Skip to main content

Wonder Woman: Designing females in Fantasy

Since the very inception of the character of Wonder Woman, in October 1941, her costumes have been a continuing flashpoint of controversy in the media; a common point for many female characters throughout the decades. And so, in order to celebrate this past International Women's Day, and also to protest for the unforgivable snub of Lindy Hemming's Wonder Woman Costume Design at the Oscars, I wanted to dissect the Wonder Woman's costume and analyze it in relation to the trappings of costume design for a female character in fantasy.


Traditionally, females have fulfilled very particular roles in fantasy: the damsel in distress or the evil seductress most prominently. It wasn't until fairly recently that a new role appeared: the sexy fighter. A stunningly beautiful woman who also managed to be highly competent when it came to either martial arts or any form of fighting. But this skill has often been just an excuse to showcase her sex appeal. Her skill was only another part of the fetish.

This, inevitably, has been repeatedly translated into the costumes for these characters, which have been exclusively designed to objectify the characters that are meant to wear them.

Female characters throwing themselves into battle with tiny armor that doesn't cover the important bits (chest, neck, and legs), leather or spandex costumes that would be rather uncomfortable for perspiration reasons and many such costumes have been staples of the aesthetic of female characters in fantasy for a very long time.


So, how and where does Wonder Woman, as a character fit into all this? Well, she is one of the first of such female fighters to get notoriety in the public media. And she also has the honor to be the first female superhero ever published.

So she is a landmark in many ways. And as such, she's often been at one end or the other of the "are we oversexualizing our female heroes?" debate. Often, even at both ends of the argument at the same time!

It is clear when you look at how she's been dress throughout the decades, that her Star-Spangled swimsuit was designed to appeal to young boys; selling her sex appeal, as much as her superpowers. And a lot of people feel that that sexualization dwarfs her achievements, taking away from her well-deserved superhero status. But some other people have understood that as a revindication of female agency: women, after all, can do and wear whatever they want.

And, whilst there is truth on both sides of the matter, what cannot be denied is that the costume is designed to be sexual. It is definitely not meant to be utilitarian (showing less skin isn't the only way of having freedom of movement), otherwise, can somebody explain to me where is Batman's mankini?

If a sexy Batman costume is so ludicrous, why have we accepted sexy Wonder Woman costumes since the 1940s?

All this baggage of sexualization, iconic imagery, and controversy, was what 2017's Wonder Woman Costume Designer Lindy Hemming had to take on when she accepted the job to design a new costume for the iconic hero.


Designing superhero costumes is a tricky thing. Even more so if we are talking about female superhero costumes. It is easy to fetishize and objectify simply because the usual trappings of female superhero costumes are set in place just to do that. But you also have to be iconic, which means using some variation on those very trappings. And you also need to take into account that there will always be producers breathing down your neck and pushing for certain "sexy" choices in the design because it sells.

So, when you take everything into account, Lindy Hemming had a really difficult task ahead. Wonder Woman is such an iconic character that she had to pay tribute to the character's iconic history. It was impossible to wipe the slate clean.

She had to create a costume that would evoke the more classic Lynda Carter costume whilst also creating something that would fit well into the setting of the movie and made sense as armor and all the while avoiding possible criticisms for over-sexualization and at the same time satisfying higher-ups ups at Warner Bros.

With all that in mind, it is a miracle that something decent came out at all.

The final design takes a lot of the classic Wonder Woman costume, and yet, it feels essentially different. And the main reason why is its intent; what is the costume's jumping point?

For a long time, when designing a Wonder Woman costume, the main intent would be: "design a suit in which she looks sexy". Here, Lindy Hemming set off to create "an armor in which she can fight". Sure, looking good was not completely out of the equation (let's not kid ourselves) but it was not the main drive behind the design. And it shows.

The design mainly takes its influences from Roman and Greek armor, a logical choice considering the Wonder Woman canon and the fact that she is an Amazon and Zeus' daughter.

