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Review of The Superhero Costume: Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction

By Christopher Maverick

Brownie, Barbara and Danny Graydon. The Superhero Costume: Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Print.

The costume is perhaps the defining trait of the comic book superhero. While personality, appearance, and even powers may shift between different iterations or with a transfer from page to screen, the costume has become the most recognizable aspect of the superhero’s persona. In The Superhero Costume: Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction, Barbara Brownie and Danny Graydon investigate the costume as a function of identity, focusing on its semiotic power as a referent to the hero’s power and ideology. While they argue that the costume is theoretically designed to hide the wearer’s true identity, protecting his or her private life from the dangers inherent to their crime fighting adventures, Brownie and Gradyon reject the distinction of dual identities entirely (12). For them, costume and identity are inseparable. The special abilities of superhumans forever separate them from the general populace. The uniform is not a disguise, but an essential tool that indisputably “marks the superhero as ‘Other'”(2). It is the means by which superheroes embrace the differences that separate them visually and signify the ideologies inherent in their characters.

The primary argument of The Superhero Costume is compelling, though in some ways limited. At times, the authors appear to be so concerned with protecting the central conceit of the book—that all elements of heroic identity are codified in the clothes that the character wears—that they make problematic concessions. Most troubling is the lack of attention to issues of diversity. The majority of their textual examples focus on heteronormative white male characters. While they briefly acknowledge the complication of many hypersexualized female costumes, apparently capitalizing on the male gaze far more than creating a hybrid identity for the heroine, this portion of the argument is held to a single subsection of one chapter and not truly reconciled within their argument. Similarly, their discussion of race and ethnicity is limited outside of a single subsection that deals with costumes designed to appeal to national identity. The existence of queer characters of any type is entirely absent. Since the central thesis of the text requires the conceit that the superhero serves as a symbol of power to marginalized individuals, the underrepresentation of real-life marginalized communities is both curious and troubling.

Despite these obvious shortcomings, Brownie and Graydon construct a fascinating argument. The text is divided into four parts: The “Origins and Evolution” of the costumed superhero, the “Identities and Ideals” that allow for meaning to be encoded into the clothing worn by the heroes, the “Harsh Realities” of transposing superhero fashion on to the real world, and “Case Studies” that test their theories against three iconic comic book series. Each section is further divided into three chapters that combine literary theory, cultural history, semiotics, and psychology. The authors build their case through the investigation of costume and mask as a signifier of identity in several historic contexts from prehistoric religion through medieval stage to contemporary military warfare. They argue that the design of the costume encodes the persona of the hero to such a degree that not only is his or her identity incomplete without it, but his or her persona may be usurped by a third party who dons the outfit. The costume is not only integral to the identity of the superhero; its importance surpasses the individual beneath the mask.

The text begins with the character that launched the superhero genre. In “Superman: Codifying the Superhero Wardrobe,” the authors examine the history of the tropes that became standardized in the superhero uniform, arguing that, contrary to popular belief, the superhero costume was never meant to protect the identity of the wearer, but instead to establish it. Like the spandex tights and singlets of the turn-of-the-century circus strongmen they are modeled on, the heroic costume announces the character as powerful while simultaneously marking him as Other and separating him from the more traditionally garbed populace (12). Regardless of differences in depiction of the character due to various artists’ relative skills or stylistic choices, Superman is defined by the blue suit, red cape, and “S” insignia. He has become a fixed brand, signifying “the core values of heroism and strength (both physical and moral)” (22). His symbol is so iconic that it transcends real world cultural divides. In one of the few examples of non-white ethnicities in the book, Brownie and Graydon present a photo of a young boy wearing a Superman T-shirt as he plays in the street as a tank drives by during Thailand’s 2006 military coup (23-24). Referencing psychology studies claiming young children often engage in the imaginary play of assuming the identities of their costumed heroes in an attempt to gain control over their environment, Brownie and Graydon argue that, for this boy, the symbol of Superman provides the confidence associated with the character (22-23). Furthermore, they contend that this can be extended beyond childhood and any individual, real or fictional, who adopts the iconography of a superhero is immediately linked in identity to the character and assumes an aspect of his or her power.

