11 Common Aspects of Superhero Costumes and Their Inherent Impracticalities in the Real World
As seen on: Green Arrow (TV version), Watchmen’s Hooded Justice, Moon Knight, Teen Titan’s Raven, Marvel’s The Hood (natch)
Why they exist: Whether it’s a loose-fitting hood that hides your face from looky-loo bystanders or a more fitted sack that covers your entire head, nothing beats a hood for sheer mystery power.
But in the real world… Think of the last time you wore a jacket with a hood on a windy day. Unless you used a drawstring to tighten it around your face, that sucker was blowing every which way. Going with the hooded look to preserve your anonymity or radiate some mystery-man mystique is great, provided you don’t ever plan to deal with wind gusts, well-lighted rooms, objects flying at you from the corners of your peripheral vision, or hand-to-hand battles in which your opponents can yank your hood to throw you off balance. “Fine!” you pout. “I’ll go with the full hood look, then.” Only if you have a way to affix it to your face to prevent the eyeholes from moving around and obscuring your vision. (And let’s not even mention the, ah, unfortunate cultural connotations that come with wearing hoods of that nature, especially down in the Deep South.)
2. Domino masks
As seen on: Green Arrow (comics version), Robin, Green Lantern, the Lone Ranger, Watchmen’s Nite-Owl and Comedian
Why they exist: A big drawback with a full-face mask is that it can impart a scarier look that you might be intending; it can make it harder for, say, a crime victim to trust someone if they can’t see their face. So some heroes opt for a simple domino mask that hides just the parts of their face around their eyes. They’re sporty little numbers that say that you’re a mystery man, sure… but a mystery man that people can trust.
But in the real world… Let’s assume we all agree that, as far as identity concealers go, a domino mask is only slightly more useful than putting on a pair of large earmuffs. The Batman comics ask us to suspend our disbelief over a lot of things; asking us to believe that the young (and eligible) ward of a local billionaire could gallivant in public with only a domino mask keeping Gothamites from knowing his true identity is one of the bigger ones. On a more practical level: how does Robin keep that furshlugginer thing on? Far as I can tell, his only options are to use an elastic band (which can snap, snag, give fighting opponents something to pull at, etc.) or glue it to his face, which raises a whole other set of logistical questions. Also: won’t the tan lines that come from wearing that kind of mask in broad daylight pose a slight challenge on the secret identity front?
As seen on: Batman, Superman, Thor, Spawn, many others
Why they exist: Early superheroes wore capes because they were copying Superman, and Superman wore one because his creators modeled his look after circus performers. The key word here is “showmanship” — circus people (and later superheroes) wore them because they’re not items of clothing people wear in everyday life, and a cape served to visually set them apart from normal folk. Batman writers would expand on that, showing how a practical-minded hero like Batman would use a cape both for its psychological value (capes + bat motif = tapping into criminals’ primal fears) and for defense (a cape making it harder, e.g., for shooting criminals to find their target).
But in the real world… Remember that scene in The Incredibles where Mr. Incredible is talking about a new costume design with Edna Mode? “No capes!” she thunders after describing how several heroes were killed by getting a loose piece of cloth attached to their necks snagged on missiles, waterspouts, ascending elevators, etc. And… fair point, Edna. Or if you prefer, read up on how Dollar Bill, the corporate mascot turned superhero in the Watchmen series, met his untimely end. Is that how you want people to remember you, killed in a hail of gunfire because you got your cape stuck in a freakin’ door?
As seen on: the X-Men’s Gambit, the Punisher, The Matrix’s Neo, numerous private eyes and mysterious types
Why they exist: Since the early days of the pulp fiction detectives, trenchcoats have been the outerwear of choice for PIs and other lurking-in-the-shadows types trying to keep a low profile while they search for clues, rough up suspects and perform other clandestine duties. It certainly beats wearing a red cape on that score. Plus, from a practical perspective, it’s nice having all those pockets for the tools of the trade, even if you just need a place to keep your car keys.
But in the real world… Gone are the days when a Sam Spade type could pull up the collars of his trenchcoat and disappear from sight; thanks to Columbine, The Matrix and the trenchcoat’s unfortunate association with flashers and patrons of certain theatres, you might as well wear a flashing sign that says “Nope, nothing suspicious here” when you haul one on. Also, I love how in the comics a trenchcoat and fedora combine to form the perfect invisibility shield, making it impossible for anyone to notice, say, the Punisher’s shiny white boots or the Thing’s craggy face. And wouldn’t a guy like Gambit get awfully hot wearing something that big and bulky in the New Orleans heat?
