Superheroes – the future of fashion?
About a month ago I went to a summer cinema with friends (all of them really into the whole superhero thing) to see the new Spider-Man movie, only to find out that it wasn’t just me, who was there for the costumes. As a person studying Sportswear Design, it is natural for me to observe every detail of the clothing and makeup in a movie, but what I did not expect was my friends’ expertise when it comes to superhero costumes. And it is not only them but the whole insane universe of comic fans and cosplayers who dedicate their lives to observing and creating, changing both the comic and the fashion industry immensely.
That is right! Fashion and superheroes go hand in hand in the recent years, although they have been considered as two different universes, inhabited by creatures, alien to each other. And to a certain extent they are. If you observe it from a practical point of view, you can easily see why Starfire’s costume is not exactly the most suitable one, having in mind her warrior background, and Zatanna may find it hard to sport a top hat and high heels in a battle. You don’t need someone working in the fashion industry to tell you that these costumes are not the best choice for every type of weather and that sexy underwear and a cape don’t always make you look like the White Queen.
But yet, superheroes and ordinary people have the same stylistic problems. Just like in fashion, sometimes superheroes turn up in the same outfit. Remember when Rihanna and Kendal Jenner both wore that heart-shaped fur, or when Drew Barrymore was spotted with the same Tory Burch dress as The Duchess of Cambridge? Well, sometimes the rivalry between the two giants in the industry, Marvel and DC (and sometimes the confusion even comes from the same company) lead to embarrassing situations just like on the red carpet.
You could say for the comic book heroes, it is even more painful, since their costume is a sort of representation of their identity and values, it gives them their whole look and sometimes, their powers. If you take Professor X and Lex Luthor, for example, you will notice that it is not that hard to duplicate one’s trademark appearance, if it is just a suit (the usual choice of most men), but when you add to the picture, that they are both bald and middle-aged, it gets a little more suspicious. The case with Red Skull and Black Mask is similar, although the confusion comes mainly from their masks, which only differ in colour. Their costumes, on the other hand, don’t have much in common – while Red Skull counts on military inspired uniforms, Black Mask is more likely to go for mafia suits. Some looks, however, are a little harder to duplicate, as with Cyborg and Deathlok, who are even human on the same side of their faces. You could say they definitely got their costumes from the same place.
There is one thing, though, that brings the two industries together more than anything – the main idea. ‘Superheroes’, writer Cathy Horyn says, ‘allow us to believe that in a cape or a magical second skin we can do the impossible. We can transform ourselves.’ In her article about the ‘Superheroes and Fantasy’ Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, she explains the relation between fashion and comic books. ‘Fashion thrives on the same expectation’, she continues, ‘Buy this hot dress or pair of Jimmy Choos and see if you don’t feel curiously invincible at the next party.’ Just as wearing your new coat or a spectacular evening dress can give you much more confidence, the superhero costume empowers the wearer, providing them with a number of abilities, otherwise impossible to the ordinary human body. This way the costume allows the existence of two incompatible personalities and gives an opportunity for two different types of existence at the same time.
As anthropologist A. David Napier explains, ritual masks are enabling the ‘reconciliation of two things that seem incompatible’. Fashion industry is working the same way, allowing millions of people to create an image for themselves that may be completely opposite to who they actually are and what they do.
This also comes with other functionalities of the costume. For the comic industry this is the immense impact of the suit on the supernatural abilities of the hero, or the ones that turn the hero into a superhero. There are many examples in the pages of comic books that illustrate the importance of costume. Batman, for instance, counts on his suit to protect him from bullets, as there is a reinforced chest plate beneath his bat insignia. His look-alike, Nightwing, can also brag with an incredible suit with kevlar protected layers, insulated against electric shocks, and an utility belt, equipped with armor of every kind. Doubtlessly, the most vivid example among the superheroes is Iron Man, whose power is wholly contained in his suit – it provides him with abilities such as flight, durability, enhanced physical strength, and, of course, a plethora of in-built weapons like missiles and energy blasts.
Superhero costumes also don’t fall behind when it comes to keeping up with the latest fashion and digital trends, as well as with the era and place they are depicted in. That is why their nature has evolved over the years. The most iconic superhero, Superman, is ready to incorporate the military dress of a Union soldier in his overall image when relocated to the American Civil War. Captain America also changes into a suit, practical for the WW2 setting. Another symbol of the comic industry, Batman, shifts to a XIX century look that resembles more Sherlock Holmes than The Dark Knight, when depicted in Victorian Gotham.