The second chapter, “Identity, Role and the Mask,” builds on the link between persona and uniform, reasoning that while a costume infuses the wearer with the ideology and power of the hero, fusing the civilian identity with the heroic one, adding a mask privileges the costumed persona by obscuring the primary marker of identity, the face. When Bruce Wayne dons his Batman cowl, “he ceases to be Bruce and adopts the identity of the Bat” (33). He supplants his civilian identity with his heroic one. This deception not only protects his private life, but frees him “from expectations that he will adhere to a social contract” (38). Here, Brownie and Graydon mark a distinction between characters operating within and outside of the law. Because masks are commonly associated with criminals, they are naturally encoded with an aura of mistrust or questionable morality. While Batman, operating as an outlaw vigilante, may embrace his mask, Superman must temper his Otherness by acting without one. While Brownie and Graydon make a compelling case by noting the public mistrust of several masked characters, like Spider-Man and Daredevil, they ignore the relative praise of masked characters that operate within social convention like Captain America. Perhaps this implies that while the mask might free the wearer from the necessity of working within societal norms, it does not require it. However, this is an extension to the argument that the authors seem unconcerned with.

The final chapter of the first section, “Evolution and Adaptation: Form Versus Function,” traces the evolution of the superhero costume from its spandex beginnings to the Kevlar and leather armor favored by 21st century films. The authors contend that film ruins the illusion of strength that the superhero spandex uniform is meant to convey. While the simplified lines of comics drawings present the heroes as perfect physical specimens, the reality of film, which displays both the imperfections of the actors’ bodies and the limitations of real life fabric, renders these costumes ludicrously impractical (42-43). Though cartoonish style seemed apropos to the fantastical and comedic storylines of earlier film and television adaptations like the 1960s Batman television series, contemporary stories, bounded in realism, require a more functional and utilitarian look and feel (46). This cinematic design aesthetic has echoed back to the original comic book source material. Even the most classic costumes have been redesigned to appear militaristic and protective while still maintaining the emblematic identifiers that brand the character as a hero.

The second section of The Superhero Costume delves into the symbolism inherent in specific costume designs. Chapter four, “Wearing the Flag: Patriotism and Globalization,” explores the connection of a character like Captain America to an ideology by garbing him in a patriotic wardrobe. While the costume always codifies the heroic identity as Other, “these costumes express the otherness employed in the service of a nation, emphasizing the superhero’s solidarity with nonsuper-powered citizens of the same society” (56). A costume can similarly be imbued with markers of race and ethnicity, often by incorporating aspects of ancestral garb within the generic superhero template. In their sole discussion of race, the authors examine Pavitr Prabhaker, the Indian Spider-Man, who wears a traditional Indian dhoti over his spandex uniform, therefore connecting him with the archetypal values of his ethnicity (62). However, Brownie and Graydon rightly point out that these connections, both national and ethnic, assume a universality and consistency to these values that does not exist. Instead, they see the ideology represented by these symbols as culturally constructed and that a patriotic costume, like Captain America’s, “reinforces an apparently innate set of American values…. [as] a tool employed in this construction” (60). By the same token, since the costumes of Prabhaker, Miles Morales, and Miguel O’Hara—the African-American and Latino Spider-Men—obscure their skin and facial features, Brownie and Graydon conclude that the mask erases race, “presenting nationality as a set of traditions and values, not ethnicity” (62). Here, the authors’ decision to eschew race from the majority of the text becomes most problematic. Since their conceit is that the mask supplants the identity of the wearer, marking him as generically Other, their reliance on rhetoric commonly associated with cultural studies forces them to paradoxically argue that explicitly racially defined characters are both ethnic and non-ethnic at the same time.

