Costume Change: Dressing Superman for Film and Television

April 08, 2020 - Jonathan Zong

Across Superman’s many iterations as a live action character in film and television, costume designers have negotiated the tension between adhering to some notion of the character’s authentic appearance and maintaining his relevance by grounding him in contemporary conventions. The tension of approximation—between an inaccessible, idealized past and a dynamic, progressive now—is a fundamental way in which Superman embodies the modern through dress. Superman’s costumes show how the present imagines the past, and within those desires, contradictions, and anxieties charts a trajectory for the future. In this essay, I engage in formal and material analysis of Superman’s on-screen costumes across the decades, situating him in the shifting cultural values associated with modernity in the latter half of the 20th century.

— Originally written Summer 2018.

Introduction

What does the authentic Superman suit look like? Today, controversies over its appearance are commonplace. Fans disagree on what essential aspects of the costume make it unique to Superman. Some argue for bright colors, while others fight for underwear on the outside, or a crest on the cape, or distinctive red boots. However, this essentialist perspective overlooks the ways that artists’ visual representations of Superman have changed over time, in response to changing notions of American identity, masculinity, and technology in modern life.

Claiming a singular authentic representation of Superman is impossible, due in part to the impossibility of the superhero costume itself. Michael Chabon (2008) argues that superhero costume designs cannot possibly exist in reality; they are made of pure graphic form, as perfect drawings with no correspondence to materials draped on a body. Any real attempt at producing and wearing a physical superhero costume aims for authenticity, but always falls short of its imagined ideal. At the same time, realizing a costume requires designers to make decisions about texture and dimensionality, which are not concerns of the source drawings. The result never resembles what is on the page or in the imagination, but taking verisimilitude as the primary goal obscures the difference between the costume as object and as symbol.

I trace the history of Superman’s costume designs in film and television through the lens of dress theory. Establishing a link between how Superman dresses and how he is meant to be read as a cultural symbol situates the character in the context of the shifting modernisms which manifested in the latter half of the 20th century, spurred by technological and social changes associated with industrialization. The article draws parallels from Superman’s costume to Roman dress from which the mythological iconography of superheroes draw inspiration. Present-day understanding of Roman dress relies on visual artifacts, which poses a similar challenge of reconstruction from idealized representation. This gap between real and imagined is a surface for present-day costume designers to insert their contemporary points of view. The positioning of contemporaneity against imagined past and future points of reference reveal the aspirations and dissatisfactions of the time. Through formal and material analysis, I argue how the dressed body of Superman across different on-screen iterations is a site of modernity, embodying and articulating shifting cultural values spurred by social and technological change, reflecting cultural trends specific to their time.

Embodying Modernity

Auditioning for the role of Superman, Henry Cavill screen-tested with a replica of the suit worn by Christopher Reeve in his iconic film series. Seeing him wear the suit, Man of Steel director Zack Snyder said, “I knew right away he was my Superman” (Romano, 2017). There is a sense in which the suit wore Cavill; more a mythic object than real item of clothing, the Reeve costume had the power to legitimize Cavill as Superman through its iconography.

Superman and his costume cannot be understood separately from each other. The costume when worn becomes a set of material signs which produce meaning at the body’s surface. It makes the body more than just a body—as Entwistle (2000) claims, “dress … embellishes the body, the materials commonly used adding a whole array of meanings to the body that would otherwise not be there.” Dress delineates a boundary between the individual and society by acting as a way to outwardly express identity in culturally meaningful ways. Studying the importance of dressing Superman for film positions “the body as the ‘existential ground of culture’ (Csordas, 1993)” that is fundamental to expressing the values of society.

