Redefining the Hero: The Extrapolated Costume Design of “Wonder Woman”

Posted on July 03, 2018

In our time writing about and analyzing the costume design of films and television shows over the last decade, we’ve seen an increased level of interest and coverage of the topic of costume design arise, which tends to make our job of analyzing both easier and harder. Easier, because there’s now a virtual library of costume design coverage for any major period or fantasy piece, including countless interviews with the project’s costume designer, explaining all of her decisions and inspirations. Harder, because we have to ignore a good deal of it in order to come up with a fresh analysis or at least one worth reading. Granted, that’s not quite the hurdle we’re making it out to be, since our approach to costume design analysis is similar to certain forms of literary analysis in that the author’s intent is only partly considered. This becomes especially important when looking at visual expression – and even more important than that when the visuals hold a certain cultural weight to them. In film, there’s what the auteurs intended to get across, and then there’s what actually gets across; how the images and sounds work on the minds of the audience and how those things can be interpreted in ways both personal and collective.

With this trilogy of posts examining a series of heroic female characters in modern adventure films, we want to take a look at the different ways each of them were defined as heroes and how each of those methods of definition encompass a specific approach to adventure film design; the extrapolation approach, the referential approach, and the symbolic approach.

With Wonder Woman, we’re looking at an extrapolation approach, which is not an uncommon one when you’re dealing with iconic characters. Everything starts with this:

To discuss the costumes of Wonder Woman the movie, you have to start with the costume of Wonder Woman herself, because all of the elements found in her costume were extrapolated outward, to create not only the character as a fully realized human being, but also to create all of her familial relationships and the very culture she grew up in, each of which define her further by giving her mentors and a rich and storied background (essential for Hero’s Journey stories). And all of those story and character elements start here, in the very clothes on her back.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate. It all starts here:

Not necessarily with Lynda Carter’s version of the character, although the fact of her being the only other live-action version of note, and the one who most cemented the character’s concept and visuals on the public, would have made her loom large over the design work of this film. But this is a fairly faithful rendition of the costume the character wore for most of her publishing history and it has all the elements one tends to picture when the name Wonder Woman comes up; a basic red, blue and gold color scheme, American patriotic elements like stars, stripes, and an eagle (born out of her World War II origins and the Captain America-esque vogue to wrap all superheros in flags during wartime), knee-high boots, a tiara, bracelets, and a bathing suit. In the days since Carter last did her high jumps, the stylized eagle was turned into a stylized W with avian motifs; the modern Wonder Woman insignia as we know it. But aside from that one change, this is the classic costume that any modern film costume designer would have to contend with. How to turn that iconic image into something that will work for modern adventure-film audiences while still being recognizable as the icon?

Extrapolate, of course:

Michael Wilkinson designed the modern Wonder Woman costume for the character’s debut in Batman v. Superman, taking elements from her classic costume design and blending them with modern fantasy costume techniques and Bronze Age armor design. The white elements have been stripped away in order to remove any comparisons to the American flag, but the star motif remains in her tiara, along with the W insignia on her chest and belt (which would naturally need some explaining, much in the same way Superman’s family tends to walk around depictions of Krypton wearing big S’s on their chests), the red, blue and gold color scheme, and even some mild avian-inspired elements. She’s still in a strapless bustier and still sporting a tiara and bracelets, but the entire feel of the costume is decidedly different; more armor-like, more fantasy-inspired. The star-spangled panties have been switched out for a take on a Bronze Age battle skirt and she’s sporting a significant amount of brown leather in the form of straps, wraps and closures.

Lindy Hemming, as the Wonder Woman film’s costume designer, had the task of taking Wilkinson’s extrapolated costume design for the main character and extrapolating it even further to develop her background and personality. Let’s start with the easiest visuals to analyze: colors. What colors does Diana wear when she’s not in her battle armor? The colors found in her battle armor.

 

Red (in the form of a sweeping cloak that makes reference to the cloaks she and her mother wear) …

 

Blue (in the form of a Grecian-inspired gown which is both on-point for 1917 fashion and also a reference to her Amazonian background, which is also referred to by the irregular bust, evoking both the legend of Amazons cutting off their breasts for archery and also a callback to the Amazonian armor seen earlier in the film) …

 

… And gold (which ties her firmly to the her mother the Queen, making her stand out from the other Amazons but also tying her directly to the gold-studded design aesthetic of Themyscira; a princess of her people who stands apart from them in a gilded cage). This approach to costume design works very well at the task of turning a flat, two-dimensional image of a character into a living, breathing person, with relationships, a background, and a sense of internal consistency. Plus it just works as a visual, constantly reminding you of who she is. Note how the W motif extends to the edges of her gauntlets and how the avian motif is reflected in her mother’s armor. This is how Hemming created an entire cultural aesthetic by extrapolating from a 75-year-old superhero costume.

 

The Amazons wear metal armor with brown leather. Design elements include gold belts and tiara-like head pieces, gauntlets, knee-high boots and a persistent design motif of angles and lines evoking the letter W. Note that seemingly higher-ranking Amazon soldiers are dressed in red and gold. All of it extrapolated from the Wonder Woman costume.

