Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wardrobe check, or yet another way I overthink my work …

When you tell people you’re writing a novel about superheroes, there are certain elements of the conversation you can predict. For example, someone will say, “What, you mean like [name of copyrighted superhero]?” and be completely wrong. (Hint: if I were writing a superhero who was just like an existing, copyrighted superhero, I would be in a lot of legal trouble, and also probably bored out of my skull.) Also, the conversation will involve at least one question about when the movie’s getting made. (For the record, there is no movie—at least for now. But I’m open to doing lunch.) And finally, whoever I’m talking to will try to make at least one lame joke about spandex.


I think I’m a bit more sensitive than most people on the subject of superhero costumes. Long before I discovered comic books, I was sewing my own clothes and accessories on my mom’s sewing machine, so I have some idea of what’s involved in some of those fiddly designs. Because my family didn’t make nearly as much money as most of our neighbors, and because I went to school with a bunch of kids from the rich end of town, my mother worried a bit that I would start begging her for the same designer fashions my classmates wore. She couldn’t afford fancy stuff like that, but fabric was cheap and so she compensated by sewing me any garment I really, really wanted, no matter how questionable my choice of color or design. And once our tastes in clothes really started to diverge (i.e., I discovered black), I began sewing whatever she wouldn’t make for me.

So I know my way around a fabric store. I know how to design and sew clothing that will survive my daily life, which never runs out of ways to be weird. And so I approach the question of how superheroes might dress with, shall we say, a slightly different perspective.

First and foremost, superhero costumes must achieve the basic functions of normal clothing—cover certain parts of the body, protect the wearer from the elements, and perform specific work-related tasks like carrying tools and conforming to a dress code. For superheroes, we can add simultaneously concealing their real identities—Rae doesn’t want anyone seeing who’s under her mask, and Trevor is ferociously paranoid about security cameras—and clearly associating them with their mask identities. (That’s one reason Rae’s Peregrine insignia appears on the back of her tunic as well as at her hip—so police officers and anyone else involved in a crisis don’t shoot her by mistake, even if they’re not looking at her face-on.)

But of course, being a superhero puts some extraordinary demands on clothing. If you have powers, you’d better have a costume that can withstand their use or you’re going to have a real problem every time the Human Torch bursts into flames—or at least, whenever he puts the fire out again. And your costume had better be able to withstand the kind of powers you encounter in others, too—the last thing you need is Mr. Freeze freezing Batman’s utility belt off his body. And then there are the everyday hazards heroes encounter as a matter of course. If your enemies shoot at you, Kevlar is going to be your friend. If you’re not invulnerable, you’ll probably want eye protection; superhero battles produce shrapnel, and an eye injury can be career-ending in the mask world. Freedom of movement is an issue all by itself—if your costume won’t let you throw a spinning back kick, you might die from the lack of one.

But the one thing you do NOT want to put a superhero in, at least in my view, is spandex.

Yes, the skintight costume is easy to draw. That’s the major reason it’s become the industry standard (well, that and it looked futuristic back when Joe Shuster stole it from Alex Raymond and put it on Superman in 1938). But if you look at the people who wear skintight clothing in real life, the only ones who don’t make us all cringe are dancers and Olympic athletes. And you’ll note that the specialized clothing they wear is designed for use under specific, controlled conditions, like a dance performance or a carefully regulated sporting event.

Try finding controlled conditions in a superhero fight! Superheroes need something that will still perform the functions of superhero clothing after Nitro the Human Bomb has gone off!

So here’s how the rules of superhero wardrobe apply to my two lead characters.

Rae Masterson. My first and overriding principle in designing Rae’s costume was that it would have to be something a sixteen-year-old girl could quietly keep with her at school and change into at a moment’s notice. I don’t know about you, but I did not have the self-confidence at sixteen to suddenly strip naked where other people might see me, so a real quick-change was out of the question. She also couldn’t wear the costume under her school clothes, unless her costume looked remarkably like underwear—someone would see it when she changed for P.E. So Rae’s costume had to go over her street clothes. Since she’d have to hide the costume in her backpack, I settled on lightweight fabric that wouldn’t take up too much space. That also meant that Rae wouldn’t be adding too many layers—we couldn’t have our superheroine dropping from heat exhaustion, could we? Unfortunately, light fabric also rips easily, so I focused on a simple design that Rae could replicate easily when her costume got trashed. (That’s also why she wears jeans under the tunic, by the way—they’re harder to destroy!) Tunics and hoods are relatively easy to sew, and making it loose-fitting allowed freedom of movement while simultaneously saving Rae sewing time she’d otherwise spend on fine-tuning the fit. A bulky, pocket-heavy costume would carry Rae’s toolkit, but wouldn’t squish down in her backpack, so I settled for a sash she could tuck things into. I took the overall look of the costume from a couple of different manga characters—an area Rae might look to for inspiration, since there are plenty of anime cosplayers in California. Finally, the gloves were inspired by the heavy muleskin gloves I wore as a kid to pick berries in my grandmother’s patch. They were the toughest hand protection I’d ever come across, and I figured Rae could find something similar without too much trouble. The brooch I figure she made in her high school’s metal shop—and yes, some but not all of the edges have been sharpened.

Trevor Gray. My big idea in designing Trevor’s costume was that he’d been around superheroes all his life, so he wasn’t married to the spandex idea, and because of some of the shadier parts of his past, he places a premium on disappearing in a hurry when he has to. Trevor got the eye-protection memo that Rae missed, too, so his mask includes shatterproof goggles. The major feature here, though, is Trevor’s idea of the quick-change. The mask can be kept in one of the jacket’s many pockets and the jacket itself reverses to a more normal, civilian-style garment, allowing him to switch identities in seconds. (Fun fact: as a native Chicagoan far from home, Trevor had the logo of the Chicago Cubs put on the back of his “non-super” jacket. He really is a glutton for punishment!) He’s also got access to fancier materials than Rae, so he’s got some padding and reinforcement in the mask to cut down on concussions, and the gloves are tougher than they look. Other than that, his outfit is 100% off-the-rack, allowing him to blend into the crowd at a moment’s notice. Trevor is also more concerned than Rae is about disguising his real appearance at all times—he remarks at one point in Masks that he really hates having such dark eyes and such light hair, because it makes him instantly memorable, and that’s the worst thing to be when you’re trying to be stealthy. That’s why his mask covers his hair, and why his goggle lenses are polarized to slightly alter the color of his eyes. Many people looking at him with his goggles on assume that his eyes are brown, and that’s just how he likes it. His mask is also a lot more secure than Rae’s, which is basically a bandana tied around the lower part of her face, and covers a distinctive scar near his hairline that he picked up in Chicago, as well as a break in his nose he got when someone punched him in the face in Kiev. And finally, in case anyone’s interested, Trevor wins the cargo-capacity stakes; his pockets carry a lot more tools and weapons than Rae’s sash, and he uses all of them ably.

I still think he ought to invest in a helmet, though. One of these days, to borrow a phrase, he’s going to wake up in a coma …

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