Les Daniels’ Superman: The Complete History refers to Superman as “the first modern superhero” (Regalado, 2015). Superman premiered in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and has appeared in film and television since as early as 1948, when he was portrayed by Kirk Alyn in the film serial Superman. This time in the US was characterized by social changes now commonly understood in terms of industrial modernity. Modernity as used here refers to a self-aware, self-reflexive sense of oneself as wanting to be new—to completely break with the past. It is characterized by a rejection of what was considered primitive or atavistic, and an embracing of technology, industrialization, and urbanization as symbols of progress and power. When the 1940–1951 radio serial The Adventures of Superman coined the now-iconic introduction “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” (“Superman on Radio,” n.d.), these points of comparison told a story about what American culture was interested in at the time. Technologies of mobility, with the introduction of the consumer automobile and streamliner railroads, coincided with speedups in industrial factories from the adoption of the assembly line. Linking society’s desire for speed and mobility to the ability of Superman’s body itself allows him to rhetorically embody human progress.

Technological Change and Media Specificity

That Superman’s costume designs are products of their time is clear even from a purely non-symbolic standpoint. When designing physical instantiations of Superman’s costume for a film or television show, the final audience isn’t an in-person viewer, but the camera. Costume designers encounter the issue of media specificity, where the material constraints and quirks of film technologies available at the time affect their choices.

For instance, consider the costume worn by George Reeves for the 1951–1958 television show Adventures of Superman. Because the show was filmed in black and white, “the first incarnation of Reeves’ costume was created in white, grey, and brown to read properly” by providing the necessary contrast to be legible (Kucharski, 2013b). Even when the technology for filming improved, the technology for viewing didn’t necessarily change. When the show began filming in color after two seasons, Reeves began wearing “a vivid red, blue, and yellow costume” (Kucharski, 2013b). However, the costume change happened during a technological transition that happened gradually; many households only owned black and white televisions, so “post production work was required to adjust the contrast of the suit for those audiences” (Kucharski, 2013b). In this case, an essential component of the costume is the technological enhancement of its image on screen.

Designing for the iconic 1978 movie Superman starring Christopher Reeve, Yvonne Blake was constrained rather than aided by the CGI technology of the time. In an interview, she remembers testing out different shades of material in front of blue and green screens, because “if the Lycra was either too green or too blue, Superman would disappear, and all we would see are his shorts, his boots and his cape” (Bartlett, 2018). In bringing the costume from the page to the screen, a balance had to be negotiated between the printed colors, the tone they aimed to evoke, and the constraints of contemporary materials and technologies in the real world.

Historical Reconstruction and Cultural Symbolism

The usefulness of Superman’s costume for thinking about times other than the present extends beyond understanding technological limitations. It also helps frame broader trends in culture, because the work of translating the costume from page to screen is not unlike historical reconstruction. The endeavor is fundamentally an act of approximation that starts from a representation of something created in another time and place for a purpose completely separate from its re-enactment.

For instance, consider the issue of reconstructing Roman dress. Writing about the complexities raised by historical images of togas, Vout (1996) notes that problems immediately arise when bridging the gap from representation to physical garment. Historians armed with images of togas encounter difficulty due to “the often forgotten fact is that these ancient images are not mannequins from a leading Roman fashion house but are … works of art” (Vout, 1996). Attempting to directly replicate the features of the image overlooks the fact that an artist’s goal is not verisimilitude, but symbolism. For example, togas are often depicted as perfectly pleated, held into place without fastenings. However, when translating a toga to real life, the literal approach fails because the source material is not literal itself. As Vout (1996) points out, “the chances are that if we cannot act Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar without our unpinned togas falling off, then the Romans themselves would have found such a toga hard work.” Creating a reconstruction that meaningfully allows us to understand how the Romans dressed requires treating images of clothing separate from the clothing itself, and understanding that they have symbolic dimensions separate from the way their materials are represented. Historical images of clothes are aspirational—they tell us how people in a time and place saw themselves.