5. High heels
As seen on: Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Storm, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, Halle Berry’s Catwoman, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman
Why they exist: Because most comics are drawn by boys and men, that’s why.
But in the real world… I made the mistake of watching the first Iron Man movie with my (amazing, beautiful, wonderful) wife when it came out. While I was blown away by fight scenes and Downey’s interpretation of the character, my beloved could only talk about one thing after the movie: “How the hell could Gwyneth Paltrow run in those high heels over a steel-grate floor?” And I had to admit, it’s a question I never thought of asking before. I think every comic artist or filmmaker who sticks a heroine in high heels should actually try to run, jump and kick in a pair of them first. It’s not even a matter of how high heels squish your toes or put a lot of pressure on your back and spine or how trying to keep your balance while wearing a pair of miniature stilts is nearly impossible when you’re just trying to walk a straight line. Things like running, jumping and landing on your feet (all common actions during the superhero’s workday) require traction between your feet and the ground; less surface area on the bottom of your shoes means less traction, which means you have less control of your own movement. And that’s on top of the very real danger of breaking a heel and spraining your ankle at an inconvenient moment.
6. Costumes made of leather, latex, vinyl, Spandex
As seen on: Pick a dozen, any dozen; check out the X-Men’s matching leather outfits in their film trilogy, or Michelle Pfeiffer’s hot vinyl number in Batman Returns
Why they exist: Clearly, if capes and other loose articles of clothing are out of the question, then the only alternative is to put on something a little more form-fitting. A hero who plans to use acrobatics and awesome fighting moves needs the freedom of movement that a tight costume provides, plus a snug bodysuit is that much easier to conceal under clothing or hide in small places (like, say, a certain speedster’s hollow ring). And let’s be honest: a fit-looking woman in a slinky suit that barely contains her curves has a greater chance of distracting opponents (and gaining valuable seconds in a combat situation) than that same woman wearing a muumuu, right?
But in the real world… When I called Pfeiffer’s costume “hot” up above, I didn’t just mean that in the aesthetic sense. The vinyl costume she wore was so tight and hot against her skin that Pfeiffer could only wear it for a few minutes at a time without fainting. Serious cosplayers can rhyme off all the drawbacks of each type of material most commonly associated with superhero costumes: leather squeaks and restricts movement; latex doesn’t breathe and traps body heat next to the skin; vinyl, once ripped, can’t be sewn back together; Spandex allows movement but tears easily, leaving heroes open to battling both villains and public nudity charges in any situation where someone brings out the knives and swords.
As seen on: Pretty much every character Rob Liefeld ever drew
Why they exist: Because you need to put your key somewhere while you’re out fighting crime in your skintight superhero uniform — and also your cellphone, spare change, smoke bomb pellets, extra ammo, lockpicking tools… Plus, doesn’t it look just a little intimidating facing someone who’s so obviously prepared for any occasion?
But in the real world… No doubt about it, pouches can be super-useful to the hero who likes to be prepared for anything. As long as you know which pouch contains the item you’re looking for, exactly when you need it. And you have a way to close them that ensures the contents won’t spill out while you’re running, flying or leaping through the air. And you can handle the extra weight of whatever you decide to pack inside them. And you don’t pack anything fragile, pointy or dangerous if your pouches ever take a direct hit. And you don’t mind cutting off the circulation of whatever body part you decide to strap your belt of pouches on to. And…
8. Overly elaborate headpieces
As seen on: The Avengers’ Scarlet Witch, the X-Men’s Havok and Storm, the Justice League’s Zatanna (in some incarnations), pretty much any Asgardian or New God Jack Kirby ever designed
Why they exist: To look cool. And to help set these characters apart visually from the normal people around them. Kind of the same reason the British Royal Family wears all those crazy hats, now that I think about it.
But in the real world… Oh sure, Wonder Woman might use her tiara as a boomerang or the Flash might stick a radio transmitter inside his ear-wing thingies. But items like those don’t necessarily fall into the “overly elaborate” category. That thing atop Havok’s head, though… Look, I recognize that artists need to resort to certain tricks of the trade to help readers differentiate between all the square-jawed types in a story, and sticking the spatula attachment from a commercial mixer on top of someone’s head certainly helps in that respect. But you have to wonder how much time and patience would be needed to create something like that for a person to wear in the real world, and why they would even bother if the headpiece’s only purpose can be summed up as “visual flair.” Even something as simple-looking as Storm’s headpiece invites questions about how it attaches to her head, what function it performs that couldn’t be better accomplished by a scrunchie or elastic hairband, and why someone with a tendency to be in very windy places would want something that doesn’t look all that useful in keeping her long hair from whipping around.
