From capes and costumes to everyday style: A closer look at comic book fashion
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Fashion is one of the most powerful forms of expression in society, so it’s only fitting that it be just as powerful for the characters in comic books. Over the years, characters have certainly used fashion to communicate things about themselves in different ways. Superman’s blue, red and yellow attire, with that familiar symbol on his chest, tells us about the type of hero he wants to be, just as what he chooses to wear as Clark Kent shows us who he wants to be during his non-crime-fighting hours.
It feels like only recently, however, that comic books have really been exploring how powerful fashion can be for all the characters in these stories. This is especially true for many of the women in comic books, who, through the years, have been drawn with perhaps the goal of catching the attention of male readers more than the goal of finding what works for the character. A number of impressive redesigns are changing that as fashion is given more of a focus in comics, from the costumes to the everyday styles each character wears.
Artist and Spider-Gwen co-creator Robbi Rodriguez told Blastr that his process is a little different when he designs everyday styles versus superhero costumes, but that they capture the same thing. According to Rodriguez, each has to “capture the personality of the individual, [whether they are] wearing either the street clothes or the actual costume, you have to capture the person.” This is extremely clear in Rodriguez’s work for Marvel’s Spider-Gwen, where the character’s stunning costume tells us so much about her in a single look as does what she wears in her ordinary life as well.
This alternate-universe version of Gwen Stacy as Spider-Woman first appeared in Edge of the Spider-Verse #2. Rodriguez explained that the now iconic costume came from laziness at first, since he didn’t want to have to repeatedly draw all of that familiar Spider-Man webbing. He also didn’t want to create a typical Spider-Man or Spider-Woman look.
"Marvel’s not going to really get mad at me for going away from the traditional Spider-Man colors."
“We were only going to do that book and it was going to be one and done, so I wanted to do something with a little bit more flair to it,” Rodriguez said. “Since it was going to be one and done, [I thought] Marvel’s not going to really get mad at me for going away from the traditional Spider-Man colors. I wanted to play with magentas and teals because I knew they would pop more...the main thing was capturing the spirit of the character, putting her mood and her attitude into that look.”
Once fans received a peek at the costume, their response was huge. Rodriguez said the reaction was mind-blowing.
“I was amazed that we saw our first cosplayer maybe like a month after the design came out,” he said. “Even today, people are doing their own takes on the design. You know, it was just me not wanting to draw spider-webbing for all 20 pages. It had this surge of popularity and created new things, too, it’s amazing how it inspired that.”
It can’t be denied that part of what helped sell that issue, which then led to an ongoing series, was the costume. The comic has continued to pay attention to the fashion worn by its characters ever since. Whether it's the members of The Mary Janes or a costume for a new version of Captain America, the world of Spider-Gwen is enriched by the thought given to these elements.
Creating fashion in comics does come with its challenges however. Rodriguez said two of his biggest are trying not to repeat himself and conducting research. He tries to keep up with fashion trends and tries to get his hands on a lot of European fashion magazines, from which he springboards potential ideas. Adapting those ideas presents its own challenges as he tries to translate these real-life, 3D looks to the static page and make them look right.
“Fashion in comics is a way to make your art more coherent with the characters and the stories."
French artist Marguerite Sauvage (DC Comics Bombshells) told Blastr in an email interview that coherence is a challenge she faces when creating fashion in her work.
“Fashion in comics is a way to make your art more coherent with the characters and the stories, but its use is not always natural,” she said. “You have to search to find the best and cleverest use of fashion.”
Sauvage has worked as an illustrator in a number of areas, including in the fashion world, and has also given a wonderful amount of attention to the fashion in her comics. This is especially notable in her work on DC Comics’ Bombshells and Sensation Comics, where the design she created for Wonder Woman is her favorite among the ones she’s created for comics.
Many things have influenced her designs, including street trends, her personal tastes, creators she admires and follows like Dior and YSL, and retro influences, especially from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Sauvage has a similar approach to her fashion as Rodriguez when it comes to her designs as she tries to enhance the character’s personality and fit the situation they’re in.
“My overall process is to make characters the most stylish and elegant I can. Their outfits need to express their personalities and attributes, as much as for everyday life clothes or for their dedicated costumes,” she said.
This attention to personality and how the characters would express themselves is something that can be seen happening throughout the industry. Last summer, artist Kris Anka (Captain Marvel) noted the shift seen in costume design in an interview with the A.V. Club on the topic of comic fashion. In the interview, he stated that the difference between costumes and everyday clothes was, for him, the theater of it, and the levity that can be taken advantage of when it comes to costumes. However,he noticed that, now, people are taking the idea and applying it to the character.
“A design doesn’t just work for every character even if it’s a good design. The character must come first and that establishes the parameters of where the design is going to go,” he told the A.V. Club.
Certainly, looking at comics today versus comics from years ago, it’s clear there’s been an evolution of the fashion in them.