Remember that the story of Diana’s journey in the film is the discovery of her true heritage and destiny; that she is the God-killer incarnate, protected by the entire Amazon nation from the outside world and discovery by Ares as their primary mission. Remember that a specific set of armor  – her armor – was made and stored alongside the sword she would eventually wield. In other words, the entire Amazon culture was developed around this one person’s destiny, and their entire aesthetic reflects that.

But no one’s costume design is more directly tied to Diana’s than her own mother’s, which also serves to tell her tale:


Note that she is clothed in a much richer manner than the other Amazons in order to denote her status as their queen; practically covered in gold and fur, with a much more elaborate head piece than any other Amazon’s. There is no question who she is and where she stands among her people. Note the eagle on breastplate, as well as the many intersecting lines and the inadvertent Ws being formed by them. While the battle scene makes it clear she’s still a world-class warrior and soldier, there’s no denying that her armor looks decidedly ceremonial in comparison to the other Amazons, especially her sister Antiope.

 

Note how her headpiece evokes highly stylized lightning bolts, which is a foreshadowing of Diana’s destiny as the daughter of lightning-wielding Zeus.

 


And note that the overt avian motifs recur in her costumes and tend to imply that they are her sigil somehow, which makes the Wonder Woman armor even more overtly meant for Diana than she seems to have realized. There was no one else who could have worn that armor because it was designed specifically for the queen’s daughter, with the gold, the lightning bolts and the avian motifs to signify that fact, loud and clear.

Antiope, as noted, takes a decidedly more practical and humble approach to her armor design and everyday wear:


Her armor is far more battle-practical than Hippolyte’s (or Diana’s for that matter). She’s fully covered but can move fairly easily. It’s almost all rendered in brown leather (which will be evoked in Diana’s costume by the addition of brown leather straps, wraps and closures) and the only notable gold element is her head piece, which she gives to Diana just before she dies. Her mother’s armor motifs speak of Diana’s heritage and destiny, but her aunt’s motifs speak of her life as a soldier with a mission. Her mother’s armor gave her lightning bolts and eagles, symbols of her parents and the gifts bestowed on her. But her aunt’s armor gave her something to hold her sword and shield in place (brown leather) and a literal star to guide her (the tiara).

Having established where she came from, Diana sets out on her mission in the modern world, literally clothed in her destiny, her family, and her cultural history.


It is not a coincidence that she’s forced immediately to cover all of that up.

 

The black cloak will appear consistently throughout the film, calling back to her mother’s preference for cloaks and serving practically as a way to move her through the story, while keeping the big reveal of her battle armor restricted to a major emotional moment. In addition, it lends her more of a fantasy, sword-and-sorcery sort of feel, which tends to set her nicely apart from the usual superheroic fashion.

But before all that happens, a somewhat ill-advised attempt is made to clothe her in the fashions of the day, the result of which is this:

 

Note how consistently the modern world tries to strip Diana of her culture and her colors. There’s nothing about this original Diana Prince look that refers to her true identity, her beliefs, or her history. While it’s not entirely out of the realm of fashion for 1917, it’s fairly stripped-down, minimalist and a clearly masculine-inspired take on womenswear; possibly the most practical outfit she could have chosen for herself to allow her to move through 1917 Europe – and not coincidentally, very similar to Steve Trevor’s own suiting. She would be far more likely to look to him, a proven soldier and ally, for style guidance than any of the women she encounters in the modern world. To her, these aren’t menswear-inspired pieces; they’re just how soldiers dress off the battle field.

She will shed that image – literally – as she gets closer to the battle, resulting in one of the film’s most memorable sequences, and not coincidentally the first time in the film you see her entire costume, head to toe:

Quite possibly the most dramatic and emotional superhero costume reveal ever filmed. Director Patty Jenkins, among her many other fine qualities, understands that superhero stories work best when simple scenes are tied to big emotional moments, whether that scene requires punching or nothing more dramatic than shedding a cloak. For her entire tenure in “man’s world,” Diana had been told to cover herself up, hide who she is and accept what she cannot do. Her experiences as a hero are metaphors for the things virtually all women have  been told while striding through the world; to be quiet, to be demure, to do as you’re told. A male director almost certainly would not have understood the emotional depths of this metaphor or how well it could be paid off simply by paying attention to her costume and what it means. This is the classic “hero accepts her mission” moment and it’s bound up entirely in costume design as she sheds her disguise to accept her task. The eagle, the star, the gold and the lightning bolt, unveiled and unleashed. Her history, her family, her people, her destiny.

When the battle is over, her destiny has been revealed, her love has been killed and her family forever separate from her, we see Diana in this:

A perfect blending of her original Diana Prince outfit (which was modeled on Steve Trevor’s clothes) with her armor, indicating a hero who has completed her journey and come out of it a changed person, wearing the colors of her people in the style of the man she loved and lost. An acceptance of the modern world she will be forced to live in now, with a tip of the hat to the people she came from.

All of that, extrapolated from a superhero costume.

 

Next up: The referential costume design technique, featuring Rey from Nowhere

[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. via Tom and Lorenzo]

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