The Clothes That Maketh the Woman

Posted by on September 6th, 2010 at 8:07 AM

When WW’s new costume was introduced in Wonder Woman No. 600, the wardrobe change aroused a certain amount of attention in the public prints. At the Associated Press, when Jocelyn Noveck saw that WW’s bare shoulders and naked thighs had been banned, she feigned alarm: “She’s been ruined! Covered up! De-patriotized! You call that chic?”

(If the image is too small to read—which, for most of us, it is—the recommended procedure is to click on the image and it enlarges. For some inexplicable and presumably temporary reason, when you do that here, you and the picture are merely transported to another plane, where the picture resides more-or-less alone, same size as before; but if you click on it again, there, it’ll get much larger—large enough, usually, to read. Try it: you’ll like it.)

This isn’t the first time Wonder Woman has suffered a wardrobe adjustment. And usually, particularly in these latter days, the change is accompanied by much hand-wringing. The first change, which took place shortly after the character debuted in 1941, was that the star-spangled skirt she wore disappeared in favor of a star-spangled girdle. And that lasted for several decades, as any girdle worth the strength of its embrace must. Then in the late 1960s, in an obvious appeal to the current zeitgeist, Diana Prince abandoned her costume and her superpowers in order to don mod clothes and become a globe-trotting karate-kicking secret agent. Eventually, wearied, no doubt, of keeping current with the very latest in fashion, Diana adopted as a virtual uniform a white pant suit.

Inaugurated in the summer of 1968 with No. 178 (September-October) of Wonder Woman, in this incarnation—inspired in part by the Diana Rigg character, Emma Peel, in the popular “Avengers” tv show (although scripter Dennis O’Neil says he hadn’t seen the show at the time of “the New Wonder Woman’s” debut)—Diana Prince was a “normal woman,” a high achiever but without superpowers, just the sort of female that would appeal to the feminist movement then on the rise in the country. Or so it would appear.

Alas, it didn’t turn out quite that way, saith Les Daniels in his history of Wonder Woman. Although briefly popular at first, the “new Wonder Woman” didn’t fit into the strategies of one of the leaders of “women’s liberation” (as it was called then): Gloria Steinem was a fan of the original Wonder Woman who had first appeared when Steinem was but seven, and when Steinem launched her feminist magazine, Ms., she put Wonder Woman back in her star-spangled girdle on the cover of the first issue (July 1972), thus establishing the legendary look of the character as emblematic of feminism. Six months later, DC capitulated to the inevitable: Wonder Woman was again girdled in No. 204, the January-February 1973 issue, of her comic book

Nothing much happened to the character for the next decade, but in about 1983, her chest was redesigned: the eagle on the costume’s bodice was replaced with a nifty modernistic double-W. That, however, merely inflamed the various ires of Wonder Woman fans, who insisted that she sally forth forever in the traditional eagle-emblazoned teddy. I didn’t care much about the eagle one way or the other, but I had some fun with the idea of modernizing Wonder Woman’s awesomely stodgy-looking uniform and with the disappearing eagle.

Changing the breast-plate of her costume scarcely improved matters much: a matronly aura still clung to Wonder Woman, due, probably, to the girdle. In newsstand competition, DC’s longest-running heroine simply could not compete with the sexy likes of, say, X-Men’s Storm or Daredevil’s Black Widow. Despite the generous amount of bare leg exposed in her outfit, Wonder Woman just wasn’t very sexy-looking. She still looked as if she were wearing a foundation garment. Foundation garments in the 1940s were sexy: that’s why we all poured over Sears catalogs. But by the 1980s, after thirty years of Playboy and its tsunami of imitators, superheroines were comfortable in skimpier attire.

Then in the early 1990s, Wonder Woman gradually got a wardrobe revamp that worked. First, Brian Bolland (I believe he was the first to attempt drastic re-design) in a series of covers (aided and abetted by Mike Deodato Jr. on the interior pages) cut the star-spangled girdle up the sides like a modern swim suit. (Inside, Deodato’s WW was wearing a thong.) Then in 1995, John Byrne took another swipe at the costume, elongating even more than George Perez had in the late 1980s the verticality of WW’s golden belt and also reducing the number of stars on the bikini bottom to two. Suddenly, Wonder Woman was modern and sexy as well as traditional, a masterful re-designing.

