Clothes make the (wo)man
Like any young woman, Kara Zor-El knows the value of staying on trend, and how to successfully accessorise any outfit. There is, after all, nothing worse than saving the world from imminent apocalypse while wearing something that’s so last season.
Over the years Kara has had numerous costumes, but there have been three main ones, which we’ll call (for the sake of convenience) the Argo City Classic, the Seventies Hotpants, and the Eighties Headband. The Classic and the Hotpants are fondly remembered simple because of their longevity: both survived around a decade as Kara’s main costume. The Headband, by contrast, lasted only a matter of months, but is immortalised because of its similarity to the iconic Helen Slater movie outfit.
In the early 1970s Kara went a little bit crazy with her crime fighting threads — or rather, her readers did. Encouraged by DC, fans started sending in all manner of outlandish designs, mixing and matching various thigh boots, gloves, and dresses, to make all manner of groovy uniforms. In an age before Twitter, one wonders how the good citizens of the DC universe managed to keep up with the Girl of Steel’s latest makeover.
Is it a bird?, Is it a plane? Is it Supergirl? No… seriously… is it Supergirl..?!?
In this detour we will run down all of the costumes Kara has appeared in over the years (apart from the Helen Slater outfit, which is non-canon, despite Kara wearing it in print for two Honda give-away comics to encourage road safety!) So let’s throw open the Girl of Steel’s wardrobe, and see what we find…
The Argo City Classic: When Kara first leapt from her crashed rocket ship, her costume had been deliberately designed by her mother, Alura, to closely resemble that of her big cousin. Presumably Alura reasoned that the fact that her daughter was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and could leap tall buildings in a single bound, wasn’t a big enough hint to suggest she was Kryptonian to Kal-El.
The only nod to femininity that Alura made was to swap the blue tights for a skirt, and to shorted the cape. Aside from that, Kara’s uniform was pretty much an unashamed copycat of Superman’s outfit. One wonders how the Man of Steel felt about having his style stolen?
The Argo City Classic was Supergirl’s most well worn outfit, racking up around 210 appearances between May 1959 and September 1970 (by best reckoning) plus 14 extra guest appearances in issues thereafter. It remains one of her most iconic outfits.
The Gloves and Thigh Boots: Famously Supergirl can only be defeated by magic and Kryptonite — and that apparently applies to her invulnerable super costume too. When the Girl of Steel was attacked by a secret Black Magic cult on the Stanhope campus (devotees of an ancient wizard named Zond) her regular crime fighting attire is left ripped and shredded (Adventure Comics #397, Sep 1970). So Wonder Woman — who had recently ditched her own star-spangled uniform in favour of a mod Emma Peel look — reached into her spacious apartment’s amply wardrobe, and pulled out a ready-to-wear alternative outfit.
That’s right, Wonder Woman happens to keep a spare supply of alternative costumes for other heroines at her home — y’know, just in case the originals get ripped in a satanic ritual..! Why else to you think they call her Wonder Woman..?!
In terms of design, the new outfit extended the Argo City version by adding a pair of very racy thigh boots with heels, some opera gloves, and a new belt design. The ensemble combined ideas from two readers: Louise Ann Kelley (location unknown) and Jean Bray of 536 E. Exchange Street, Spring Lake, Michigan. It saw service in a total of 16 issues.
The Gloves and Leggings: The thigh boots costume wasn’t made of the same invulnerable materials as her Argo City original (I guess Wonder Woman isn’t so wonderful after all!), so when Supergirl was called upon to rescue a child from a burning building, the cape quickly ignited and took the rest of the uniform with it. Supergirl was forced to abandon the whole outfit, staggering from the flames as Linda Danvers, clutching the tiny infant in her arms.
Supergirl asked her tiny friends in the Bottle City of Kandor to come up with something more durable. They delivered the goods in Adventure Comics #407 (June 1971), replacing the thigh boots with a combination of leggings and pixie boots. The Kandorians gave Supergirl a few variations of her new outfit; some stories see her with leggings of red with a yellow stripe, others depict her in leggings of solid blue.
The fact that the new outfit covers up Kara’s entire body, leaving only her head, played a crucial role in its début appearance. A super-powerless Supergirl is dunked into a vat of boiling goo, but by flipping her cape to cover her head, Kara uses the costume’s invulnerable fabric to protect her vulnerable body, at least until her powers return.
The costume was designed by reader Anthony Kowalik from Harvey, Illinois, and it appeared in three issues from Adventure Comics #407 (June 1971) onward.
The Revealing Swimsuit: For one issue only, during an adventure set on a luxury yacht, Kara switches from an ensemble that covered everything up, to a swimsuit with hardly anything covered up at all. Indeed, there’s so little fabric in her swimsuit outfit that it is difficult to understand how the costume stayed in place long enough for the comic to get its valued Comic Code Authority approval.