The idea of a metal chest plate over a leather skirt is directly lifted from the type of armor in which Roman Emperors were usually depicted, whilst the length of the skirt itself (cutting just above the thigh) is taken from Hoplite Greek Armour.

 The same goes for the boots. Traditionally, Wonder Woman's boots had no practical function, they only existed for aesthetics. Here, Hemmings created boots for battle by looking at Greek and Roman battle wear.

Notice, for instance, how these are not really boots, but more designed like greaves that buckle on and are designed mainly to protect the knees and the lower legs.

By a similar process, the traditional Wonder Woman bracelets were turned into forearm protection that is strapped on top of a leather protection, which helps to create the feeling that they are a useful piece of the armor.

The end result is a superhero costume that, despite the amount of skin it shows it still feels functional and created for battle. And that is no easy feat.


The other challenge Hemming had to face was creating the wardrobe for the whole of the Amazon culture in a way that it felt integrated with the already established Wonder Woman aesthetics.

The first and most obvious choice to do that was by integrating the combo of metal chest plate with leather skirt onto their style, as well as by keeping the skirt's shape and length consistent throughout the Amazon's costumes.

But that's not the case for all of the Amazons, some wear armor wholly made of leather. But it still feels consistent because they made a conscious effort in shaping it similarly to Wonder Woman's metal plate.

The texture might be different, but the overall look remains consistent. Even the inclusion of shoulder straps or shoulder pauldrons feels consistent because the design manages to create the feeling that every Amazon personalizes her own armor, makes it work for her fighting style. And that makes it interesting and organic.

The hardest element to integrate was, in my opinion, the bright colors of the Wonder Woman suit. Even if the shape and style were kept consistent, there was a high probability of the deep and vibrant red of her suit to feel out of place. In part because red is a very dominant color, but also because it feels really modern.

Hemmings decided to break the gritty, realistic palette of dark earth tones of Antiope and her warriors by creating a cleaner and more plastic look to the higher echelons of the Amazon leadership.

Queen Hippolyta is completely dressed in warm gold tones and her court is dressed in red and gold armors as well as red capes.

This creates a neat transaction between the gritty warrior Amazon look and the divine look of Wonder Woman: the closer to the Gods, the more color you wear.

It's a clever design conceptualization that goes a long way without actually calling attention to itself. Another proof (not that we needed one) of Hemming's amazing work for this movie.


Unfortunately, there always seem to be a but when it comes to this kind of discussion, and I know that that can be tiresome, but allow me to briefly point out the few elements that Hemmings was unable to avoid from the usual trappings of costume design for female characters in fantasy.

Let it be clear that I don't blame this on Hemmings herself, it was, after all, inescapable once they choose this particular character. Why? Because these pitfalls come from a need to partially respect the original costume design, which, though iconic, is rather problematic when it comes to female objectification.

The main inescapable pitfall for me was the strapless look. Not because I think it's not realistic; hardly anything in the movie is realistic. Nor because it shows a lot of skin, because both Ancient Greeks and Romans fought showing a ton of skin as well, and we have already established that these are big influences for the costume.

No, it is because that element was in the original design only because it felt more feminine and it showed more cleavage. Which is not a good enough reason for something to exist.

Particularly when you see her next to the other warrior Amazons, such as Antiope, whom, because they are not so iconic, are allowed the luxury of straps and shoulder protection. 

Also, it is simply a more practical thing to have your fighting suit built-in with shoulder straps. Any woman who has ever worn a strapless dress will tell you that brusquely raising your arms is a big no-no. So not a very good choice for warfare.

My other inescapable pitfall is a bit of a nitpick, but... boob plates (chest plates sculptured with the boob shape) are a male wet dream and the worst possible idea. I am aware that most people would have lost their shit if she did not wear a boob plate and that it is also considered more aesthetically pleasing, but boob plates are stupid.

