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

Backwards In High Heels: A Fred & Ginger Supercut

A look at the classic Hollywood style of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire

When WORN held its redesign Indiegogo fundraiser last fall, the top perk for support was a film supercut of the bidder’s choosing. One of the supercuts was snapped up by Nathalie Atkinson, Style editor and culture columnist at the National Post. Atkinson’s choice was a supercut of every single outfit Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers wore when they appeared together on-screen in their ten musical pairings. Here, she explains why.

My taste—and to a degree, what I do for a living—was shaped in my teens, by whatever TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies host Elwy Yost felt like watching every weekend.

Elwy loved old movies and particularly the RKO musicals of the ’30s, and as a consequence so do I. I love the costumes in many of his favourite Silver Screen classics—Rosalind Russell’s striped topcoat and hat from His Girl Friday, everything Myrna Loy wears in The Thin Man, by costumer Dolly Tree, the pre-Code bias satins and boas of Dinner at Eight. But the grace, elegance, and wit of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ costumes in their musical comedy pairings remain my favourite. Their panache not only affected dance: it popularized the American songbook (Berlin, the Gershwin) not to mention a fantasy world of stark black and white Art Deco interiors and beautiful evening attire. “The Continental” from The Gay Divorcée won the very first Academy Award for best original song.

The legendary dance duo spent eight hours a day for six weeks rehearsing and perfecting choreography with Hermes Pan prior to shooting a film (which they did, in long takes, on perilously glossy floors). Note that as a 1982 “Frank & Ernest” newspaper comic strip by Bob Thaves later coined, Ginger did everything Fred did, only backwards. And in high heels.

They were the perfect complement for both banter and ballroom: Fred’s dancing is debonair and classy; Ginger’s is graceful but sassy (or as Katharine Hepburn put it: he gave her class; she gave him sex appeal.) Did they or didn’t they? Reading Rogers’ 1991 autobiography, Ginger: My Story, you’ll learn that while both were performing in separate Broadway shows before she was lured to Hollywood (when they made their first picture together, it was her 21st and only his 2nd), she and Fred had been more than a little warmly acquainted. They’d been on a few dates and even shared a real clinch or two (which is more than they ever did on film, given the newly cordial and reserved relationship with Astaire, by then married and, according to Ginger at least, his wife Adele was jealous and possessive).

Fred is known for the white tie, black tie, and tails, and Ginger’s loveliest bias-cut ballgown costumes are those made in collaboration with Howard Greer, a fashion and costume designer who stayed on in France after the Great War to work at Molyneux, Lucile, and Poiret before returning to Hollywood. (Fun fashion fact: Rogers didn’t make her first trip to France until 1952, but she made up for lost time. In Paris she stayed at Le Meurice, where Earl Blackwell squired her to a fashion show and later, numerous private fittings with designer Elsa Schiaparelli. And in the 1970s, Ginger collaborated on a capsule collection for J.C. Penney!)

Carefree’s “The Yam” dress by Howard Greer is one Rogers describes as “chiffon panels of red flame and steel gray.” In this film she also wears a bold original dress design of appliquéd arrows piercing a heart by costume designer Howard Greer and Edward Stevenson (you may recognize it from its recent contemporary copycat: a few years ago New Zealand designer Karen Walker did a very, very similar frock she called “Cupid”). There’s “Change Partners,” also by Greer: “a beautiful black marquisette gown, with a picoted bodice with silver threads, which caused a slight glimmer of reflected light as I danced around the floor.” The dress for “Color Blind” made her feel “like the fairy godmother in Cinderella.” For The Barkleys of Broadway, the first number in the film was the “Swing Trot” and costumer Irene made her a gold lamé dress to contrast with the purple chorus gowns. “My dress had a very full skirt and when I whirled, it filled with air because of the way it was sewn—balloon-style at the hem.”

It’s in 1949′s The Barkleys of Broadway, their final film together—in Technicolour—that you see the beginnings of Astaire’s more casual personal style, later recognizable in films such as The Band Wagon and Funny Face: the necktie as belt, the kerchief, the brightly coloured shirts paired with shortened trousers that showed off his intricate footwork (which inspired Michael Jackson to crop his trousers the same way). Here, the menswear is by MGM costumer J. Arlington Valles.

The Fred and Ginger movies follow a loose formula—a meet-cute dance number, a solo, a casual one, a romantic seduction dance (such as “Cheek to Cheek”), and one grand production number to close. And while they’re elegant, my favourites of their 1930′s costumes aren’t the formal suits and gowns but their more playful, casual attire. Fred was daring, for his day and American audience, because he emulated the English tweed sport jackets and Savile Row suiting style of the Prince of Wales (he traveled to London himself to be fitted by purveyors Hawes & Curtis or Anderson & Sheppard). Ginger wore witty, sometimes goofy costumes like satin sailor suits (Follow the Fleet), like jodhpurs and roller-skating skirts, in the looser numbers. There is also, of course, some dish about the infamous costume at the heart of the legendary fight she had on Top Hat with Astaire and their longtime director Mark Sandrich, the director on five of their nine RKO musicals together (their 10th was in colour, at MGM). Rogers had specifically asked for a pale blue dress with front and back neckline trimmed in long ostrich feathers. Fred didn’t care for it, especially since with every movement and quiver, it shed feathers—all over his tuxedo, for example.

