Hair ties and no heels: The evolution of female superhero costumes is finally here
It started, as many important tasks do for women, with a hair tie.
When Birds of Prey exploded into theaters in a frenetic, neon-colored glitter bomb in January 2020, Margot Robbie's R-rated Harley Quinn solo film dazzled audiences with its DGAF attitude and unapologetic femininity. But there was one seemingly throwaway moment that shocked fans in the best way: In the midst of the film's climactic third-act fight scene, Harley noticed that her comrade-in-arms Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) was struggling with her long hair flying everywhere during the pivotal battle, so Harley simply offered her a hair tie.
That one detail, however tiny or inconsequential it may seem to the overall plot, prompted women in theaters everywhere to cheer, finally feeling seen in a genre historically known for restrictive, skintight leather catsuits and silly crop-top boob armor rather than practical ways female characters would actually dress for life-or-death fights. Because this was real, and fighting with hair covering your face is stupid. And that epiphany-like feeling was present throughout the whole film as female characters eschewed what men would find sexy for outfits that women would actually pick for themselves — not only when gearing up for a fight, but also in their everyday lives. This, friends, was the perfect example of what happens when women make movies about and for other women. Costume designer Erin Benach and screenwriter Christina Hodson, who first thought of the hair-tie moment, brought their individual visions to director Cathy Yan, and the result was thrilling to watch.
But Birds of Prey doesn't fly alone in bucking the male gaze when it comes to styling its superhero characters. Harley's film was just the first in a promising recent trend of comic book adaptations evolving the female characters' looks with women's actual wants — and more importantly, needs — in mind, both on and off screen. When Black Widow finally debuted this month after years of anticipation and a seemingly endless pandemic delay, Scarlett Johansson's solo film undid more than a decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's only original female Avenger's scattershot and over-sexualized appearances. In one of the first scenes in which the adult version of Natasha is shown on screen, she dumps her form-fitting Black Widow suit and dons baggy sweatpants and a puffy winter coat as she goes on the run. After eight previous MCU film appearances in which she was constantly put in tight, revealing clothing, it felt revolutionary to see Natasha choosing something for comfort and function. And that continued throughout the film.
Black Widow costume designer Jany Temime tells EW that a lot of those decisions came straight from Johansson herself. "Because that was her film, and she could choose," Temime says. During one of the initial fittings for the film, she brought Johansson racks of clothes from which to pick Natasha's wardrobe, and she wondered if the actress would choose "something more fashionable, more feminine," but she was surprised at how Johansson went right for the more basic but sturdy pants, shirts, and jackets.
"She picked up a look which was absolutely perfect for somebody who doesn't want people to think that she cares about the way she looks; nothing that screamed fashion, and nothing was planned to make her look sexy," Temime says. "She doesn't need to sell that. She always went for something which was simple and well-made and that she could move beautifully in, not representing a fashion-conscious girl but somebody who is feeling wonderful in her own skin."
Temime's main goal in designing the costumes for Black Widow always came back to making everything comfortable so the actresses could do their job without thinking about what they were wearing. And she was proud that she was able to accomplish that throughout the movie, for Natasha especially. "I think that was the difference with the other [MCU] films, that it was dressing the character and not the woman," Temime says. "I was dressing Black Widow for what she is at the end, as an Avenger, as somebody who doesn't have to sell herself anymore. She knows what she is, she has such great value, she has great power. And she just wants to be comfortable in her own skin."
That also meant any notion of putting her in high heels was nixed from the very beginning. "Actually, she refused to wear heels," Temime says of Johansson. "Always in the other [films] she was wearing heels on the boots, and she decided this year to not do that. She said, 'This is really uncomfortable and silly. I don't see why, because I'm a female character, I should wear heels. That's ridiculous. It's just an action-y role and I would wear something flat.'" Temime agreed, happy to finally "move on from 'the woman should wear heels' cliche and go into something much more realistic."
Natasha and her long-lost Russian assassin faux-sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), spend all of Black Widow running around in flat-soled combat boots, not a wedge or high heel to be found. And the thoughtful updates were present from the ground up. Temime explains that while Natasha had a special white Black Widow suit made for her as "an American superhero," Yelena simply found her white mission suit on the plane, so it's not form-fitting. But more importantly, it does the job for which she needs it. "She was happy to find the right size, but that was the idea — it's more baggy, the fabric is different," Temime adds. "Her sister's white suit is American, Yelena's white suit is Russian, so it's much more utilitarian-looking. Her sister is a superhero, while Yelena's suit is a military sort of white suit. It's appropriate for missions in the snow. I just wanted to keep it functional."
And then came Black Widow's hair-tie moment of its own. In a breakout scene that might again feel like a few throwaway lines of funny dialogue, Yelena opines to Natasha about how much she loves her green army vest, the first item of clothing she ever bought for herself after escaping the Red Room's lifelong mind control. But more importantly, she explains that she loves it because it has pockets. Lots of pockets. Lots of handy pockets. (The joys of finding an item of clothing with pockets: Extremely relatable!)
Temime was given the mandate to include the green vest in Yelena's wardrobe from director Cate Shortland as a way to create an emotional link between Avengers: Infinity War (in which Natasha wears the vest over her black mission suit) and Black Widow, and she was thrilled to build out the rest of Yelena's outfits in the same militaristic style because of what it meant to the character. "That little green vest was so functional and utilitarian, lots of pockets; it's something that she buys because of the practical effect of it, and that was the idea of all her costumes," she says. "Yelena was in a sort of institution, a training camp, for so many years, and she never bought something for herself, so it's completely normal that when she comes out of that brainwashing, training, military camp that she doesn't know anything about fashion, so what she will buy for herself will be practical, like she explained so sweetly."