And, for those who will tell me that there is historical proof of the existence of boob plates, I will clarify this: yes, there is. There have been found real boob plates, but most archeologists agree that those were always for ritual use not fighting situations. Which makes sense, because the main purpose of the chest plate is to help pointy objects slide to the side so that they don't stab you. That is why they are usually flat or slightly convex. 

If you shape the chest plate with a center indentation (as you do when you create a boob plate), the inclination in the chest area forces the pointy thing that's trying to stab you directly to your sternum, which is the exact place you don't want them to go. So it basically defeats the purpose of the chest plate.

Also, if you fall face-first onto the ground (as you can do in battle) wearing a boob plate, the divide separating each breast will unavoidably dig into your chest, which can result in a couple of cracked ribs or even breaking your breastbone. None of which are good in a battle situation.

If you are going into battle, it is sort of common sense not to let your chest plate be the one to kill you.

Both of these elements, in the end, felt unavoidable both because of the baggage and iconicity of the original character and all the codes that have been put in place on how we represent warrior women in fantasy and that every audience just takes for granted. And that is a shame.


I must recognize, though, that those two pitfalls started to bother me less and less the more I thought about the treatment of the Amazons and Wonder Woman in the Justice League movie, both from a directorial and a costume design standpoint.

If there is anything that the Justice League movie made me realize is that, sometimes, what makes a costume not sexualized and objectifying is not how much skin it shows, but in choosing a material heavy-enough that it won't lift up with every kick and spin and show your butt.

Much in the same way, what makes a character sexualized and objectified is not how much skin she shows, but where and how you place the camera to frame her.


Right now I'm sure there will be a lot of you who might be crying out that discussing this is useless because they just design what sells. And comic books have traditionally been marketed to young men, and sexy women are what young men want to see. And they are right. There will always be a market for scantily dressed women as long as most media entertainment is run by and aimed at males.

But seeing an unfair situation and recognizing why it is so changes nothing. Saying "this is so because of this reason, so shut up" is petulant and infantile. If you see an unfair situation, you should point it out and help make it change.

And Wonder Woman is certainly a step forward. It doesn't change everything and there are still problematic elements in it, but it is a step in the right direction, so we should celebrate that.

Also, on the other side of the spectrum of the discussion surrounding this movie, there has been a lot of division about if the movie is feminist or not. And, for me, it is both and neither, at the same time. It unavoidable is feminist simply because it is an action blockbuster directed by and starring women, and that is rarer than you'd thought. It is also not feminist, because it doesn't deal with any feminist topic really and it mainly follows the trappings of every superhero movie ever. 

But, truth be told, in a better world, a movie directed by a woman and staring mainly women should not need to stand to do justice to all womanhood as we asked this movie to do, because it wouldn't be the only ten-pole blockbuster directed by a female director and starring a female hero ever made.


If you enjoyed this article and would like to support the blog, 
consider buying me a Coffee? 💛💛

If you want more content like this, subscribe! Or come say hi on FacebookTumblrTwitterInstagram and help us grow!

DISCLAIMER: I claim no credit for images featured on this site unless noted. Visual content is copyrighted to its respective owners, and inclusion here is under fair use for criticism, comment, and news reporting purposes. If you own the rights to content here and wish it removed, please contact me.


Popular posts from this blog

Burning Question: What's wrong with Belle's gown?

Since the first promotional pictures of Disney's new Live-Action remake of Beauty and the Beast hit the internet, there has been a lot of discussion around Belle's iconic ball gown. And, even months after its release in cinemas, there still continues to be a lot of buzz around it. Why? Mainly, because a lot of people feel that it is just doesn't look that good. The thing is, Belle's animated yellow ball gown is, at this point, an iconic staple of animated cinema. Everybody knows it and everybody loves it. And, as a result, everybody can see the new one and say "this is not the costume I know". Therefore, everyone can compare it down to the smallest detail and see that it just doesn't quite look right. Today, my goal will be to try and dissect the design in order to answer the burning question everyone has been asking themselves: what's so wrong with the "new" dress? Or, to put it bluntly, why is it so incredibly underwhelming?

Disney's Cinderella(s) and the evolution of the "princess" aesthetics

Every girl, at some point in life, has wanted to be a princess. It has become undeniable that the concept of the "princess" is, for better or worst, inseparable from girlhood. We live in a "princesses" obsessed era, and we have for a long time now. And a lot has been said about it, with loud people yelling over the internet about the positive and negative aspects of it. So it was about time for me to join the yelling contest, I guess. If I'm going to talk about princesses, the logical place to go is to the Global Mogul Conglomerate that has led the trend and, in many ways, defined it: Disney. They have, undeniably, redefined the fairytale and have turned the term "princess" into a best selling Licensed Entertainment Character Merchandise. The thing is, even though princesses have been part of the fairy tale canon for a very long time, they didn't become the central figure until Walt Disney placed them there. In the tales that the G

Historic Accuracy in Costume Design: The 16th century

I've never been a purist with historical accuracy as long as the changes made have real reasoning behind (generally a narrative or symbolic one). I will always think that La reine Margot (1994) costume design is one of the most gorgeous and smart designs ever, even if said designs' main premise is to purposely bend the period in regards to costume. But there are certain things that bother me in regards to historical accuracy in costume which I realized when I found myself constantly irritated while watching The other Boleyn Girl (2008). This led me to post a question: when is it right to bend history? why is it interesting sometimes? whilst other times it's simply horrendous? To me, when these changes are made for the narrative's sake, I'm usually on board (like the 2012's "Anna Karenina" designs, which mixed the 1870's fashion with 1950's fashion in order to enhance the sense of theatricality and falsehood in Imperial Russia). But wh

Crimson Peak: Dressing Edith Cushing. The Butterfly

"Beautiful things are fragile" - Lucille Sharpe - Opposite Lucille stands our main character in the movie: Edith Cushing, a young and naive American with ambitions to become a writer. She meets and falls in love with a handsome and charming, but impoverished, English baronet: Sir Thomas Sharpe. They eventually marry and return to England, to the Sharpe's dilapidated mansion: Allerdale Hall. There they live with Thomas's sister: Lucille. The deadly apparitions that haunt the house will force Edith to slowly uncover the buried secrets of Crimson Peak. And so, Edith is to become a fragile butterfly caught in a moth's trap. PART II: THE BUTTERFLY Edith has considerably more frocks and gowns than Lucille does. It's only logical. Edith is our protagonist and, as such, has a bigger emotional arc throughout the movie, and she undergoes bigger changes. These are, in part, expressed through the costumes she wears and how these change throughout the mo

A look into Star Wars: Padme's Dresses. Annex B

Love her or hate her, Padme and her costumes can never be far from our minds. They are too iconic, and probably one of the few memorable aspects of the prequels, so it's really fun to talk about them. And so, I've decided to continue what I started and focus on the costumes I left behind from Episode II . So let's dive back into it! A BRIEF REMINDER What are the Annexes? Well, the Annexes focus on all the costumes that were "left behind" in my selection of Padme Costumes for the A look into Star Wars: Padme's Dresses series. Here, I point out influences, likes, and dislikes, and anything that might feel relevant whilst digging into the gigantic wardrobe of this Galactic Queen. With this out of the way, let's go! ANNEX B: THE ATTACK OF THE CLONES Episode II: The Attack of the Clones brings the character and her designs to a completely different level; she is not a queen anymore, which unfortunately means that she no longer has amazingly weird an