Sometimes changes are reinforced by other circumstances, as in the case with Superman, when his costume changes to a blue and white suit, which can contain his new energy-based powers. Or with Wonder Woman, who becomes a fashion boutique owner and surrenders her powers.
Apart from the empowering idea of the costume and the incorporation of certain values, there are other subjects in the core of both industries that are common for them and seem to drive them – the political, social and cultural forces, the body shapes, gender, sexuality.
When it comes to ethnical and cultural diversity, the comic industry has acted carefully over the years and first introduced The Black Panther in 1966 (like Naomi Campbell for the fashion industry). Adam Bernard Brashear, also known as Blue Marvel, is another attempt to create a black superhero in the 2008 but his look is much more contemporary.
And as the question with homosexuality is not even something people in the fashion industry still consider diversity, the case is different when it comes to superheroes, who are thought to strongly expose their masculinity or femininity. One of the first openly gay superheroes in comic books is Apollo, although in the past few years sexual preferences are not that much of a factor anymore. Whatever their sexuality, though, it is always particularly exposed, especially when it comes to female characters, whose costumes are designed merely to invite the male gaze, rather than to serve them as protection or as part of their armor. Writer Christian Pyle, however, questions this statement, arguing that the sexualisation of superheroes is not gender-specific, since the skin-tight male costumes can also attract the homosexual gaze.
Apart from sexuality and ethnic background, another widely discussed topic among the fashion and the comic industry is the trend and the timelessness.
The superhero costume, just like any piece of clothing, cannot be outdated when the comic book hits the shelves or when a movie is produced. That is why the sense of intransience is so highly valued in the comic world. The iconic suits created over the years should reflect the personality and capture the spirit of the character.
In an interview, the creator of the Spider-Gwen costume, Robbi Rodrigues, explains: ‘…the main thing was … putting her mood and her attitude in that look’. He later explains that he gathers inspiration from fashion magazines, which gives his creations a more contemporary look (fashion trend is also not entirely denied). Artist Kris Anka also agrees, pointing out that ‘a design doesn’t just work for every character even if it’s a good design.’
And we can see the designers’ impressive work on a great number of costumes that are iconic and inspirational, not only for comic book fans, but also for everyone who appreciates this kind of art. An unmistakable proof of the influence of fashion over the superhero universe is the existence of characters, like Constantine, or Hellboy, or Zatanna, whose costumes are more close to the high street look than to the typical spandex suit with a cape. Robbi Rodrigues’ design for Spider-Woman, or the one for Batgirl, are also inspired by the street fashion with their leather jackets and the relinquishment of spandex.
The immense impact of the comic industry on fashion is also indisputable and go far beyond the countless fun images for T-shirts and the Captain Marvel jackets. Another proof is the 2008 exhibition at the Met ‘Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy’, where you see creations of the great Thiery Mugler, As Four, Alexander McQueen, standing side by side with a Mistique X-Men costume. In terms of appearance, not so much idea, purpose or incorporation, there are two things that unite the two creative industries – the most visible one, logos, and the contemporary materials used.
There are whole collections, known to have been inspired by the superhero world, one of the most obvious of which is the Moschino one (including the 2006 three-piece suit, a sports T-shirt with an emblazoned M). A little bit less apparent and more subtle are the Bernhard Willhelm Superman-inspired dress, Giorgio Armani’s gown with crystal beads, and a really innovative typical for the designer Hussein Chalayan Aeroplane Dress with removable wings.
Another inspiration that comes straight from the pages of the comic books and will be of much more use in the future is the functionality. As Barbara Brownie says in her book ‘The Superhero Costume: Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction’, function is ‘the crucial sign of super-heroism’, but this trend is also continually transferring into the catwalks. Functionality’s importance is ever growing, especially in the last few years, and who knows… We may count on the superhero costume designers to come up with the next fashion trend that will provide us with superpowers. Maybe Midnighter’s combat computer is not so fictional after all?
Web Sources: comicbook.com, newsrama.com, screenrant.com, syfy.com, thecut.com, whatculture.com
Book Sources: ‘The Superhero Costume: Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction’
Image Sources: alphacoders.com, comicvine.com, forbiddenplanet.com, i.pinimg.com, toonzone.net, vandellobooks.com, wired.com