Of Sexiness and Superheroes

How can Catwoman kick ass in stilettos? A panel of experts weighs in

Every costume we wear makes a statement about ourselves. There’s no escape from that fact; as fashion illustrator Maurice Vellekoop put it, “even a plain t-shirt and jeans says, ‘I’m not that interested in this “fashion” thing.’”

Vellekoop was participating in a Toronto Comic Arts Festival panel called “Fashion!” I attended earlier this spring. Moderated by Krystle Tabujara, the panel featured speakers with a variety of perspectives on drawn style, from historical cartoons to superhero comics, and couture illustration to fashion journalism. They sought to answer the age-old question that has plagued man since the dawn of time (or at least since Superman first came down from Krypton): when it comes to comics, do clothes matter?

In comics, clothes inform character. They can do the obvious, like helping the reader tell characters apart on the page, but they also enhance the plausibility of the character. Cartoonist Ramon Perez argues that costume design for science fiction and fantasy is all about functionality. Every piece of an outfit needs to have a reason to be there. When he started drawing Wolverine, he got rid of some weird stripes on the character’s upper arms (“what were they, tricep armour?”) and pared down his uniform.

A similar commonsense approach would definitely benefit many of the female characters in superhero comics. Fashion journalist Nathalie Atkinson waxed nostalgic about a glorious period in Catwoman’s story arc where a new artist put her in lug tread boots she “could actually kick ass in,” instead of the impractical stiletto heels she had previously worn, and—at the pen of a new artist—has returned to.

An upside to the pervasiveness of hyper-sexualized outfits assigned to female superheroes is that they make room in the world for some fantastic parody. One of my favourite Canadian comic artists, Haligonian Kate Beaton, has produced some wonderful work on this topic. The Adventures of Sexy Batman is a great place to start. Beaton has also come up with female superhero trio Strong Female Characters in collaboration with two other illustrators, Carly Monardo and Meredith Gran.

Another great example of parody is the satirical Tumblr The Hawkeye Initiative, which gives readers a chance to turn the gender stereotype upside down by submitting their own illustrations. The site compiles feminist fan-art in which male Avengers character Hawkeye is drawn in the same ridiculous outfits and poses female comic book characters are usually depicted in. In doing so, The Hawkeye Initiative offers a clear window into the sheer volume of outlandish streetwear that exists for women in the superhero comic universe.

If the female superheroes on these pages are really able to perform feats of acrobatics wearing stilettos, then they deserve our admiration. The agility and hamstring strength required alone would top that of any male character. As cartoonist Bob Thaves wrote in a 1982 strip, “Sure [Fred Astaire] was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards… and in high heels.” So, theoretically these superwomen might be able to parkour across rooftops wearing hot-shorts. But why should they have to? Wouldn’t they be more effective crimefighters (or supervillains!) wearing something a little more practical? The new outfits wouldn’t even have to be unattractive: a middle ground does exist between “leather bikini” and “burlap sack”. Plus, the image of a strong lady kicking ass and taking names is always going to be attractive in and of itself, regardless of what she’s wearing.

The Fashion in Comics panel at TCAF 2013 was moderated by Krystle Tabujara and featured Nathalie Atkinson (fashion journalist, The National Post), Willow Dawson (No Girls Allowed), Kagan McLeod (fashion illustrator, Infinite Kung Fu) Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim), Ramon Perez (Wolverine & The X-Men), and Maurice Vellekoop (fashion illustrator). You can watch a taped version of the thought-provoking discussion on YouTube here.

further reading // The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid // Exterminating Angel Press // 2009

Cayley Wornette

Hola, comme estas? Mi nombre es Cayley James… and that is the extent of my conversational Spanish. I’m a recent graduate from University of Guelph with a degree in English and Theatre Studies. Since leaving the Royal City for the T.Dot, clutching a BA in my sweaty palm, I’ve been repeatedly faced with the terrifying question: “So what are you going to do now?” The truth is, I haven’t the faintest idea.

I’ve spent the past twenty-two years on this planet consuming culture at an insatiable rate — anything I could glue my eyes to or get my hands on — I devoured it. My first introduction to fashion was probably Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Audrey and Fred were swell in their sweet little romance, but it was Kay Thompson as a Diana Vreeland-esque editor that made the movie soar. Spouting names like Dior, the New-Look and couture, it was like mid-century fashion Cliff Notes to 9-year- old me. My risky sartorial choices at that point had only really gone as far as OshKosh and Land’s End jeans with an elastic band in the waist. Funny Face led to the opening of many a Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. It’s films that have always been a touch-stone for my sense of style. The meticulous, character-conscious costumes that populated Hollywood’s Golden Age continue to inspire and educate.

Current Inspirations

Les Garcons de Glasgow
A friend of mine moved to Glasgow in January and had been raving about this site. A classic street-style blog, it celebrates the civic pride of Glaswegians and their irreverent fashion flair.

Green Wedding Shoes
Weddings are fun. So why not revel in other peoples’ hope and enthusiasm? Especially when those people have impeccable taste. Green Wedding Shoes covers everything from invitations to engagement pictures to the big day. Everything is “aww” inducing and most of the ideas can be parlayed to any old dinner party or birthday celebration. It’s totally worth checking out.

I Am Donald
I am a comedy nerd. I love me some Thursday Night TV and Community is one my current 22-minute obsessions. One of the show’s stars, Donald Glover, happens to have a kick-ass Tumblr. He’s a jack of all trades; film-maker, writer, actor, stand-up, rapper etc, and his site is a fantastic testament to that. Full of mix-tapes, fashion and music videos — it’s a very entertaining collection to say the least.

Mad Men Unbuttoned
This site combines two of my favourite things: Mad Men and intertextuality. When the show is in session, this site not only engages in criticism but plumbs the show for its inspirations; compiling real ads and LIFE photo essays and providing even more context for the show. More then a fan-site, it’s a self-described “cultural catalogue.”

Hark A Vagrant
I can’t draw to save my life, but I admire people who can conjure something on a piece of paper that actually resembles a human form. Kate Beaton’s web-comic is a combination of scathing humour injected into historical and literary moments through time. It’s so funny and so smart that it makes you wonder why there haven’t been more comics made about Diefenbaker.