Dressed to save the world

In a sign of empowerment, female superheroes such as Captain Marvel are putting on costumes that reflect strength

Films reflect society and, these days, the superhero women on the big screen are an indication of feminist changes at work.

Depictions of women in the media have long played to male audiences and tastes. But things appear to be changing and nowhere is this more apparent than in what women are wearing.

The superhero to watch this year is Captain Marvel – whose standalone film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe opened in Singapore yesterday. It is not a stretch to associate the timing with International Women’s Day.

The character, civilian name Carol Danvers, is the first female within the mammoth franchise to get a standalone film. This comes after 11 years and 20 movies – a long sideline by the highest-grossing film franchise in the world.

Danvers is an interesting introduction as a solo female superhero in the Marvel universe. Her character from comics is one of the most powerful – far outstripping the current crop of Avengers heroes. She is a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force, an elite member of an alien military unit and imbued with a host of cosmic powers.

Through it all, Danvers and Captain Marvel are outfitted in decidedly unsexy costumes. Not that they are unattractive, but more that they do not pander to a male gaze. Her bodysuits are more akin to armour and uniform than a catsuit made for being watched in.

Her three most identifiable costumes: a green Kree uniform when she is part of an alien strike team, a khaki military flight suit when she was a pilot and the character’s central red, blue and gold bodysuit.

In all of these, she looks ready to run, roll, jump, fly and fight. Purpose, rather than presentation.

(From left) Captain Marvel (played by Brie Larson) in a red, blue and gold bodysuit; Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in her armour inspired by Greek and Roman history; and Dora Milaje warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira) in an outfit that is both traditional and futuristic. PHOTOS: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY, WARNER BROS

This is one example of the way feminism is being approached on the big screen and Captain Marvel is being treated the same way male superheroes have always been.

It is an acknowledgment that the superhero movie of today is one enjoyed by almost everyone: male, female, young and old.

This was also the case with Wonder Woman by DC Comics in 2017. What really struck me in that film were the costumes of Wonder Woman and her Amazonian sisters.

On their paradise island of Themyscira, the women train and fight in armour inspired by Greek and Roman history. Leather hides and metal armour plates formed the basis of the looks, with boots fashioned after Roman greaves.

Ms Lindy Hemmings, the film’s costume designer, told Schon magazine she was working to have the armour look “fantastically fit, strong and sexy”. Sexy, in particular, is a descriptor reclaimed and championed by women for women.

This generation’s Wonder Woman is a powerful demigod warrior who revels in her own beauty and is stronger for it. It is a subtle shift of perspective, but a vital subversion of the male gaze. The pin-up days are gone and the character easily holds her own against the boys because of – and not in spite of – her femininity.

A parallel to this is costume designer Ruth E. Carter’s work on 2017’s Black Panther. For the fictional setting of Wakanda, she created a nuanced rendition of Afrofuturism – an imagined nation impossibly rich and technologically advanced, untouched by colonialism.

There were a lot of political overtones in the narrative, but her designs embraced and celebrated them. Her research took her through the many tribes and nations in Africa: Ghanaian draped silhouettes, the colour palettes of the Maasai, the decorative jewellery and beadwork of the Himba and so on.


These manifested most vividly on the female warrior tribe Dora Milaje, fronted by the character General Okoye, played by Danai Gurira.

The nation’s foremost fighter is dressed for her job in garb both traditional and futuristic.

Okoye was a prominent presence in the film as an avatar of nationalist duty, a trusted adviser to the film’s titular superhero. That she was outfitted to do that job without a smidge of objectification made her character both believable and beloved. It was a revelation.

But it is just one of many approaches towards a modern depiction of feminine power.

In Wonder Woman, an iconic symbol of female empowerment, sexuality and beauty was reclaimed from male idealisation and desire. There is power to be had in beauty, except its wielder now has her own agency over it.

In Black Panther, there is an even more layered and nuanced celebration of female dress. It combines subverting the male gaze with an assertion of cultural identity and presents a version of female strength rooted in African tradition and history, intersecting a feminist statement with an ethnic one.

Cinema is an important cultural barometer and its ability to affect audiences and reflect the zeitgeist cannot be underestimated.

• Gordon Ng is a freelance fashion writer

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2019, with the headline 'Dressed to save the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe