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, we 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.
FEMALES 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.
HOW? WHERE? WHY?
So, how and where does Wonder Woman, as a character fits 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 1940's?
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.
A NEW WONDER WOMAN
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 costume 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 an 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.
THE UNESCAPABLE PITFALLS
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 unescapable 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 unescapable 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 situation. 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.
A NOTE ON JUSTICE LEAGUE
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.
TO SUM UP
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 staring a female hero ever made.
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