Tuesday, August 31, 2010

You are what you wear

This column originally appeared October 26th, 2009 at ComicBookResources.com.

I love to look at Wonder Woman from a historical point of view. As society changes and progresses, so changes Diana, the amazing Amazon princess. In many ways she is the mirror of American culture and the Women’s Movement. That and she also bashes crime and evil weirdos.

Let’s proceed through decades of publication to see how her identifying costume evolved.

As Wonder Woman, Diana has always dressed for success. The costume that originally saw print back in 1941 was designed by her artist, H.G. Peter, with suggestions from both her creator, William Moulton Marston, and his wife, who reminded them that an active heroine needed to keep her modesty in mind.

Our first impression is: she’s wearing the American flag. Well, one with an eagle clinging to it. Diana was born just as America entered World War II and patriotism was at fever pitch. According to her origin story she was sent to America to help us win the war. (If she’d been sent to France the costume might have been ever so much simpler!)

Diana wore a tiara that signified her position as Amazon princess. Princessery is a powerful idea to young girls especially. Walt Disney has made a fortune out of princess obsession. It’s one of the few ways that girls or women of the early World War II era could fantasize about being able to use their strength of character and body without being derided.

Princessery also carries with it more than a touch of fairy tale. The girls in such stories are almost always princesses, and their rank allows them certain privileges (power), though it also requires them to marry whatever hero shows up for their tale. Luckily, most heroes were dashing, rich, heroic, and quite possibly monogamous.

I’m not going to get into all the doodads of the Wonder Suit, like how you could plug a Mental Radio in to the star/port of the tiara and communicate telepathically with others. That’s fluff. We’re talking symbology here, clothes making the woman.

These days Wonder Woman’s tiara is no longer a tiara because it has no crowning upward-turned point. It is a barbarian warrior’s headband, and reminds us that Diana is, above all, someone who can wield an axe like a master and literally destroy her enemies.

The new headband also looks vaguely Kryptonian. Is this deliberate imagery to further the public’s perception of Wondie as being Superwoman, and thus somehow more legitimate than a magic-based character?

Let’s move along to that strapless bustier. If you can tear your eyes away from the USofA eagle there, you’ll discover that this is the outfit at its most glam. Strapless bodices were and are a staple of high-society evening wear. That a woman as active as Wonder Woman would dare to wear such during her battles with Nazi spies proclaimed her ultimate cool.

Well, to everyone except people like Jules Feiffer, who reported in The Great Comic Book Heroes, “My problem with Wonder Woman was that I could never get myself to believe she was that good. For if she was as strong as they said, why wasn’t she tougher looking? Why wasn’t she bigger? Why was she so flat-chested?”

Taking steroids wasn’t required of her over the next decades. Thankfully, only once or twice has she been portrayed as a hulkish musclewoman. Wondie got big in other ways.

Feiffer would like the modern look. It steps right up to the reader and purrs, “Hello, boys. New in town?” Too many times artists have gone out of their way to make Diana’s bust of legendary proportions. The shrinking bustier over that bust is not about coolness; it is about pandering to a straight male readership.

The famous bullet-deflecting bracelets were extreme symbols of feminism. Narrow and black, these weren’t really bracelets; they were manacles. These were remnants of a time when the Amazons had been enslaved by men. They reminded us that never again would this happen, that the Amazons would always be strong and independent!

In the Modern Age Diana’s bracelets became silver. At first they were a unique sign of the Amazons’ Champion, but now it seems many people are allowed to wear silver bracelets. All of them are quite large and don’t look like manacles at all. In fact, many readers refer to them as “bracers” or “vambraces,” as if a game of “bullets and vambraces” were something we’d want to see. (Since Wonder Woman is pretty much invulnerable these days, there’s really no need for bracelets or bracers at all except for their symbology.)

Some Amazons even wear their hallowed bracelets ornamented with stars as if they were costume jewelry. Some honorary Amazons **cough**Cassie**cough** don’t recognize the sacredness of the bracelets. “Sacrilege,” someone **cough** recently laughed in derision.