In the same way that Roman dress resists literal reconstruction from its representations, “the superhero costume as drawn disdains the customary relationship in the fashion world between sketch and garment” (Chabon, 2008). Its purpose is not to serve as a material specification, but to communicate a set of ideas about who Superman is and what he represents. The Romans embellished depictions of the grace and effortlessness involved in wearing a toga because it had the symbolic power to proclaim Roman identity and stand in for political and civic virtue (Vout, 1996). Superman’s costume evokes similar feelings, standing for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Michael Chabon (2008) recalls his childhood desire of dressing up as Superman, writing that “you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in the red sun of your heart.” However, donning a red cloth is one matter; having it effortlessly billow as it does on the page is another. Colleen Atwood, costume designer for the television series Supergirl that premiered in 2015, explains in an interview that Supergirl wears includes an “undersuit zipped up beneath her costume that holds her cape in place” such that “the weight of the cape isn’t pulling the costume around on her body, so it balances a lot better for action scenes” (Epstein, 2015). Just as Roman artists’ concealment of fastenings is revealed through the process of materializing the toga, invisible material negotiations must be made when taking superhero costumes from page to screen.

Nostalgia and Authenticity

Artistic representations of Superman’s costume are multitudinous. As Superman is redesigned for different series and media, his costume takes on many forms which complicates the idea of reconstructing a true, authentic portrayal from any given representation. Its visual representation constantly changes over time as depicted by different artists in different cultural environments. Not only does any real attempt at producing and wearing a physical superhero costume fall short of its imagined ideal; it must also stake a claim to which specific features essentially capture the authentic ideal.

The first time an actor embodied Superman, the character was so unknown that the literal word Superman written on his chest was the feature most essential to representing his identity. His name was a feature of his costume at the 1940 New York World’s Fair, where he was portrayed by Ray Middleton (Kucharski, 2013a). The special edition New York World’s Fair Comics #1 that was sold exclusively at the fair coined Superman’s epithet “Man of Tomorrow” (Cardona, Matadeen, & Cronin, 2017), a title that epitomizes the way in which Superman is conceived of as modern. It casts Superman as a future-oriented symbol of progress and human advancement, and places him in the context of the technological marvels on display at the utopian “World of Tomorrow” themed fair.

The modernist desire for the progress of the future inherently generates its own negation—a nostalgic longing for the “authenticity” supposedly found in the past. In the primitive, or the folk, the logic of modernity finds a mode of being that is regarded as pure, unmediated—and therefore untainted—by modern life. This dichotomy is reflexive and self-contradictory because “the quest for authenticity is … at once modern and antimodern. It is oriented toward the recovery of an essence whose loss has been realized only through modernity, and whose recovery is feasible only through methods and sentiments created in modernity” (Bendix, 1997). Modernity is at once oriented toward both the future and the past.

Dressing Superman in real life foregrounds this internal contradiction within modernity. Arguably, no Superman film costume is more nostalgic than the one worn by Brandon Routh in the 2006 film Superman Returns. The film serves as a spiritual successor to the 1978 Superman with Christopher Reeve, taking place in the same continuity as the first two films in the Reeve series. The costume designer, Louise Mingenbach, had to navigate two opposing concerns: she had to “stay true to the classic costume while modernizing the Man of Steel” (Francisco, 2017). Her challenge was to channel the authenticity of the Reeve suit by Yvonne Blake, while considering how society had changed since then. Directly borrowing elements from the Reeve suit would not work, because it was designed in a different context. Audience expectations, shaped by contemporary culture, had moved to a completely different place such that the 1978 Reeve suit would inevitably look dated in a 2006 film.

The Superboy TV series, which ran from 1988–1992, made similar efforts to channel the authenticity of the films. It had many advantages over Superman Returns in this regard. Although the series did not share a continuity with the Reeve films, it had the same producers—which meant access to the original costumes and a consistent creative vision for Superman’s appearance. The role of Clark Kent as Superboy was played in the first season by John Newton, and by Gerard Christopher in subsequent seasons. Like Brandon Routh, part of the audience appeal for both actors was their resemblance to Christopher Reeve (accentuated on screen by the way their hair was styled into Reeve’s signature curl). Newton and Christopher screen-tested in front of Ilya Salkind—who co-produced the films starring Reeve, and wanted to portray the character on the show “like Christopher Reeve had done it” (Cowan, 2015). Newton screen-tested in a complete Christopher Reeve costume taken from the film production, and by the time Christopher joined the show, they had reused belts and capes from the films for the show’s own spandex suits in the style of Reeve (Martin-El, 2015). These decisions all served to maintain a direct lineage from the beloved Reeve films—and to draw from its legitimacy as an authoritative, authentic Superman portrayal.

