patrons on Patreon; you could help! In previous lives Suzanne was a graffiti artist in downtown NY, a courtroom artist for CBS and CNN, a penciller for DC Comics on Star Trek, and a live-drawing chronicler of Bay Area alternative culture.

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