The Victorian era was the time when the sun never set on the British Empire, and for a time a quarter of the world’s population were British subjects, under British law. As well, Britain had a controlling economic interest in countries like China, and spent a lot of its time interfering with the government of these ‘allied’ states. Britain almost smothered the world with its culture and values, it fashions and traditions. Britannia rules the waves, and the land, the fashions, the customs and all.
Even in the most tropical climates, it was considered ‘letting the side down’ to dress in the cooler native fashions, and so the only ‘proper’ clothing was appropriate to the environs of chilly England. Imagine wearing five or six layers of clothing in the sweltering summer of Australia, Hong Kong, or India. Nor would the British adapt their lifestyle to a different culture or climate. Noel Coward parodied the practice in his song, ‘Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’.
In this Post-colonial era, a writer in the Steampunk genre need not be restricted to the British culture of the Victorian era. I think this is particularly important if you are living in a country that suffered from British Imperial rule or influences. Celebrate your country’s technology and innovation when and where you can. You can compare your culture to the British culture. I live in Australia, which is still part of the Commonwealth, but I always try to add a bit of Aussie glamour to my Steampunk narratives.
I think it is important to consider alternatives to British settings and characters. Other cultures and characters certainly will enrich your story. It is like cooking a curry, tacos, and a stir-fried noodles, and turning a meal that was just a British roast into an international banquet. Steer way from racial stereotypes. Makes your characters well rounded and believable. Don’t try to be ‘exotic’ for the sake it.
People are people. We all have the same basic needs and motivations. A little research will turn up real life historical people from that culture and era, and they can be the starting point for your characterization. The same goes for settings. It isn’t hard to source a few images from any time and place you might want to use as a setting. Authentic details give your work verisimilitude, and adds depth and resonance.
And it can be a lot of fun.