Dressing Routh for Superman Returns, Mingenbach was further removed in time from the original Reeve production. As such, she could not use an original Reeve suit; she could only approximate it. However, in doing so, she would be approximating an approximation. In an interview about designing the Reeve costume, Yvonne Blake said, “The only research necessary was the comic itself. The costume obviously could never be changed.” (Francisco, 2017). Blake intended to be as authentic as possible to the comic book depiction, but as previously argued, there is no singularly authoritative comic book depiction and no possibility of lifting an image from the page without some degree of decision-making and compromise inflected with contemporary points of view. Authenticity is ultimately difficult to grapple with because “the notion of authenticity implies the existence of its opposite, the fake, and this dichotomous construct is at the heart of what makes authenticity problematic” (Bendix, 1997). Blake’s Reeve costume differs from an ill-defined authentic comic book representation—those points of difference are implicitly inauthentic. But then, Mingenbach’s later Routh costume looks to those supposedly inauthentic features as the authentic point of reference of which her design is an approximation. Authenticity is constructed and imposed on the past from a point in time in the present, such that “approximation ultimately questions the very notion of originality or authenticity” (Bruzzi & Gibson, 2013). Approximation, by virtue of happening in the present, needs to invoke the imaginary authenticity of the past to legitimate itself.

Past and Future Utopias

Through these issues of dressing Superman for film, we begin to see ways in which Superman himself is both modern and antimodern. The modernist impulse to yearn for an idealized pre-modern past inflects the plot of Superman Returns as well. In the film, Superman has returned to Earth after leaving in search of the remains of his homeworld Krypton. Superman embodies the futuristic utopian ideals of a “Man of Tomorrow,” but in this story, “a utopian vision of the future and a nostalgic yearning for the past are conflated …, so that the pleasure in viewing Superman Returns reflects Superman’s own longing for a futuristic past (the lost planet of Krypton) that is equally out of reach” (Yockey, 2008). Utopia in Superman Returns is simultaneously past and future—positioned as both regressive and progressive, authentic and modern. Utopia, like authenticity, is a construct that foregrounds contradictory threads within modernist logic. Superman’s origin story places him between a defining moment in his past, and his symbolized hope for a better tomorrow. On his relationship to his origin story, Yockey writes, “His catastrophic loss informs his intensely nostalgic construction of Krypton as utopian, a literal ‘no-place’ that he never knew and can never return to” (Yockey, 2008). Utopia is imaginary, and therefore unreachable—just like the authentic pre-modern past, or Superman’s costume as drawn. Just as authenticity implicitly circumscribes the inauthentic, we find that “utopian visions are inherently critical (their articulation affirms that the present is nonutopian in contrast)” (Yockey, 2008). Modernity is invested in progress, but progress is only meaningful insofar as there is something to progress toward; it is invested in the new, but the new is only meaningful insofar as it is distanced from the old. Utopia can be the technologically enhanced future, or the pristine past, but it can never be the modern now.

The Superman Returns costume materializes the contradictory desires of utopia and modernity. In the film, Superman’s suit is one of his only direct links to the Kryptonian heritage for which he yearns. The “S” symbol on his chest serves as that link—in this continuity, the symbol is the family crest of the House of El, as evidenced by Jor-El’s costume in the 1978 Superman. While the suit symbolically links him to the past, the material of suit itself does not. According to the designer in an interview, “It’s not an alien suit. Martha Kent made it. She’s a good sewer!” (Stone, 2006). In the context of the narrative, the suit’s symbolic power is utopian because it is alien, but the suit’s material properties are not alien. However, its provenance within in the story offers another way in which it can be materially understood as utopian. Discussing the properties of utopian dress as described in Thomas More’s Utopia, Burcikova notes the utilitarian and functional focus of the clothes: “All Utopian clothes are of one fashion that never changes, and the same garments are suitable for both summer and winter and are made by each family at home” (Burcikova, 2017). In More’s Utopia, labor and material waste is minimized through the utilitarian obviation of excess desire, which in turn removes the need for complex manufacturing—a decidedly anti-industrial, antimodern system. Martha Kent’s unalienated labor produces a suit that is authentic and utopian by virtue of being handmade. But Krypton is utopian because it is futuristic and technologically advanced, while the suit is utopian by virtue of being primitive and pre-industrial.