“Fashion is more integrated in comics and integrated in a more natural and realistic way,” Sauvage said. “I may say that the fashion style and sense of some comics titles are a part of their success. Their creators cleverly have made their characters very fashion styled but not caricatures, like on Batgirl or The Wicked and the Divine, for example.”
To Rodriguez, fashion in comics has changed as the result of it no longer being designed by middle-aged men “trying to stay hip for the kids.” Instead it’s being designed by men and women in their 20s and 30s who have their own sense of style and try to incorporate it into their books. He points to Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel as amazing designs as well as Batgirl.
"I think also we have a generation where the cosplay scene has become a huge center point of the comic book community"
“I think also we have a generation where the cosplay scene has become a huge center point of the comic book community, so that’s something that’s really had a big influence on the incorporation of fashion,” Rodriguez said. “You’ll see cosplayers with their own redesign takes on comic book characters, and I think creators have probably seen that, and a lot of the young creators are actually cosplaying, themselves, so they know how to take the design and put that into the books.”
We’ve seen the results of this evolution not just in the creation of new costumes like Rodriguez’s for Spider-Gwen, but in recent redesigns for classic characters. Both Rodriguez and Sauvage mentioned Batgirl, who received a new look along with a new creative team back in 2014. When her new design was first announced, Cameron Stewart explained that it was “something she’s able to make herself, shopping at the various boutique and vintage stores in Burnside” and it reflected “her youth and style.”
The new look received an enthusiastic response from many fans, who immediately began working on fan art and cosplay with the costume. It was a design that completely made sense for the character and her new world. The idea of a leather jacket instead of a spandex top fit brilliantly. The unique style was also brought to the everyday looks of the people in Barbara Gordon’s world. Artist Babs Tarr, who recently spoke about her love of fashion in a Newsarama interview, said on a “Fashion in Comics” panel at WonderCon last year that she carefully developed a look for everyone.
Another hero that did away with the spandex for a memorable redesign was Spider-Woman. Spandex may certainly sometimes have its place in superhero comics, but, all too often, it’s not used in the best way on female superheroes. For Jessica Drew, her new costume designed by Anka with its black pants, jacket, and two-toned gloves includes elements of her old design while changing to a more streetwear look that made more sense for her new direction.
"As much as I'm a fan of spandex and it has its time and place, I felt Jess as a character could move away from that for a good long while,” Spider-Woman editor Nick Lowe told USA Today when the costume was revealed.
An even more recent redesign worth noting is artist Kevin Wada’s new costume for Scarlet Witch for her ongoing series, on which Sauvage is one of the artists. Wada told ComicsAlliance in an interview that they were going for “witchy undertones” and a “gothic,” “romantic” redesign. He was able to play with the fashion design elements and from there make it more like a superhero look by adding flair and elements of Wanda’s original design.
These are just a few notable examples of comics embracing a new era in comic book fashion. Some of the leading men in comics have also had new takes on their looks explored lately, from Superman to Constantine. One of the best new designs to emerge in the last few years was artist Sara Pichelli’s work on another spider-hero, Miles Morales. However, it’s been the female costumes in particular that have most memorably been striking out and changing the game when it comes to fashion in comics.
Hopefully, that will change as we continue to see this area given more thoughtful attention. Not only will it enhance our comic book experiences, but it will give our own fashion something new to be influenced by, as well. Sauvage has seen how fashion in comics can influence fashion in the real world.
“Street style is a good example (graphical runner shoes, use of materials looking like kevlar or spandex, etc.). Also, a lot of stylists get inspired by the ‘super hero’ style or silhouette, from Lanvin to Castelbajac, not forgetting to mention comics patterns or gimmicks that are used as textile overalls or graphical elements on clothes or accessories,” Sauvage said.
Already, we can see some of the impact these creative new designs are having on the fashion available to fans. Sure, they are giving us more fun images for T-shirts, but they are also inspiring unique items like WeLoveFine’s Spider-Gwen hoodies and leggings and Her Universe’s new Spider-Woman and Captain Marvel jackets. DC Comics’ Bombshells even inspired a whole Hot Topic collection released earlier this month. In fact, when looking towards the future of fashion in comics, Rodriguez said he’d love to see more crossover.
“I would love to see a fashion line, like, hire a Babs Tarr or someone like that to design whole different lines of kind of superhero, kind of street wear type of stuff. I’d like to see more cross integration that way,” Rodriguez said.
The future looks promising and interesting as creators pay more attention to the fashion in their books. There’s certainly a lot going on right now in the area that Sauvage sees.
“I feel like there is a lot of movement, exploration, and experimentation on this subject in the comic industry: Very interesting new superhero costumes, more fashionable outfits, more style, better integration of fashion in a playful way and the use of fashion as a tool to enhance the art,” she said. “What I like is that I feel this also in the video game and animation industries ,and I like it.”
Clearly, it’s an exciting time for fashion in comics. Who knows what amazing costumes and everyday styles we'll see next in the pages of future releases? Hopefully, as the industry expands what it tries in this area, what we do see will continue to add a whole new level to our reading experience.