9. Costumes and accessories in white and/or bright primary colors
As seen on: Robin, Daredevil, Spider-Man, the Punisher, Moon Knight, White Tiger (from Ultimate Spider-Man)
Why they exist: A guy like the Punisher wants to keep to the shadows, which makes a large white skull on his chest seem like an odd fashion statement. But it makes sense when you consider how often he’s shot at, and how the white skull helps draw gunfire to a part of his body that’s better protected against bullets than, say, his head. Colors on a superhero costume can also be used to intimidate (like Daredevil’s devil-may-care red color palette) or to honor someone from the hero’s past (as in the case with Dick Grayson, who chose his red-and-yellow Robin ensemble to honor his murdered acrobat parents).
But in the real world… Anyone who does laundry knows that anything colored white is going to be a lot harder to clean for the simple fact that white clothes show everything — and if you thought getting some red wine out of a white shirt was tough, try getting bloodstains off a pair of white gauntlets. And while wearing bright colors might make sense for heroes with little reason to worry about who’s taking a shot at them (Superman has said he wears bright colors in part to draw fire away from his more vulnerable Justice League teammates), there’s not a whole lot of good reasons for someone like Robin to go prancing in the moonlight in a red tunic and green elf slippers. As for the monotone look adopted by the Daredevils of the world — look, there’s a reason why we don’t call British soldiers “redcoats” anymore, capice?
10. The classic shorts-over-tights look
As seen on: Superman, Batman, practically every superhero who first appeared during the Golden Age of comics
Why they exist: See “capes” above. No less an authority than DC editor Julius Schwartz once said the shorts-over-tights look was used because the styles of early heroes were based on the costumes that wrestlers and circus performers sometimes wear, and later superheroes just continued the tradition. Plus, if you’re going to show people wearing tight leggings in a medium aimed at children, it helps to not have a hero’s costume look too tight in certain places, if you know what I mean. And let’s face it: wearing your support garment on the outside cuts down on the whole “panty line” problem tout de suite.
But in the real world… Remember what happened the last time you wore your underwear on the outside of your pants? Right, nothing — because you would never do anything that ridiculous. Recent movies like Man of Steel and the Dark Knight trilogy have acknowledged the inherent silliness of the look by doing away with it altogether, and it’s pretty rare to find a comic-book hero these days sporting their Speedos on the outside of their tights unless they’re intentionally going for the retro vibe.
11. Pretty much anything else you attach to a costume
As seen on: The Flash’s ear ornaments; Captain America’s little helmet-wings; Thor’s fancy winged helmet; anyone wearing a scabbard or quiver; anyone wearing dangling jewelry, high collars, loose sleeves, epaulettes, gloves with wide openings, hats, loose-fitting belts, long hair, neckties, buccaneer boots…
Why they exist: Because drama and trademark law require that our heroes all sport distinctive looks, and there are only so many colors and costume cuts to go around. Adding a few accessories or extra pieces of flair makes it easier to tell who’s who and cuts down on pesky copyright-infringement suits.
But in the real world… Let’s assume the Flash’s “speed aura” takes care of piddly details like the drag that would be created by sticking protruding features on his costume (or the effects of friction on any material moving that fast through the air). That still leaves us with a lot of costume design choices that, if they were ever to be adopted by a real-life superhero, would pretty much kill them the second they stepped into a fight. A bit dramatic, you say? Take Deathstroke, one of DC’s more prominent super-badasses. Most law enforcement agencies won’t even let their officers wear neckties for the simple reason that anything dangling off your body becomes a liability in a fistfight. So what does this guy choose to wear? Aside from the already mentioned shorts-over-tights look, pouches and brightly colored accessories, we have: a long ribbon attached to the back of his mask… gloves with wide openings… and buccaneer-style boots that are probably a little more difficult to run and jump in than a standard pair of Nikes. And let’s not even get into the wisdom of adopting a mask that advertises to the world how much you suck at processing depth perception (a rather important skill you’d think most top-tier assassins would possess). True, a comic about a commando who dresses like a stagehand at a community theatre production might not look as visually exciting, but at least he’ll stand a better chance of not getting killed for a stupid reason — like getting his mask-ribbon caught in a revolving door.