The first question..."What is Steampunk to you?"
Steampunk is first and foremost....FUN! Its a magical concoction of imagination, history, art, music, literature, erstwhile language, romance, Victorian fashion, manners, improvisation, grand adventure, fantastical modes of transportation, ingenuity, marvelous weaponry, and a fusion of steam powered futuristic technology....all with just a dash of frivolity.
I wouldn't devote time to my Steampunk hobby if it didn't bring me satisfaction. My persona's likes & dislikes, background, occupation, hobbies, family relationships, clothing, transportation, and accoutrement's all grew from the seeds of my real life experiences, interests, and personality.
My advice to newcomers...be who you actually are with a lot of imagination thrown in. There are no hard and fast rules to live by....they're more like guidelines really. (Argh matey.) Steampunk is only one genre that people participate in. If this isn't a good fit you can always jump into another universe. There are communities of Trekkie style sci fi fans, historical reenactors for nearly every major period in history, and an unlimited number of groups devoted to specific areas of interest within different genres.
And now a word about the "look" and the stuff required to get the "look". Steampunk should be an evolving venture not a race to the finish line. I started out with one basic outfit that was a study in evolution as I added and edited pieces along the way. I'm frugal by nature and will take time to search out the raw materials or finished pieces I need at a good price. It can be expensive or not depending on your skill level, patience, expendable income, and ingenuity. Advice, photographs, and tutorials abound in this corner of world to get your creative processes jump started.
I've found nothing but kindred spirits here in the Empire. Criticism of another's choice of attire, accessories, or other creative endeavor is extremely rare in my opinion. Most will not critique you if you don't ask them to. The vast majority of our population place a high value on civility, imagination, and freedom of expression."
The second question(s)..."A few times around here I have seen people talking about how the attitude it more important than the outfit. I find myself wondering what exactly it is people mean when they talk about attitude. What type of attitude are people referring to? Is there such a thing as a steampunk attitude? If there is, what is it? Is it simply about wearing your clothes with confidence or is it something more? Is it about cosplaying your persona? Is it about being into other parts of steampunk besides the clothing? Is it about knowing something about the Victorian era? Is it a reference to the DIY part of steampunk? Is it better to make your own outfit and accessories even if they do not look as good as ones you could have bought?"
For me, its taking what was good about the past....civility & manners, an interest in people & the world at large, ingenuity, imagination, literature, and to a small extent, fashion....and applying it to my daily life. This is really the center of the Steampunk outlook. I do my best to apply these ideals every day whether I'm dressed in Steampunk clothing or not.
There is an almost automatic confidence and sense of propriety that comes from wearing "proper" clothing versus the laid back feel of jeans and a t-shirt. While each has its place, I've begun to prefer the proper over the laid back because it fits better with the way I want to feel and act. When I say proper I mean more modest, tailored, and put together....not stiff, rigid, or "evil nanny-ish". Even with more modern clothing I'll generally choose a wool blazer over a hoody, tailored pants over jeans, leather sandals over flip flops, or a polo shirt over a t-shirt. While my fashion sense won't apply to everyone it satisfies my personal ideals. Steampunk, for me, is a lifestyle.
My Steampunk persona is, of course, partly fantasy but shaped entirely by my personality, character, interests, political & religious views, hopes & dreams, and past experiences. Its quite easy for me to slip into and out of my persona as needed, and my Steampunk outfits reflect who I really am. I've never liked the look of faded or chipping paint, stained, torn, or dirty on purpose clothing, or rusted items. Because of this, I would have difficulty portraying, say, a mechanic, painter, or miner. While I don't have a problem with other people portraying characters who require such attire, it just wouldn't be "me". On the other hand I'm not polished either. I only wear light make-up in public, my hair is rarely picture worthy, and I don't enjoy very strict social rules, gossip, or lengthy social political "games" . Therefore, my persona isn't an upper class or royalty type either but somewhere in between...sort of the middle class banker, chief accountant, head butler/housekeeper, lady in waiting, ranch foreman type....which is the space where I live my real life.
As far as the DIY aspect. I'm creative by nature and have spent 25+ years acquiring different skills so I can make nearly everything I need. But I know many people are talented in other areas and struggle with DIY. I don't believe that everything you wear has to be made by you at all. You can have something commissioned by an artist, purchase something already finished, or even modify something that has the right shape but maybe the wrong color. If you aren't satisfied with your own creations there is nothing wrong with seeking out the creations of others. As an artist, I'm happy to have others show off my handiwork. I get satisfaction from creating and don't do it just for profit....though I will admit that selling my art does allow me to continue purchasing the materials I need to continue working. There are amazingly talented artists out there who have invested unbelievable amounts of time, money, and energy into classes, materials, advertising, overhead, and such to hone their craft and make it available to you. Look on Etsy, or Artfire to find handmade, often one of a kind, pieces sold directly to you by the artist.
I hope my ramblings have shed some light on, at least my little corner, of the Steampunk universe for you. Good day Madam.