Crimson Peak: Dressing Lady Lucille Sharpe. The Moth

"At home, we have only black moths. Formidable creatures, to be sure, but they lack beauty. They thrive on the dark and the cold." - Lucille Sharpe - CRIMSON PEAK is Guillermo del Toro's new film. Released this past October, the movie is written by del Toro himself and Mathew Robbins (who has also collaborated with the likes of Spielberg and Lucas throughout his career). The movie aims to be a gothic romance movie through and through, and it stars Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. The story goes as follows: Edith Cushing, a young budding American author, meets and falls in love with a handsome and charming but impoverished English baronet: Sir Thomas Sharpe. They eventually marry and return to England, to the Sharpe's dilapidated mansion: Allerdale Hall. There they live with Thomas's sister: Lucille. The deadly apparitions that haunt the house will force Edith to slowly uncover the buried secrets of Crimson Peak. In the movie

Moulin Rouge and the art of Kitsch

The spring of 2001 saw the release of Moulin Rouge! unexpectedly shake the movie industry and the box office simultaneously. Despite the many awards, including 8 nominations at the Academy Awards, and the impressive box office numbers, the movie quickly became very polarizing for audiences. Love and hate seemed to be the only two possible reactions to the movie itself. But that should not come as a surprise. The film was directed by Baz Luhrman, who has consistently been, throughout his career, one of the most polarizing filmmakers of his generation. I still have to meet anyone who simply doesn't mind his movies (which include Romeo+Juliet , Australia and The Great Gatsby ); it's either absolute love or absolute loathing. There is no middle ground with him. And that's mainly because he himself doesn't compromise when it comes to his style, which is so characteristic at this point (fast and frantic editing, vivid use of flashy colors and sparkle and stories a

Marie Antoinette: Working with an historical basis

A couple of months ago, I talked extensively about the narrative aspect of the designs for 2006's  Marie Antoinette (see here ). But that's only one half of the story. This movie is, after all, a period piece, so let's have a look at how they translated that period into the costumes. MARIE ANTOINETTE : WORKING WITH AN HISTORICAL BASIS Period accurate pieces are actually the hardest to get by; that is because clothing in past centuries was way more complex and expensive than our 21st century standards. Because of this, most costume designers end up being constricted by their allotted budgets and have to make compromises with accuracy. This was not the case with this movie. Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette had a rather large budget, which allowed renowned designer Milena Canonero the freedom to create period-accurate pieces (the inaccuracies were only added for narrative purposes, not budget constrictions). Because of this, Canonero decided to work off

The Costume Vault Anniversary!

Good day, beautiful readers!! First of all, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone! Today is a very special day for me, here at The Costume Vault . It's our anniversary!!! We're celebrating our third anniversary! Though to be honest, I didn't actually start this project seriously until last year... So, I'm a three-year-old, with the experience of a one-year-old...? Oh, who cares. Today, three years ago, I published our first article ever. So, today is a day of celebration. This project started out of a deep love for movies and costuming and a need to share that. And also boredom... I had quite the free time back then, to be honest. But the project took off, and now I continue even when I don't have as much free time. But it's worth it because I get to share my love for movies and costuming with you. To this day, I've written sixty articles, most of which I am quite proud of indeed. And what's even better, you seem to enjoy reading

The Dressmaker. Part I: A glamorous outsider

2015's The Dressmaker is the wet dream of any costume lover in all of its 120 minutes of runtime. The Aussie film directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse is the adaptation of the Rosalie Ham's homonymous novel. After quite an impressive run in the Festival Circuit (it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival) and garnishing numerous nominations and wins worldwide, it finally got a theatrical release, becoming a box office success and the 11th highest-grossing film of all time in its home country. So there certainly was a lot of hype around it when I finally got to see it and had a lot of expectations to live up to. ABOUT THE MOVIE So, is the movie actually that good? ... Sort of? Well, it's complicated. That's my official review tagline: it's complicated . The thing is; the movie has a ton of problems of all sorts. A lot of it doesn't work, but what does work, works really well. Let's start with the negatives. First of all, the movie is a t