Outside of the narrative, the design of the real-world costume tells a different story. In More’s construction, “there are no dressmakers or tailors in Utopia” (Burcikova, 2017). The idea of utopia is oppositional to the modernist industrial machine of mass-production. However, Mingenbach’s costume for Routh could only have been produced by that machine—it is not only decidedly more complex than Blake’s Reeve suit from which it draws inspiration, but also more modern in its design. The suit was a big departure from its predecessors in terms of material innovation, introducing new subtle uses of texture and line that would clearly influence the subsequent costumes for Cavill in Man of Steel and Tyler Hoechlin in Supergirl. Costume supervisor Dan Bronson called many aspects of the suit “an engineering feat,” noting that the wool of the cape was specially milled in France and that the “S” shield was made of urethane rubber (Stone, 2006). When asked about the thin lines down the arms and legs of the suit, Mingenbach referred to them as “just kind of movement of the wind,” (Stone, 2006) intended to evoke a characteristically modern sleekness of motion. Within the narrative, the costume is authentically utopian; however, its extradiegetic properties in the real world are intensely modern, antithetical to utopia.

Athletic Armor and Masculinity

The appearance of Superman’s costume, many scholars have pointed out, has its roots in athletic attire. The red trunks that are such an iconic part of the costume “were a holdover of strong men costumes seen in Victorian era circuses, casting Superman as a symbol of strength and masculinity” (“Soaring into the 21st Century,” n.d.). The likely historical inspiration that Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster drew from was “a strongman named Siegmund Breitbart who performed in the 1920s in Siegel and Shuster’s home towns, and who was billed in 1923 as ‘superman of the ages’ (Andrae and Gordon, 2010, pp. 43–47)” (Brownie & Graydon, 2015). This historical origin is consequential to understanding how Superman’s costume has changed over time, and how it delineates a certain kind of public male labor.

Superman’s relation to masculinity can be understood through his costume because “fashion … is ‘obsessed with gender’ (Wilson, 1985, p. 117), and constantly shifts the boundary between the genders” by adorning the body and negotiating conformity or nonconformity with society’s gendered expectations of bodies (Entwistle, 2000). Superman can be understood as a gendered laborer through comparison to the circus strongman unitard, which “is ‘designed to foreground the performer’s work’ (Monks, 2010, p. 21). The strongman makes a career of physical labor, and dresses accordingly” (Brownie & Graydon, 2015). In nearly all of Superman’s film portrayals, we can see society’s expectations for desirable male physique. For example, Kirk Alyn was asked to strip during his short audition—he was cast in large part due to his physical fitness; George Reeves was asked to wear a rubber undersuit to appear more muscular (Francisco, 2017); and Brandon Routh was fitted for a sculpted muscle suit and had to maintain stasis with his physique during filming to match the sculpt approved by the studio (Stone, 2006). Dan Bronson, one of the costume designers for Routh, says that the studio “didn’t want an overdeveloped, muscle-bound Superman. They wanted a very cut, defined, sleek, sexiness,” reflecting how body standards have shifted in the character’s history (Stone, 2006). Studios’ careful attention during production applied not only to muscles; Christopher Reeve wore a steel codpiece to enhance the size of Superman’s crotch bulge—and Kirk Alyn took off his pants in his audition, not just his shirt (Britt, 2016). Superman’s costumes are fabricated with an idealized version of male form in mind.

