The Rise Of Practical Costumes In Comic Books
We’re in a period of change in comic books right now, and one of the trends growing daily is “practical costumes”.
I put it in quotations as it’s the source of some debate — is a leather jacket and leggings easier to move in than a spandex bodysuit? Cape or no cape? Is it really possible to land on stiletto heels when jumping from the roof of a building? Should we even care about the outfits fictional characters drape themselves in?
The answer, really, is yes. We demand increasing realism from our comic books, in the way of accurate settings, dark stories and gritty reboots, so it only makes sense that the costumes follow suit. Even iconic characters such as Batman and Superman have faced costume changes within the last few years, albeit minimal ones — some extra armouring here and there, again, something a little more realistic and ‘practical.’
Batgirl & Spider-Woman
The last year has seen big costume changes for the likes of Batgirl and Spider-Woman, to name two in particular. Batgirl has gone from spandex to a leather jacket and trousers/leggings, a short, snap-on cape (yes!), flat Doctor Martens and a handy pouch on a belt. She’s kept her iconic purple/yellow/black colour scheme, along with the cowl and ginger locks. The current run of Batgirl is also younger in age (18 – 20), and aimed at a younger readership (13+). It’s a perfect example of a great redesign – practical, cool and appealing. It’s brilliantly appropriate for the younger audience and refreshingly different for everyone else. It fits with her active crime-fighting, whilst also fulfilling the need to keep her identity a secret. It’s a logical transition from her spandex-based, long-caped costume of old. It keeps enough of the iconic colour scheme and shape to remain recognisable, whilst changing necessary aspects.
Spider-Woman has faced a similar transition. She’s gone from hideous, 70’s red and yellow spandex, to a leather jacket, trousers/leggings, flat, soft boots and glasses/goggles. The questionable colour palette remains, but the vibrancy is adjusted a little, making it a touch more digestible. Unfortunately the ridiculous webbed wings under her arms remain, but I sense they won’t be disappearing any time soon. The update of that absurd old mask (seriously, how does it stick to her face!?!) is much appreciated, and the look matches her motorcycle riding. She doesn’t web-sling from buildings like Spider-Man, so sticking to spandex isn’t really a concern. That said, I don’t think the design is particularly iconic. The outfit doesn’t scream ‘superhero’ to me, nor is the spider logo on the body particularly prominent — For what its worth, I like the outfit, but I don’t have any better suggestions, I think Spider-Woman as a whole suffers from being derived from an already overfilled universe of Spider-characters… She sinks into the background between the likes of the classic Peter Parker Spider-Man and the new, exciting Spider-Gwen, and no amount of costume changes are going to remedy that.
We have more and more ‘practical’ costumes in our comic books. Spider-Gwen, a character who web-slings, is in a spandex bodysuit — it fits with the amount of aerobic movement she has to do, along with brilliant flat shoes that make landing easier. We’re seeing a decrease in stiletto heels and an increase in ass-kicking boots. There’s less spandex and more jackets, fewer bared legs and more leggings, and we’re (somewhat thankfully) tucking boobs back into tops. So where does this leave our more naked heroines?
There’s absolutely still a place for them. Catwoman, Black Widow, Poison Ivy — they’re characters founded on a certain sex appeal, which is totally and completely acceptable. They use their womanly wiles to achieve a mission, while equally being able to kick ass. They’re awesome! And for them to be clad in super tight spandex, (or leaves,) and heels makes sense. It’s still amazing that Catwoman can land square on her feet in them, but maybe thats one of her powers. They’re sexy and awesome, simultaneously.
However, on the other hand, we still have some questionable costumes in comics today. Why is Power Girl’s boob window (and subsequent boob size) a thing? That’s ridiculous, whether you’re a seasoned comic pro, or a new reader. It’s an entirely unnecessary design, both in practicality and in aesthetics — it’s only purpose is to show you a small circle of boob. Who designed that, a twelve year old!? It’s even more baffling that even now, in 2015, it still exists, but no doubt it’d create headlines and shake Twitter worldwide were it changed — “DC takes away Power Girl’s boob window! Censorship!”
Redesigns That Don’t Stick
Several years back, Wonder Woman received a redesign. They gave her leggings and a better constructed top, along with a bomber jacket. It was a look I loved, but it quickly lost traction and she returned to her iconic red, blue and gold get up. Why didn’t it stick? Likely because it wasn’t superhero enough. It took away the bold look we’ve grown so accustomed to, and replaced it with something a little more ‘real-world’. Imagine if they took away Batman’s batsuit and replaced it with a grey t-shirt, and black leather jacket. It’d no doubt look cool as hell, but he loses his impact as an icon, and thus the effect he has on the bad guys he pummels into the ground. Batman would be considerably less terrifying if he removed his cowl and huge cape, (the Long Halloween cape is a fave of mine.) ‘Practical’ can work, but it shouldn’t get in the way of the character as a whole. We want reality in our comic books, but not to the degree that it dulls our characters — so what’s the middle ground?
Simply put, well-designed costumes. A character truly needs to be taken into consideration, including their history and mythology, before an outfit is redesigned. It wouldn’t be out of the question to bring actual clothing designers into the fray. There’s no doubt some characters need an update (Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, most of the X-Men,) but it should be a case of creating outfits that both work ‘practically’ and convey the character as a whole. Put Wonder Woman in armour, a short cape and a Greek gladiator-style skirt, while keeping the blue, red and gold colour palette. Give her a Pegasus rather than an invisible jet. Make her 6ft and built like an MMA fighter, with the biggest, sassiest black hair ever. That’s the Wonder Woman I want to see! Unfortunately, as I mentioned last week, body diversity in comics is still an issue, so until we face that head-on, we’ll likely be stuck with a smaller, thinner, mostly naked Wondy.
Marvel’s Cinematic Universe does a fantastic job of adjusting comic costumes to screen. Every Avenger is recognisable and keeps the important aspects of their comic counterparts, while also adjusting them for working in a ‘real’ setting. Colours are dimmed, silly helmets and cowls are removed (I’m lookin’ at you, Hawkeye,) real textures and fabrics are applied to simplified comic designs, but they all, undeniably, look like superheroes.
There’s a thin line between redesigning for the sake of it, and because the characters actually need it. Spider-Woman needed to leave that dodgy 70’s look behind, and Batgirl’s old outfit was boring and far too reminiscent of Batman. Wonder Woman is permanently stuck with a wedgie and Power Girl’s boobs are getting cold. Let’s redesign costumes because they need it, and because we want to push comic books as a medium forward. Let’s combine practicality with good design work, and perhaps collaborate with people who know fabrics and fashion, to keep our heroes current, comfortable and kick-ass.
Originally posted on Need To Consume in April 2015