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Superhero Fashion: Tights and Masculinity

Superhero fashion is one of a kind, especially because of its tights and masculinity. Or at least, that was at the very beginning. Superhero wardrobes explain volumes about them and their authors. However, there’s a stereotype on Superhero fashion that has tainted all Superheroes since he first appeared: a cape, tights, and funky colors. Yes, the first of the modern Superheroes, Supes, is the one to blame for all that later spandex. Well, not him directly, but his creators. Why did they dressed him in such fashion? Where did the inspiration come from? What were they trying to tell us with all those tights?

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Superman is the one who dictated how Superhero Fashion would be on several levels: visually, practically and as a brand. Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 showing off his physical strength and his fashion choices for the first time. As you already know, Superman was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster when they were still in high school, back in 1933. They sold Superman to DC for scraps, and then Supes became the most famous Superhero ever, selling millions of copies of his comics.

In this cover, Superman is engaged in an incredible feat of strength, dress in flashy colors, tights, a cape and his undies on the tights. And it seems he has boots. He’s chosen quite a particular “suit for work,” hasn’t he?

Roles in society are usually expressed with a dress, especially those who have certain jobs, like police officers or doctors. Each dress tells us something about the type of work those people are performing on a daily basis, and that’s why some of the dresses are more practical than others or show up some traits about that certain job. Superman’s fashion choice is closer to a working suit than you might think! His work is to perform incredible feats of strength while he saves the world. And so, how will his fashion show up his Superhero personality and duties?

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster took their inspiration from the strongmen that use to perform in the circus, like Eugene Sandow, a great strongman of the 1890s, qualified even as a superman.

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Eugene Sandow, strongman.

Strongmen used unitards, a type of dress that explains their performing work. Strongmen base their career on pysical labor, and so, they dressed accordingly. The unitard let them show off their muscles and seem “other-worldly,” since they performed feats that normal people could not. They dressed in funky colors and their fashion emphasised their otherness and strength.

This is exactly what happens with Superman’s dress: it’s very similar to a unitard, it has funky colors, it lets his muscles show up clearly, and it has a cape to emphasise his movements. The lights colors and the weird fashion of Superman’s outfit makes him the other, a different person who has nothing in common with the civilians that might surround him. In fact, when Superman wants to fit in, to be one of the crowd, he puts on his civilian clothes. Thus, clothing creates two identities: the regular Clark Kent and the Superhero in Superman. So, the outfit transforms the person psychologically giving to it more power and making feel super or ordinary depending on the outfit he’s dressing.

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The first outfit that Superman wore was very similar to a unitard (with the exception of the cape). This outfit offers Superman a great deal of freedom of movement, a freedom he needs to perform his feats. This flexibility is telling us that Superman is free to use his supernatural abilities when he sees fit. This, however, does not happen when he is dressed in his Clark Ken suit: trapped and limited by its movements. So, the civilian dress of Clark Kent, helps Superman to remain in character. [The case of Superman is fascinating, because he’s one of the few Superheroes who is dressed up performing an alter ego when he is dressed as Clark Ken, and being himself when he’s dressed as Superman!]

Dressed as Superman, Kal-El is a supermasculine being able to perform incredible things. However, when he’s dressed as Clark Kent, he is deprived of this super masculinity and is left with just being ordinary, like anyone else.

Superman’s costume emphatises his hypermasculinity, like the unitard of strongmen did. Even if we now might see the outfit as someone dressed with the undies on his pants, reality is that when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster conceived Superman and dressed him up for battle in comics, they thought about the strongmen they were used to see. In dressing Superman as a strongman, they allowed Superman to construct masculinity in a super and ordinary way: super when he is Superman and ordinary when he is Clark Kent.

But, what about that cape?

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Surely the cape must be very unpractical, but, has it another different purpose than just to bug our imaginations on how unpractical the cape might be? It’s possible that Siegel and Shuster added to Superman’s wardrobe that cape, taking inspiration in Roman times. Roman high-end soldiers would wear a cape. So, the cape was an element for the military dress within the Roman Empire. Historically talking, then, the cape would be another symbol for masculinity. Someone who was heroic would certainly own a cape (or at least use one when having a party in Rome after winning the whole Galia… I’m thinking about Caesar here.)