Part of Superman’s symbolic work is to display his body in public. Superman wears the same clothes every day; “This kind of ‘distinctive persistent dress,’ finds Gregory Stone (1981, p. 144), is more commonly associated with professional responsibilities than with personal identity” (Brownie & Graydon, 2015). Superman’s orientation towards public life comes at the expense of his private life. Heroes like Superman that have dual identities are often “allowed to express strong agency in public spheres, … but are locked into tight boxes when exploring private spheres of what it means to be male.” (Voelker-Morris & Voelker-Morris, 2014). In Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman, thought to be one of the best at drawing the distinction between Clark Kent and Superman, Superman’s outfit is free flowing while Clark’s three-piece suit restricts his motion, hunches his back. “By direct comparison with Clark Kent, Superman constructs masculinity not in contrast to femininity, but to the inferior masculinity of other males including the alternative version of himself” (Brownie & Graydon, 2015). In this narrative, Superman represents the limits society places on what a modern man can be, and the exclusion of women from being modern—positioned as unable to embody the violent strength modern life requires.

Tracing the way Superman’s costume in film has changed over time, we can identify changes in the way society conceives of athleticism. In 2011, Jim Lee’s New 52 initiative at DC Comics saw a relaunch of the Superman series in which the character’s iconic red trunks were removed from the design. The next Superman film to follow, 2013’s Man of Steel starring Henry Cavill, adopted this change as well. The change was meant to make Superman feel more contemporary, the uninterrupted color from torso to legs “[lending] a suggestion of speed, sleekness, a kind of uncluttered modernism” (Chabon, 2008). Tyler Hoechlin’s costume, first appearing on Supergirl in 2016, also adheres closely to the New 52 design, but replaces the red trunks with a red utility belt. These changes reflect the circus strongman’s declining relevance as an archetype.

The Cavill costume is still based in athletic wear but has more in common with contemporary high-tech swimwear than the strongman. As Brownie and Graydon note, “the invention of artificial fabrics including Lycra (or ‘spandex’) have enabled clothing that ‘cut[s] down resistance and drag through air and water’ (Karaminas, 2009, p. 184), enhancing human athletic performance and causing the appearance of sportswear to converge with that of superhero costumes” (Brownie & Graydon, 2015). The Cavill and Hoechlin costumes both feature sleek vertical lines running along the torso and legs, accentuating their muscular builds and suggesting aerodynamic flow. One need only to look to the 2010 ban on high-tech swimwear at the Olympic Games to see that dress is changing how society thinks about athletics (Crouse, 2009). The modern ideal of the perfect human form is one that is technologically enhanced, and therefore anti-atavistically estranged from nature.

With the technological enhancement of athletic wear, the superhero costume on screen has been increasingly reimagined to resemble armor—with technological progress comes militarization. Cavill’s suit includes a mesh of chainmail; designer Michael Wilkinson says that the “metallic finish has an ambiguous quality, as though it’s an alien metal/armour unfamiliar to us on Earth” (Francisco, 2017). Superman’s militant nature, however, has been present since his inception in the comics. Siegmund Breitbart, Superman’s likely real-life inspiration, “wore a Roman inspired cape in promotional imagery (Andrae and Gordon, 2010, p. 47). This kind of military dress positions the wearer in reference to ‘historical models of the warrior, the classic domain of heroic manhood’” (Brownie & Graydon, 2015). Bearing the name “Man of Steel,” Superman represents the military-industrial man, an absolute fulfilment of the logic of modernity.

The Man of Tomorrow, Today

Superman has appeared as a live action character in film and television across the entire second half of the 20th century, showing no sign of stopping anytime soon. His longstanding relevance speaks volumes about the continued importance of the character to understandings of technological change, national identity, authenticity, labor, and masculinity in American culture. Changes in on-screen depictions of Superman’s dress over the years serve as material evidence of modernity’s cultural stakes, as these notions continue to adapt and evolve against the shifting currents of public and private life. In Superman—specifically, his dressed body—viewers find yearning for the past and hope for the future across the decades.

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