Kryptonian Chic: The Origins and Meaning of Superman’s Costume

Superheroes, here we come,
A bunch of weirdoes, they’re so dumb!
Superheroes, not Mickey Mouses,
How come you wear your underpants outside your trousers?

This piece of timeless prose from the lyrics of The Firm’s 1987 flop Superheroes is a prime example of the media’s continuous mockery of the classic superhero costume, in particular the granddaddy of all those guys – Superman. From Mad Magazine spoofs to every wiseass on Instagram who ever got pissed and pulled his Y-fronts over his jeans, the derision has been heavy, constant… and not actually funny since the 1960s, to the point where DC Comics and Warner Brothers have been forced to change the costume to stem the onslaught. But what’s it all about, eh? Why does Superman wear what appears to be his inner garments on the outside? And why does he wear tights with boots over the top? And what’s with that cape? The answer is a lot more obvious than you might expect, or that you might have read elsewhere. Read on.

Superman’s costume has changed many times over the years, with everything from ‘dark Superman’ to ‘divorced Dad wearing the t-shirt his kids bought him for Father’s Day Superman’, but the original Superman costume is a design classic: close-fitting blue suit with the ‘S’ logo on the chest, red pants and boots, red cape and yellow belt – simple, effective, beautiful… so why change it all the time? Because people are idiots, that’s why. They don’t understand the historical relevance of the original costume, it’s not hip or fashionable and so they sneer. That’s why we got all those leather jacket wearing superheroes with Duran Duran haircuts in the 80s. “How come you don’t bring your superheroes up to date?” asked someone who didn’t actually have an interest; so they did, with the result that 30+ years later they now look more dated than ever.

To understand the relevance of Superman’s costume, you have to travel back to 1936, where it all started in issue one of Action Comics, published by National Allied Publications (later rebranded DC). Superman was only one of several comic strips and text stories in Action Comics, alongside the likes of the magician Zatara, comedy cop Hayfoot Henry and all-American crime fighter Tex Thompson, but he did get the front cover of the first issue, famously lifting an automobile over his head and smashing it against a boulder, while bad guys run off in all directions screaming like little girls. His bulging chest and superlative feat of strength tells you everything that you need to know about Superman as he appears in the first year of his published life. He’s not yet the same character that we would all come to know and love.

In the early issues of Action Comics, Superman is not billed as ‘The Man of Steel’, but as ‘The Strongest Man on Earth’. There’s a very brief summation of his origins on the Planet Krypton, but this is swiftly forgotten and he’s basically presented as a very strong human being. He doesn’t yet have X-ray vision, heat vision or even the ability to fly! He is described thus: ‘Friend of the helpless and oppressed is Superman, a man possessing the strength of a dozen Sampsons! Lifting and rending gigantic weights, vaulting over skyscrapers, racing a bullet, possessing a skin impenetrable even to steel, are his physical assets used in his one-man battle against evil and injustice!’ Superheroes did not really exist as such in 1936 and his ‘super power’ stems entirely from the incredible strength of his muscles and the invulnerability of his skin. Superman is a strong-man.

Strong-men were a mainstay of circuses and carnivals since their very earliest days. Big muscular chaps (and occasionally ladies), they would bend steel bars with their bare hands and lift enormous weights over their heads… or at least what appeared to be enormous weights, there was a great deal of smoke and mirrors involved in every aspect of the carnival. And the strong-men of the late 19th and early 20th century had a particular look; sometimes they would wear animal skins as a biblical touchtone to the aforementioned Sampson, but more often than not they would wear a tight-fitting body-stocking, which showed off their incredible muscles whilst preserving their modesty. There was one place where a delicate Victorian lady visiting the carnival didn’t want the strong-man’s costume to be quite as tight-fitting though (or if she did, she wasn’t telling), so the addition of an extra pair of outer pants was commonplace.

This was the strong-man look that the audience of 1936 would have been familiar with and it extends beyond the circus ring to boxers and wrestlers of that era. You can get all academic about it and trace the look back to 16th century fashions if you like, but the ‘pants on the outside’ trope has far more to do with Victorian modesty than Elizabethan codpieces. The look of Superman in the early editions of Action Comics is unquestionable that of a strong-man; he doesn’t yet have the calf-length boots that we associate with the character and on the cover of Action Comics #1 can be seen wearing something resembling the kind of above-the-ankle lace-ups that were common for strong-men, boxers and wrestlers in those days. Bizarrely, in the very earliest strips, he doesn’t appear to be wearing any boots at all, but by issue #5, he’s moved onto the longer boots. The addition of a cape was also a nod to the strong-man, who would frequently appear wearing a flamboyant cape, which he would cast aside before performing his feats of strength.

Superman’s character and costume developed very quickly; he was flying by issue #13 and his other powers followed in due course. Ironically, World War II did a lot to promote the public image of Superman; the American teenagers who’d followed his exploits in 1936 were being drafted into the army by 1941, so DC Comics played down the Nietzscheian origins of his name and bigged up the ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ aspect, buoyed by the Nazi-smashing Fleischer Brothers cartoons of the wartime era.  Superman became a major propaganda weapon and a household name, not just in the United States, but in Europe, Australasia and even further afield. Mid-century, the public image of Superman was bolstered by the 1952 – 1958 TV series, one of the earliest colour television shows, starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel.