The fifth chapter, “Dressing Up, Dressing Down: A Spectacle of Otherness and the Ordinariness of the Civilian Alter-Ego,” argues that the civilian garb of the superhero is as much a disguise as the spandex uniform. When Superman removes his cape and dons the civilian clothing of Clark Kent, “he is not removing his disguise, he is substituting one costume for another” (70). Because the hero is naturally Othered by his powers, his civilian identity is necessarily a deception; it is the performance of normality. He is incapable of relinquishing his Otherness, so the secret identity is an attempt at passing among the general populace. Clark Kent is not Superman’s true self, he is a caricature; he is Superman’s impression of normality (76). The hero is thus in a constant state of performance. He must actively work to establish himself in both his heroic and civilian roles. The costumes, both super and civilian, provide a necessary prop to aid him in this distinction. Again, the lack of diversity is prevalent here. While the authors present an effective argument for superheroes being an allegory for the marginalized, their insistence on focusing on a reading of Superman as their primary example seems to imply that issues of Otherness can only be addressed within the superhero genre by mapping them on to visually white heterosexual males.

“Channeling the Beast,” concludes the second section by investigating the assimilation of mythic properties through the adoption of animal totems within the super heroic identity. The authors argue that the level of assimilation of the animalistic identity is directly proportional to the extent to which the costume recalls the animal’s appearance. While Spider-man uses the idea of a spider as an insignia motif, his lack of spider-like appearance “avoids expressing affinity for an arachnid spirit” while Batman, whose appearance specifically evokes the silhouette of a giant bat, is “reduced to an animalistic self” (88-89). For Brownie and Graydon, this is key to the hybridity of the superhero costume. In donning the uniform, the individual adopts the power of the totem that the costume represents, merging it with his or her own persona to create a heroic whole. Unfortunately, their discussion of the appropriation of animalistic identity omits popular heroes, like Ant Man and Wolverine, whose visual iconography shows no or only tenuous relationships to their totem animal. While this does not necessarily negate the argument, their presentation of the framework as universal while excluding any reference to obvious characters that do not fit within it calls some question to its authenticity.

The third section explores the costume’s ability to affect and respond to real world forces. “Superheroes and the Fashion of Being Unfashionable,” addresses the costume’s need to adapt to shifts in real world fashion while remaining visually consistent to maintain its symbolic power. While Brownie and Graydon briefly acknowledge a gender gap that allows for greater flexibility in female costume depiction in an effort to match contemporary constructions of femininity, they ultimately downplay its importance, claiming that “female superheroes, feeling restricted by the specialized practices of the superhero community, are driven to seek ‘endless rediscovery of self'” (102). While the question of hypersexualized female superhero costumes may be orthogonal to the greater point that Brownie and Gradyon are attempting to make, the exclusion of a substantive conversation on the common trope seems like an oversight. Some discussion of the effects of overt sexuality on the symbolism of the costumes seems warranted and an examination of the complications that hypersexualization adds to gender identity seems particularly relevant. Instead, the gendered elements of fashion elements are examined only as a matter of practical versus aesthetic function. More utilitarian heroes, like Iron Man, may modify their costumes to become consistent with the design aesthetics of the times in which they are appearing. However, those who have identities mired in symbolism, be it traditional, as with Wonder Woman, or of their own making, like Superman, must remain relatively consistent (98). Characters that rely on both, such as Catwoman, as portrayed by Anne Hathaway in the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises, must reconcile the iconic traits of the symbolic design—in Hathaway’s case, impractical high heels—with the functional requirements (102). Form and function may coexist, but form must take precedence. Costume changes may occur, but the emblematic traits must be maintained. However, making the case that identity requires relative consistency in costume, the authors treat heroes who have seen frequent or dramatic costume changes over the years by either ignoring them (Spider-Man), downplaying them (Wonder Woman), or glossing over variable designs (The Wasp).

The authors transition comics and film to the real world in chapter eight, “Superhero Cosplay.” For Brownie and Graydon, the power of cosplay is allowing the performer to “extend childhood play into adulthood” by reliving the imaginative experiences of youth while distancing from the negative connotations of immaturity with an “emphasis on authenticity and functionality” (110). They call cosplay a “participatory fandom.” Because the identity of the hero and the costume are inextricably linked, a real world performer who adopts the costume assumes the persona of both the performer and spectator (109). Costumes are praised both for their attention to detail and for an appreciation of the artistry that is required to construct them. Accuracy towards the source material equates to cultural capital in the fan-based community and precise homemade costumes are often privileged over store-bought counterparts because “by designing and producing their own costume, cosplayers demonstrate a level of knowledge and commitment that cannot be bought at auction” (114). The most accurate cosplayers assume a level of respect and authority within the community and from spectators, thus allowing even greater access to the power associated with the costumed persona they have adopted. Cosplay is the keystone of Brownie and Graydon’s argument. By focusing on the performative aspect of the practice and the acceptance of the performer’s assumption of the alternate identity by spectators, the authors successfully make a case for identity being subsumed in the clothing.

