Steampunk on a budget: Costumers reveal their greatest secrets!

Steampunk costumes always look amazing — but expensive. How can you look like a denizen of alternate steam-powered London without spending a fortune? We attended both of NYCC 2010's panels on the subject and came away with 10 cost-saving tips.

Steampunk is everywhere these days — we even encountered a steampunk Iron Man wandering the exhibit hall. This year's New York Comic Con even offered not one, but two panels for newbies: Steampunk 101 and Steampunk Gadgets and Costumes. Attendees learned a lot, including how easy it can be to get started in this wildly creative endeavor. There's tons of information available online, and it's even family friendly — typically, your parents won't frown on formal tea parties, and there's no reason not to bring your kids.

So for those who couldn't be there, we've distilled it all down to 10 simple tips for beginners.

1. It's the simple things. There are lots of very talented crafters and costumers and sculptors doing steampunk. But professional-grade artistic skills aren't a requirement. John F. Strangeway — AKA Steampunk Boba Fett — was able to turn a modern motorcycle glove into a great, aged accessory: "I sanded it down, and I bleached it, and it looks distressed and it works." Tea staining or dye will turn a brand-new shirt into a vintage article.

2. Learn how to edit yourself. Opulence is fun, but your outfit shouldn't be out of control and over the top. Corset-maker Ana Aesthetic advised, "You can put so much onto a weapon, onto an outfit, onto an accessory, that it can become a little overdone. And it takes a lot to step back and look in a mirror and realize when enough is really enough with an outfit."

3. Your outfit should be comfortable. It also needs to look good, and you can't be embarrassed to walk around in it. Self-explanatory, but it can't be repeated too often.

4. You don't have to make everything from scratch. You can find useful elements at thrift stores, Goodwill, vintage shops, even places like Target. "There's no shame in shopping," insisted Evelyn Kriete, who, as the moderator of the Steampunk Fashion LJ community, is one of the web's experts on the subject. John reports he once happened upon a great red shirt while at a Mexican mall — he just had to replace the buttons.

5. When crafting, work in a well-ventilated space. Preferably outdoors. As Outland Armour's Danny Ashby explained, speaking from painful personal experience: "Because if you don't, you will see the future, and it won't be a happy, shiny future — it will be Mad Max future." Vapors are often toxic. It's also a good idea to wear a mask whenever you work with metal dust. Not sure what's harmful to your health? Read the directions, very carefully.

6. Don't limit yourself to Europe. Everyone loves bustles and vests, but they aren't the be-all and end-all of steampunk fashion. Jeni Hellum, who runs the blog Multiculturalism for Steampunk, has a beloved Turkish costume, and she's recently been looking into Mongolian fashions during the period. "It's fantastic stuff nobody has touched yet," she said.

7. Go Dumpster diving — but keep it on the up-and-up. Danny once opened a dumpster and found it looked like "it was full of chewed-up storm troopers." He'd stumbled onto a cache of scrap orthopedic polypropylene, a durable, flexible material that makes excellent armor. "We use it to make all kinds of stuff," he told us. But be careful — getting arrested for trespassing is no way to start your steampunk career.

8. When putting a steampunk twist on an iconic character, be sure to keep the familiar elements. It's popular in cosplay these days to take a modern figure — for example, Boba Fett — and give him the steampunk treatment. But you have to remember what makes that character memorable. Matt Silva of Penny Dreadful Productions once encountered someone who wanted to do the Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch—but without green face or pointy hat. It didn't work so well.

9. Make your stuff to last. Materials don't need to be fancy. With a little DIY savvy, you can create beautiful pieces out of cardboard. But aim for sturdiness. "Steampunk is against planned obsolescence," said G.D. Faulksen, lead writer for AIR: Steampunk and all-around expert. The goal is to create pieces that could be passed down to your kids. You probably won't achieve that one your first try, but it's a goal that should be at the heart of your efforts.

10. Be creative. It's easy to get lost in the mechanics of the brass and the buttons and the gears. But every speaker had stories of encountering a mundane article and realizing that, with a little modification, it could become something awesome. Go to hobby stores. Go to flea markets. And let your imagination run wild.

Photo features Danny Ashby and Katie, his assistant at the Steampunk: Gadgetry and Costumes panel.