The cape is also emphasising that Superman is showing off. It’s like he’s saying: look, you can see all my muscles through my unitard, and I wear this super impractical cape that looks so cool when I’m flying. I’ve got nothing to hide! Which is what happens with Superman’s Superhero fashion. There are no pockets, there is no room for hiding anything. Heck, he even does not use a dang mask! He is performing in bright colors his deeds, like he is being the public Gladiator of the world.

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(C) DC, Superman #75

The cape in comics was very useful because it allowed authors to create motion. It’s also a piece of cloth that calls you into battle (and that’s why Darth Vader also wears a cape!) It’s a statement, propaganda, marketing if you will. Put on the cape and make the public admire you for how cool you are! And that’s why it’s so devastating to see Superman’s cape destroyed in Death of Superman! The cape is a symbol for Superman. So, when we see the shredded cape in the middle of debris after a battle, we all assume that he is pretty dead. The cape in shreds symbolizes the sacrifice of Superman!

So yes, the cape might be pretty impractical as a Superhero fashion item, at least for battle. But it’s a very strong marketing device since it shows off Superman’s hero side (very much like it did in Ancient Rome for Caesar) and it allows authors to use it as an artifact for movement and as a symbol for Superman himself.

As happens with fashion, it changes over time. Superman’s first ever suit for battle was drawn almost as if it didn’t exist, very much like painting (many tribes still paint themselves for battle). It was so thin as to show up Superman’s muscles. Over time, the outfit has become thicker and colors darker. But, we’ll leave that for the next time.

Did you know that Superman’s fashion had its inspiration in strongmen and Ancient Rome? What do you think about fashion creating different identities?

Want to read more? Try reading: The Superhero Costume : Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction.

Also, find more interesting info here:

  • Danielle Knapp

    This is so cool! I had no idea about this but it does change my perspective on the attire for sure.

  • I actually quite enjoyed this article! Thanks Pepi. I’ve always off-handedly wondered about the peculiar dress of superheros -especially the ridiculous cape, but never thought to look into it more. It makes a lot more sense now!

    • Wait till we take a look at Batman’s fashion xDDDDD that one is to die for! I won’t spoil it, but I think Superman has a more interesting wardrobe than Batman LOL [And yes, I intend to talk about superhero fashion for a long while ๐Ÿ˜€ ]

  • This is such an interesting article, I had no idea where the brightly coloured tights and capes associated with superheroes came from! I’ve always found the costumes a wee bit silly, but knowing the history behind them makes them more understandable. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Fashion is really tricky: it looks like something quite normal and ordinary but it’s one of the things that gives more information about us. It happens the same with Superheroes. Superman’s outfit is quite okay… wait till we arrive to Batman’s O.o He’s GOLD!

  • Emma

    Amazing. I had absolutely no idea Superman’s outfit was based on a Strong Man costume, but it makes so much sense now. Such an interesting read.

    • Yup, all kids at that time thought about strongmen. As culture changed, we now think of him as someone who wears the undies on his trousers xDDDDD I think Batman is much more interesting ๐Ÿ˜‰ Wait for him!

      • Emma

        I can’t wait – you know how much I love Batman ๐Ÿ˜›

        • Hehehehe then you’ll love Batman’s wardrobe ๐Ÿ˜€ His fashion is more interesting than Superman’s (I think)

  • I love reading your posts. They are so fascinating and interesting. They get me to think about things in different ways! The concept that Supermans costume was a mix of strong man and Roman military dress is so brilliant. I always thought one of the reasons he had a cape to make it easy for kids to play dress up!!

    • Thank you! xDDDD And yeah, kids have a blast with capes. If we think about the history of the time, what was happening around and where people looked for their inspiration, we can find out a hell of a lot through fashion. (It’s hard though… ๐Ÿ˜ฎ )

  • Kay

    I didn’t realize that the inspiration came from strongmen, but that makes total sense! And the addition of the cape alluding to high Roman soldiers – very cool! I love your posts Pepi, they always have such a great combination of education and geek subjects. Fantastic!

    • Yes, Superhero fashion makes more sense than we give it credit for, even when it’s not right!And, thank you <3 I love when people tell me that they also enjoy the serious posts I write about fandoms and comics <3
      xoxoxoxo