The costume is basically a one piece body, with shorts and a figure-hugging front-piece running up from her waist to loop Kara’s neck. The arms and sides of Kara’s torso are bare.
The costume was designed by Margret Berg of DC Comics’ home town, New York, NY. It’s interesting to note that, judging by the names, the previous costume (with nothing on show) was designed by a man, while this one (with almost everything on show) was designed by a woman.
The Gloves and Unitard: After just one risqué adventure in the swimsuit, Kara reverted to covering herself up again. For a couple of issues only, Supergirl sported a one piece unitard uniform, not too far from the Man of Steel’s own crime fighting get-up, but without the snazzy red y-fronts. The costume retained the gloves of previous efforts, and placed the iconic <S> logo on both Kara’s chest and belt.
Linda abandoned the notion of hiding her super costume under her street clothes when using this costume; instead she stashed her outfit as a super compressed package inside her purse. Just as well, or she’d have spent all her time in maxi-dresses or trousers. In one mildly titillating (given the period, and target audience) incident, the reader is treated to a shot of Linda’s bra as she strips out of her dress in a secluded alleyway. No doubt male readers would have wanted to see more, but unfortunately a stray drunk lurking in the shadows causes a distraction.
No designer appears to have been credited for this uniform.
The Seventies Hotpants: The most iconic outfit of the 1970s and early 1980s (indeed perhaps the most iconic Supergirl costume of all) was the plunging neckline and hotpants design created by reader John Sposato of Edison, N.J.
The sleeves are loose and billowing, the neckline plunges to show off Kara’s (now ample) cleavage, and the <S> shield has been moved from its centre position to her left breast. The skirt has gone, and in its place is a pair of ultra-tight 70s hotpants. The footwear started life as a gladiator-type shoe with cords criss-crossing around the lower leg, became a slipper for a while, but eventually standardised as the classic Argo City red boot. Finally, rather than connecting to her shoulders, the cape is held in place by a chocker around Kara’s neck.
The hotpants outfit made almost 150 appearances from Adventure Comics #410 onwards, but crucially it also appeared in countless posters, promotional materials, and merchandising tie-ins that appeared around the glut of interest in Superman that accompanied the Christopher Reeve movie. This, perhaps, best explains its iconic status.
With the introduction of this outfit, Kara once again began to conceal her Supergirl outfit beneath her everyday Linda clothes, although the chocker meant that she spent all her time wearing high-necked tops — I guess that’s the price a girl must pay to be on trend in her heroic identity.
The Gloves and Mini Dress: This odd, one shot, outfit is Kara’s most complex. The costume has a slightly space age feel to it, featuring a lot of sharp angles rather than soft curves. The body is a mini-skirted dress, with the belt printed on as a pattern. The cape (unlike in the cover picture) is blue on the outside, but red on the interior lining. Bold lines of yellow segment every part of the design (again, unlike the cover), and there appears to be pockets on each hip — or, at least, pocket flaps.
The rather unpleasant scene depicted on the cover, by the way, never actually happens inside the issue.
(The cover illustration shown certainly doesn’t do the interior art justice.)
After all this sporadic and ever-changing costume action, DC artists finally settled on the Seventies Hotpants design for a decade or more, before the coming of a “major motion picture” mandated one final change of clothes.
The Eighties Headband: By the early 1980s nobody could deny the Seventies Hotpans design was starting to look a little jaded. With the Helen Slater movie on the way, DC decided it was time to give Supergirl a makeover, bringing her look closer to the proposed movie version.
After a troublesome time with some mini-me clones, Kara visits her adopted parents, her costume a little worse for wear. Super-mom, Edna Danvers, whips out a sketch for a trendy bang-up-to-date costume idea that she’s been idly working on over the last few weeks, and Kara immediately falls in love with its contemporary style. At super-speed she unravels the threats of her existing costume, and knits a trendy new outfit for herself. (Don’t worry, she was wearing her Linda clothes at the time — super speed knitting while naked is dangerous!)
The costume returned to the classic Argo City design, except the skirt is red not blue, and much looser and pleated. The shoulders now have red flashes across them, and the <S> shield is much larger, extending all the way across her chest. After a few issues, Kara permed her hair and added a red Krypton-style head band.
The design was tried out for the movie (and there are some photos of Helen wearing it floating around the inter-webs), but eventually a simpler design was chosen for the movie proper.
When looking back on the history of Supergirl’s costumes (ignoring the frantic period of every changing outfits in the early 1970s) it becomes apparent that each decade has its own look. The 60s had the classic, the 70s had the hotpants, and the 80s ended on the headband. Each design iconic in its own way. Each design still beloved by fans.
Seems the Girl of Steel’s fashion sense is also superhuman..!