Superman’s costume, pants and all, became a design classic and transposed almost unchanged to the big screen with the arrival of Superman – The Movie in 1978. Christopher Reeve looks amazing in the costume and there’s nothing silly or outdated about it; all associations with the circus strong-man of almost half a century previously are lost in the mists of time and this is a costume that is immutably associated with Superman. The outfit continued unchanged on film and TV throughout the 80s in three further movies and on into Superboy and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in the early 90s. We narrowly avoided the dubious pleasures of Nicholas Cage as a long-haired Man of Steel in a wet-look and posing-pouch costume when Tim Burton’s Superman Lives bit the dust, but instead got a return to the classic look, sported by Brandon Routh in Bryan Singer’s love letter to the Christopher Reeve era, Superman Returns.

The comics weren’t so kind. The success of graphic novels (read: comics for grow- ups) in the late 80s such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns instilled in the trade a paranoia that anything ‘traditional’ in the comics trade was kids stuff, so whereas Superman’s outfit had survived only superficial change between 1936 and 1990, the next 30 years saw over a dozen radical changes. Admittedly, these were often in ‘limited series’ or ‘alternate universe’ versions of Superman, but although they varied from the sublime to the ridiculous, the comics always seemed to end up back with the classic costume. It was almost as if there was a running battle between those who were hell-bent on modernising Superman and those whose nostalgic intent was to recapture the Superman of their youth.

Back in Hollywood, the success of Tim Burton’s 1990 Batman had convinced DC licensees Warner Bros that ‘dark’ was the only way to go with superheroes. In 2013, they brought back Superman in Man of Steel, a sombre, utterly humourless take on the legend that displeased comic book fans with the liberties it took with the origin story and displeased casual viewers because it was… well, boring. Because everything has to be ‘dark’ in this new universe, the Man of Steel’s outfit is markedly darker in hue; admittedly the outfit in Superman Returns was a tad less vibrant than we’re used to, but Henry Cavill’s is the same shade as the ‘Evil Superman’ from Superman III.  Most significantly for this feature, the costume designers finally succumbed to years of senseless mockery about the external underpants and made this latest incarnation of Superman red pantsless.

Now, I really don’t like the pantsless costume. For me, it has a long, bland stretch of one colour that makes it less visually interesting and it seems to accentuate the narrowness of the actors hips in comparison to his broad shoulders, making him look weirdly ‘V’ shaped. Also, the all-in-on nature of the skin-tight costume draws attention towards the crotch, which is designed to not appear too prominent (as it always has been in the visual representations of Superman), but in doing so makes the Man of Steel appear strangely sexless. As counterintuitive as it may sound, having the red pants to break up what is essentially a leotard (whatever fancy textures you put on it), distracts from the crotch area whilst reminding you that his manhood is there, you just can’t see it. Yeah, I said it – Superman is more manly with red pants! Those 1930s carnival strongmen know exactly what they were doing, you know.

The pantsless costume continues into Tyler Hoechlin’s portrayal of Superman in both the Supergirl and Superman and Lois TV series, which seems to suggest that we might have seen the last of the classic outfit on film and television. Last year in his own title, DC Comics replaced Clark Kent with Son of Superman, who has ankle-length boots and – you guessed it – no red pants. But hey, let’s get real here, folks; does anyone genuinely think for one second that Clark Kent’s Superman is going to be permanently replaced by his son or anyone else? Give it another 10 years and Superman Jr. will be banished to Universe Q or some nonsense and a new editor will have arrived, full of nostalgia and genuine love for the world of Superman, intent on returning the character to his literary roots… and if we’re really lucky, that will mean the return of the classic costume, complete with pants.

Earlier in this piece, I called the Superman costume a design classic – and it is. Like the rotary dial telephone, the angle poise lamp or the New York yellow taxi, it might have become passé or outdated, but it is instantly recognisable, even those who weren’t around to see its heyday. Show a kid today a picture of a rotary dial telephone and they’ll still know it’s a phone, even though they’ll probably never use one. Show a kid today a picture of Superman from the cover of Action Comics #1 and they’ll still know it’s Superman. For the purposes of this feature, I had a quick browse through the wealth of Superman merchandise available online and the vibrant colours and design aesthetic of the original design lives on in mugs, lounge pants, notebooks etc, etc. The more modern design seems to appear only on merchandise connected with the movies, which will be transient and I think that says something, don’t you?

BONUS: MY OWN PERSONAL SUPERMAN

For a bit of fun, I thought I’d design my own take on the Superman costume if I had to redesign it. Please don’t write in and criticize because I know how mean some of the darker corners of Comics fandom can be and this is only for fun, I’m not a professional artist.

Essentially what I’ve done is to make the cape a bit more regal around the shoulders and attaching it to the edges of the shield (which I’m sure has been done before). The problem with the cape is that it sometimes hangs a little limp and could do with something to make it a bit more visually interesting. In absence of the red pants, I’ve added a red chevron to the costume, which breaks up that boring slab of blue and gives the impression of the pants, without actually having the pants. Finally, I’ve given him some gauntlets, which is a bit Shazam! I know, but it adds a bit of dynamism to the sleeve area. And that’s my Superman – how would yours look?

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