The section ends by examining “Real-Life Superheroes,” or at least the closest approximations the authors see in the real world. Brownie and Graydon argue that their framework for the construction of heroic identity applies to real world individuals who have adopted masked personas as social or political statements. They reference real life vigilantes like Phoenix Jones and the Rain City Superhero Movement who, inspired by comic characters like Batman, have taken to the streets of Seattle as self-styled crime fighters, and Fathers 4 Justice, a UK-based father’s rights group that dons superhero costumes to bring attention to their protests for equal parenting rights for divorced couples. The authors extend their analysis beyond those directly patterning themselves on the tropes of comic superheroes to any individuals using disguises in the name of a declared struggle for justice. They quote an anonymous member of Russian feminist punk rock group, Pussy Riot—comprised of women who wear balaclava ski masks as a political statement against the oppression of women—as saying “‘when I put on the mask, I feel like a person who can do everything. I am the same person, but this is another part of me which has courage … who has enough power to change something; enough strength'” (127). To Brownie and Graydon, masks and costumes empower these groups with “a set of values borrowed from superhero comics—benevolent power, righteous action, the defense of truth and the ceaseless pursuit of justice—and imbues them with a simplified sense of right and wrong which presents their actions, regardless of their legality, as morally just.” (121). While their framework makes this claim interesting, some aspects of their reading of real life superheroes seem forced. The inclusion of Pussy Riot in particular, whose uniforms are as indicative of bank robbers or terrorists as superheroes, is problematic. Furthermore, because Pussy Riot’s principal rhetoric is steeped in feminism, the tendency of the text to shy away from issues of gender in general becomes particularly prevalent.

The final section applies the author’s constructed framework to three brief case studies of popular comic book series. These readings are an effective, if biased means of validating their theories. Chapter ten, “Watchmen,” deconstructs Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s epic series as a connection between wardrobe (super heroic and civilian) and the humanity and morality, or lack thereof, of the wearer. The chapter focuses on the characters of Rorschach and Niteowl, whose masked personas underscore the authors’ theories on the linkage between mask and morality, but ignores the unmasked characters of Silk Spectre and Ozymandias, who would likely problematize the theory. Chapter eleven, “Iron Man,” makes a far more compelling argument by reasoning that Tony Stark epitomizes the hybrid identity between the costume and wearer as his suit’s technology provides his powers but cannot function on its own, nor can Stark be Iron Man without the armor. Iron Man is the wearer of the suit, and when another man adopts it, Jim Rhodes, he takes on the identity (147). The final chapter, “The X-Men,” discusses the creation of unity in an Othered community by sharing costume design elements and the desire to create individuality by deviating from the standard template of that uniform. Brownie and Graydon make a passing connection to a real life ethnic community here by likening the “X” insignia common to all X-men uniforms to the Jewish Star of David (153-154). However, as this brief mention comes in the final two pages of the book, after largely ignoring the question of ethnicity throughout, there is some amount of cognitive dissonance that comes with the claim.

While The Superhero Costume: Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction is not without its problems, the fundamental argument that the text makes throughout is relatively strong. Despite its reliance on a generic Other and a lack of attention to specific marginalized communities and cultures, the framework it presents for analyzing the superhero uniform in terms of identity is sound. The text provides a cohesive history of superheroes through the lens of fashion analysis and serves well as an introduction to mask theory. While their reliance on predominantly white male examples is problematic, it could be argued that this is sadly reflective of the majority of the texts on the genre. The central thesis of the book is presented more by the subtitle than the primary title. Brownie and Graydon make an excellent case for the power of disguise to affect an alternate identity; symbolic garb can fuse the wearer’s identity with clothing’s ideology and even supplant it. Thus, the superhero is not really dressed in spandex at all, but instead clothed in the ideology that he or she represents.

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