Tweaks followed. The eagle reappeared as a stylized beak atop the central pinnacle of the double-W. More tricks with the golden belt. Not enough, though, to suit Jim Lee and J. Michael Straczynski, who, in introducing the latest modification in Wonder Woman No. 600, explain that they wanted a “bold” new look, “no mere tweaking,” Lee said. The only way to achieve a re-design, Straczynski explained, was “to go in prepared to make massive changes in how we think about Wonder Woman. … Let’s give her clothes that she can fight in, that add to her presence and her strength and her power.”

And so they devised a new uniform, mostly black—form-fitting, leg-accenting leotards below the waist, motorcycle jacket above. The jacket, worn open, reveals a red top: tight-fitting but with a modestly dipping neckline, it reminds us of the traditional costume without actually reproducing it. Likewise, the famed double-W. It’s there, at the neckline, but Lee and Straczynski wanted to leave most of the accouterments of the traditional Wonder Woman behind. Said Straczynski: “Rather than have the W symbol all over the place on her wardrobe, I wanted to highlight it in one area and make that our statement, letting everything else feel more youthful and street-wise. The exception would be the bracelets, which would be solid on the outer side, with a stylized, almost handwritten W symbol there so that when she crosses her arms, you get the full effect. And if she hits you with it, it leaves a W mark. She signs her work.”

Cute.

But Straczynski, who’s writing the new Wonder Woman, wasn’t aiming at mere cosmetic alterations: he wanted a “fiery, dynamic, tough, determined and smart” Wonder Woman, who, “due to her background,” is also “tragic.” (And before we forget—whatever happened to the idea that the character should be written by a woman, the notion that heralded Gail Simone’s short stint on the title?) In order to achieve his desired end product, Straczynski says he’s going to “tweak time” and go back to Paradise Island (which was destroyed just as Wonder Woman left it as an infant) and the Amazons where Wonder Woman (Princess Diana) was born, and in the immediate future issues of Wonder Woman, our heroine’s mission is to discover who attacked Paradise Island and why. She’ll also try to stop those who intend to kill the surviving Amazons and figure out a way to straighten out the timeline “and reconcile what was to what is.”

Too bad. Nice try, but the Paradise Island/Greek Myth/Amazonian aspect of Wonder Woman’s adventures in recent years has been the most boring part of the character’s saga. And so, instead of attempting a continuity revamp as drastic as the costume change, Straczynski is going to perpetuate the everlasting ennui and, to make that happen, cloud our minds with time travel, the most baffling of all sf enterprises. In the inaugural episode in No. 600, we find Wonder Woman wandering the streets and alleys, confused and uncertain of her identity and haunted by the shadows of unknown enemies. And so she goes to visit the Oracle. Sigh. Please….

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4 Responses to “The Clothes That Maketh the Woman”

  1. […] never seen the term “foundation garment” used this many times before: R.C. Harvey may be a little late to the Wonder Woman costume discussion party, but he more than makes up for it by providing not only a smart discussion, but also some designs […]

  2. R.C. Harvey says:

    Okay, I used “foundation garment” twice, in succession. Scarcely over-use. “Girdle,” on the other hand (or some other part of the anatomy), I used a lot. But if both usages seem strange, it’s only because none of us wear girdles or foundation garments anymore. And the last time I saw a 240-pound lass in short shorts and a halter top, I yearned for the days of yore…….

  3. J.Bone says:

    Straczynski writes: “Rather than have the W symbol all over the place on her wardrobe, I wanted to highlight it in one area and make that our statement…”
    What bugs me about this statement is that previously (pre-Jim Lee) Wonder Woman had exactly ONE double-W on her costume.

    Now she has THREE Ws on her costume which is, I think, closer to “all over the place” than any previous incarnation.

    J.
    p.s. Also, reducing the size of the double-W, coloring it gold like Wonder Woman’s belt, lasso, choker and gauntlets reduces its visibility even further. Very much the opposite of his statement.

  4. […] Friend of Black Comix, comics historian/cartoonist/gangsta R.C. Harvey talks about the evolution of Wonder Woman’s costume. […]