She got her way and the dress—and all its feathers—floats languidly and sensually through the number; it now resides in the Smithsonian, along with her glittering dress from The Piccolino. The dance partners reconciled and from then on, his nickname for her was ‘Feathers.’

And if you look closely, around the 50-second mark you’ll see the high-gloss dance floor littered with the ostrich feathers that have slowly drifted over the course of their dance.

text // Nathalie Atkinson
video // Daniel Reis

Every one of the costumes they wore on-camera together during their partnership, in chronological order:
Flying Down to Rio
The Gay Divorcee
Top Hat
Follow the Fleet
Swing Time
Shall We Dance
The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle
The Barkleys of Broadway

further reading >
Astaire & Rogers by Edward Gallafent
Fred Astaire by Joseph Epstein
Puttin’ On the Ritz: Fred Astaire & the Fine Art of Panache by Peter J. Levinson
Ginger: My Story by Ginger Rogers
Fred Astaire: His Friends Talk by Sarah Giles
The Astaires by Kathleen Riley

Book Ends: Our (Slightly Belated) 2011 Literary Review

Readers of Worn are known to geek out not only over clothes, but over books as well. Though we’ve already started collectively consuming a ton of books from 2012, we’re still not quite done discussing our favourite reads from last year. To expand the conversation, we asked some of our favourite fashion nerds to share with us the best books they read in 2011.

Nathalie Atkinson, National Post Style Editor
Searching for Beauty, by Cherie Burns

Generally, biographies of the idle rich are to be avoided, but I make an exception for Millicent Rogers. I’d been curious about the Standard Oil heiress for years (her grandfather Henry was in business with John D. Rockefeller), but until Cherie Burns’ Searching for Beauty (St. Martin’s Press) there had been virtually no original biographical research about this late great dame of American fashion (who died at 51, too young, in 1953). I’m forever having a 1920s and 1930s moment (what I would give to have lived back then!) and took Burns’ book on holiday in August, pairing it with two other complementary reads: Flapper, Joshua Zeitz’s superb historical and fashion survey of the first modern women of the first modern decade, and lexicographer-slash-dress-blogger Erin McKean’s whimsical and breezy novel The Secret Lives of Dresses, which concerns the fictional stories of vintage dresses in a boutique.

I didn’t come up for air until the last page. Eccentric high society clotheshorses seem ubiquitous today, but in the late teens and 1920s, Rogers was an original. Astute about clothes, she was ridiculously wealthy but rebellious, and did things her own way—for example, she wore Patou to her coming-out debutante ball at the New York Ritz and made several loopy costume changes thoughout the night. She later became the patron and muse of London couturier Charles James’s classic American evening gown look, and had romantic conquests (Cary Grant!), but instead of following the prevailing fads she remained true to her own style – rather than merely the good little clothes hanger for the designers of the day that so many boldface socialites and celebrities are today. With a closet bulging with Mainbocher, Lanvin and Valentina mixed with the anonymous finds of her far-flung travels, Rogers’s confident and idiosyncratic style choices regularly inspired her friend Diana Vreeland: she went from Tyrol to hippie-chic eclectic and is the originator of the all-American, preppy-Southwest hybrid look that has become Ralph Lauren’s signature. In the 1940s, she moved to the mountains of New Mexico, to Taos, and designed huge, beautiful jewellery that mixed turquoise with diamonds, and wore it as knights did armour—often elbow to fingertip. Rogers left behind this and an important art collection, too—thousands of Southwest artifacts and American Indian jewellery. As fits the under-hyped style icon, she’s buried in an Apache dress by Elsa Schiaparelli.
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Très Click: Bill Cosby Edition

The Cosby Sweater Project
Another day, another amazing new Tumblr: The Cosby Sweater Project has photos of Bill Cosby’s iconic sweater collection and hand-drawn illustrated details of each pattern.

Is Designer Duplication A Fashion Statement?
Nathalie Atkinson confronts the problem that we’ve all noticed in fashion — the “trickle down” effect, high fashion designs showing up in low end mass market stores. How can the courts differentiate between rip-offs and simple coincidences? As Atkinson points out, “Great minds think alike — or sometimes one does, on purpose.” You can read more about the legal implications of fast fashion in Emily Raine’s article featured in the latest issue of WORN.

Clothing The “Terrifying Muslim”: Q&A With Junaid Rana
Why does the media insist on referring to clothes worn by Muslims as “garb”? Mimi Thi Nguyen interviews Junaid Rana about the racist implications of this label. Their Q&A is a truly thought-provoking discussion about how clothes are rarely ever just clothes; instead, they become “a way to racialize and establish social boundaries of who belongs here and who doesn’t.”

The Smart Set: Unfashionable
As Jessa Crispin points out, Vogue‘s lack of awareness and questionable ethics when it comes to politics are nothing new, but they are nothing less than shocking. A particularly oblivious portrait of the first lady of Syria, Asma al-Assad, raved about her chic fashion sense, her thin body, and gentle demeanor, but failed to mention the growing civil unrest in her country. Now the citizens of Syria are calling for a complete removal of President Bashar al-Assad and the profile has mysteriously disappeared from Vogue‘s website. That’s the problem with the Internet, Vogue — there’s always someone with a screenshot.

Savage Beauty: Alexander McQueen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
I’m sure by now some of you have noticed that I am completely and totally obsessed with the McQueen exhibit at the Met, on now until July 31st. Ingrid Mida has a review with pictures that made me drool like so.

- Haley Mlotek