Where lesser films might have put the new face of the Black Widow franchise in "sexier," more fashionable, or trendier clothes, Yelena was put in pieces that made sense for her background as a young woman who was only trained to be a Russian assassin. "She had too much brainwashing about being a killing machine, so it would be very strange if she would have chosen something feminine," Temime says. "I gave her trousers, a pair of boots which are also like military boots, and I give her a very oversized blazer… like a men's jacket. I really wanted to accentuate that side of her: She is a no-bulls--- girl and she wants to show that. She is strong and a kick-ass girl, and she wants to show that."
Over on the small screen, another fierce fighter in the MCU let her impressive skills speak for themselves, rather than her clothing. In Disney+'s Loki series, Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), a female variant of Tom Hiddleston's titular MCU character, wrought havoc on the Time Variance Authority's sacred timeline — and she did it all in sensible clothes you might expect to see on a male comic book villain. "From the very get-go, Kate [Herron, the director] and I spoke about her character being very mysterious and somewhat androgynous in the beginning, and not to have such a strong reveal where it becomes just a total play on gender, but to let her evolve on her own as a strong female lead, without having to over-sexualize her character," costume designer Christine Wada tells EW.
After years of seeing armor tailor-made for female comic book characters in frustrating and head-scratching ways, Wada came in with the goal to keep things the same for male and female characters on Loki. "It's easy to want to go with the normal shapes and silhouettes that we've seen," she says. "With Sylvie, it's not like she has a very exaggerated figure, she just looks like a fighter, like she's been through battle and that she can stand on her own, and that she's ready to run. Our goal with her was to keep it about her character and not turn her into a joke. What would Sylvie do?"
That translated to Sylvie's entire look, not just her armor. "Even the choice of a harem drop-crotch pant, for centuries people have been fighting in those pants, and it also just lends itself to a more androgynous vibe," Wada says. "It allowed us to not have everything be form-fitting. There's a way to emphasize movement with a looser pant just as much as you can with a tight pant or a spandex suit. It doesn't always have to be a spandex suit on a woman to have her look like she's ready to rumble, and I was really happy that was accepted by the audience and Marvel and everybody to put that kind of a pant on a leading female character."
Wada has always approached projects with the idea that "all good design and all good storytelling comes out of truth and function," and even on a series steeped in deep comic book lore and set in magical universes, she strived to bring that grounded aspect to Sylvie's look. "I believe it more that somebody can go fight when they're in a rugged boot more than a pair of high heels," she says with a laugh. "I just think function is such a clear and important thing to reference in all good design. It just takes time to break out of these norms and these ways we're used to seeing things always, and I love that about this show is we were constantly questioning that."
She extended that idea all across Loki, to every character from the main cast to background players. "With the TVA employees, it was a conscious decision to not put the secretary in a skirt, and to have different genders in different roles, to have female minutemen and to have male secretaries, to really be truthful to that future that we all envision," Wada says. "It's easy to just stick with what was comfortable, but sometimes it takes pushing it for things to change, even a little bit. I definitely hope that I can keep working on projects like this, like Loki, where the story allows you to think about that and consider that in your approach to so many different creative decisions."
That thoughtful philosophy doesn't just apply to the onscreen aspects of the costumes for Wada. At Di Martino's first costume fittings for Sylvie, she brought her newborn baby, inspiring Wada to incorporate concealed zippers into the costume so the actress could more conveniently breastfeed and pump between takes. "As a costume designer it's just instinctually part of our job, trying to think about things functioning properly so that the actor can just do their job and be present," she says. "And Sophia's job wasn't just being Sylvie — her job was also being a successful mother."
So Wada began figuring out how best to evolve Sylvie's costume to accommodate the new mother's needs. "I thought at that first fitting, we're going to have this armor over her and she's going to need to breastfeed, so when I came back to the states to start building it, it was really actually the first thing I worked on, figuring out how to create her costume in several pieces so that she could take the armor off and take care of her baby and take care of the project," she says.
The end result was a success, to the point where Di Martino celebrated Wada's considerate alterations on social media. "It allowed her to not have to worry as much and just focus on elevating her own craft, and not so much, 'How am I going to do this as a mother?'" Wada says. "I'm glad it worked, and I know it gave her comfort and helped her to know that we had her back. Anything I can do to help with that process only helps the bigger process of filming and being human beings. The biggest thing that you can do is root for everybody's success on a job, because filmmaking or even life is just a group effort at the end of the day."
Helping Di Martino through adapting Sylvie's costume was a personal point of pride for Wada, and she's happy to see the "positive impact" it's had on social media, with other women championing the effort. "I hope it does change the way that we think about working with each other through all sorts of things that are going to happen in our lives," she says. "People will continue to have babies and continue to have great careers, and it's just getting creative about how to make that work. It's not just about making pretty pictures — you really can't be creative if it doesn't function and if the costume is cumbersome. It often can show in the performance, so it's always something to be considered. I hope we continue on this path."
With heroes like Harley, Natasha, Yelena, and Sylvie — and Temime, Wada, and Hodson — on the case, it's clear the comic book genre is heading in the right direction when it comes to how female characters are portrayed, hair ties, baggy pants, and all.