Diana originally wore a lasso because another power image of the early Forties was the Cowgirl, that rarely-seen spunky dame who rode side-by-side with her cowboy man and conquered the West. Oh, the comic may have given the Magic Lasso Greek myth roots, but once Diana was in the saddle of a magnificent horse (or kanga), as she often was in those early tales, and twirled that lasso over her head to unfailing catch whatever she needed, we could all see it was really a cowgirl’s handiest accessory.

Cowgirls are out of mode these days unless they’re the teasing employees of “Coyote Ugly” or a sexual position. The lasso not only sits coiled at Diana’s side, but releases in all kinds of artistic abstract loops and angles around her as a decoration.

Diana’s lasso is sometimes seen as S&M. Some readers point to the Golden Age and all its fetishism, but most of that came from spanking, not just Diana tying people up because she had to detain or question them. No one spoke outright about its secondary aspect, and little kids weren’t in on the wink.

Today’s lasso has also recently been made into an offensive weapon. Always before, it was a tool of peace, of quickly gaining information in a non-torturous way. In the past few years Diana has used it to inflict physical pain on people. To her credit, she has also used its vastly increased powers of truth to interfere with sorcerous spells and to (painfully) shock people out of delusions.

The lasso now symbolizes more power available to Diana, but that power is a frightening one.

There was never a printed example during the Golden Age of the bottom half of Diana’s main costume being a skirt. It was a culotte, a split skirt that bears as much relation to a skirt as loose shorts do to a kilt. The culotte rapidly became tighter until it was undeniably what we’d identify today as biker shorts and then shortened to hot pants.

My mother was in high school when Wonder Woman first hit the stands. In gym, she wore a culotte as a part of her gym uniform. It’s what any modern, active girl wore. Thus by wearing these, Wonder Woman of the ancient Amazons was on the cutting edge of practical fashion and proclaiming that she was an athlete. She wasn’t going to one-handedly fight while using the other hand to smooth down a skirt to keep it modestly in place. She was going to stride, to leap, and not have to pay attention to her clothing betraying her!

Today the culotte/shorts are too often reduced to thonglike proportions. Instead of proclaiming Diana’s freedom and strength (with a lot of patriotism thrown in), they now show that she’s advertising for a hot date. With you, baby. Now.

Within the WW book the briefs are often shown to be granny panties. While definitely a better choice than a thong, granny panties are not stylish and take Diana off any “cutting edge” fashion lists. If Diana were to go with modern athletic fashion, she’d probably be wearing track-style “butt huggers,” which show a little of the cheek but keep most things well-covered. They allow the wearer some sense of self-respect. Hot pants would also be a somewhat fashionable alternative that are both sexy and hark back to WW tradition.

Those crazy boots–! She had three variants in those early years: sandals, which reminded us of her ancient Greek background, tight striped boots that placed her squarely in the ranks of superheroes, and a kind of duck-billed, looser boot that was so fancy one had to think they were specially-made cowboy boots. All of this combined to show that on many levels Wonder Woman was someone quite special, someone we could expect fantastic feats from.

These days Diana’s dagged boots certainly aren’t Jimmy Choo’s, but you can’t save the world in Jimmy Choo. They seem standard (if jester-like) superhero fare. Look at many of the Elseworlds/parallel Earth stories and you’ll find these babies changed into Hoochie Mama over-the-knee boots. At least Diana’s boots don’t have heels (this rule does not apply for the hoochie versions) and thus set a good example for others while leaving her arches thankful.

Through the years has the Wondie suit changed for the better? To my eyes the only improvements are possibly (1) the granny panties because they allow greater freedom of movement than the culotte though lessening dignity and (2) the lasso, which has a much more powerful vibe these days, even if that vibe is used in shocking ways.

Does the costume’s evolution reflect society, or does it suggest the attempt to grab and hold an increasingly shrinking market made up primarily of young adult males? Does it boost the popularity of Wonder Woman within the general public? Does it make possible new readers avoid her?

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. What does Wondie’s costume say about her?


Anonymous said...

love the Wonder Woman post!

Carol A. Strickland said...