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Wonder Woman’s Costume as a Site for Feminist Debate

Jaclyn Mar­cus

Abstract | In this arti­cle, I exam­ine how much of the fierce debate and dis­course around Won­der Woman has cen­tred around her cos­tume. While sev­er­al aca­d­e­mics have addressed the rela­tion­ship between Won­der Woman and fem­i­nism, my arti­cle engages with these works to exam­ine the argu­ments sur­round­ing Won­der Woman’s dress, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the con­text of com­ic books and graph­ic nov­els that fea­ture the char­ac­ter. The arti­cle argues that it is Won­der Woman’s appar­el, and not her sta­tus as a super­hero, that is the site of the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing her per­sona and role as a fem­i­nist figure.

Résumé | Dans cet arti­cle j’examine com­ment les âpres débats et dia­logues sus­cités par Won­der Woman sont en réal­ité cen­trés sur son cos­tume. Alors que plusieurs chercheurs se sont penchés sur la rela­tion entre Won­der Woman et le fémin­isme, mon arti­cle utilise leur travaux pour exam­in­er les argu­ments con­cer­nant le cos­tume de Won­der Woman, en par­ti­c­uli­er dans le con­texte des ban­des dess­inées et des romans graphiques qui met­tent en scène ce per­son­nage. L’article défend l’idée que c’est en fait l’habit de Won­der Woman, et non pas son statut de super héros, qui est au cen­tre de la con­tro­verse qui entoure sa per­son­nal­ité et son rôle d’image féministe.

As the first female super­hero to ever receive her own com­ic book, Won­der Woman has exist­ed in pop­u­lar cul­ture for 75 years. She is typ­i­cal­ly depict­ed wear­ing a gold­en tiara, blue star-cov­ered shorts, and a red busti­er with a gold­en eagle on the front. She car­ries a gold­en las­so that, when wrapped around its vic­tim, has the abil­i­ty to make them tell the truth, and her gold­en bracelets can deflect bul­lets. Accord­ing to DC Comics Won­der Woman has “been a fem­i­nist icon since her star-span­gled intro in 1941” (“Won­der Woman”). Won­der Woman has super­hero strength and speed, but it is her cos­tume that allows her to be rec­og­niz­able as an icon in soci­ety, the press, and schol­ar­ship. By the same token, her clothing—its design, fit, length, colour­ing, and even accessories—has also been lever­aged in these same are­nas to prove why she is or is not a fem­i­nist icon (fig­ure 1). Yet why is it that the char­ac­ter can only be rein­vent­ed through her cloth­ing? More­over, why have male super­heroes not his­tor­i­cal­ly under­gone the same relent­less scruti­ny of their cloth­ing and its changes? I will under­stand the his­to­ry of Won­der Woman as aligned with­in the tra­di­tion of women, both real and fic­tion­al, who have been defined and even restrict­ed through their dress with­in patri­ar­chal struc­tures, due to the mul­ti­ple, nuanced mean­ings ascribed to their appear­ances. For Won­der Woman, cos­tume is one of the most sig­nif­i­cant aspects of her per­sona. It is tied not only to recog­ni­tion of her char­ac­ter, but to ques­tions of moral­i­ty sur­round­ing her worth as a role mod­el for girls and women.

Fig­ure 1. Won­der Woman in one vari­a­tion of her cos­tume. JJ_Dread, Won­der Woman, 11 Decem­ber 2015, Flickr, www​.flickr​.com/, accessed 24 Octo­ber 2018.

Won­der Woman’s rela­tion­ship with fem­i­nism has sparked debates on a num­ber of top­ics: these include whether or not Won­der Woman should be seen as a fem­i­nist role mod­el, whether she was cre­at­ed for male or female enjoy­ment, and, most recent­ly, whether she should serve as the Unit­ed Nation’s Ambas­sador of the Empow­er­ment of Women and Girls. To com­bat these con­tro­ver­sies, Won­der Woman has under­gone mul­ti­ple changes, for exam­ple, her loss of cos­tume and super­pow­ers in the late 1960s and her recent makeover in 2010, which had her wear­ing long pants and a leather jack­et as opposed to a strap­less top and shorts. Julie D. O’Reilly writes that, “Cen­tral to Won­der Woman’s leg­end is the ques­tion­ing of her sta­tus as a hero because she is sub­ject to the approval or dis­ap­proval of her Ama­zon moth­er and sis­ters” (275). Even in her own fic­tion­al world, Won­der Woman has inspired debate and had to prove her worth as a super­hero. In the real world, how­ev­er, Won­der Woman’s worth has been inex­tri­ca­bly tied to her cos­tume and its reflec­tion of her fem­i­nist values.

Won­der Woman’s cloth­ing is an inescapable part of her char­ac­ter; her cos­tume helps to define who she is. This is illus­trat­ed in her first-ever sto­ry arc, “Intro­duc­ing Won­der Woman.” As O’Reilly explains, Won­der Woman’s final tri­al to prove whether or not she is “wor­thy” of “fight[ing] for lib­er­ty and free­dom and all wom­ankind” is a game of “‘bul­lets and bracelets,’” where her gold acces­sories deflect the gun­shots aimed at her (273). Won­der Woman’s acces­sories lit­er­al­ly define whether or not she may stand as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive and pro­tec­tor of oth­er women. Jill Lep­ore also cites fashion’s impor­tance for fem­i­nist inter­pre­ta­tions of Won­der Woman’s char­ac­ter in the intro­duc­tion of her book, The Secret His­to­ry of Won­der Woman: “Won­der Woman isn’t only an Ama­zon­ian princess with badass boots. She’s the miss­ing link in a chain of events that begins with the woman suf­frage cam­paigns of the 1910s and ends with the trou­bled place of fem­i­nism ful­ly a cen­tu­ry lat­er” (xiii). While a num­ber of aca­d­e­mics have addressed the rela­tion­ship between Won­der Woman and fem­i­nism, in this arti­cle I review works by Edward Avery-Natale, Ann Mat­su­uchi, and Jill Lep­ore, among oth­ers, to illus­trate how much of this con­tro­ver­sy and change have been addressed through Won­der Woman’s cos­tume. To do so, I have divid­ed the con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing Won­der Woman’s appar­el into sub­sec­tions: the cre­ation of Won­der Woman, hyper­sex­u­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Won­der Woman, her depic­tion as a con­sumer, her first rebirth, her sec­ond rebirth, and depic­tions of Won­der Woman in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. As we will see, it is Won­der Woman’s cos­tume and not her pow­er and agency as a super­hero that is the site of the debate sur­round­ing her char­ac­ter and role as a fem­i­nist fig­ure. Fash­ion plays a piv­otal role in the recep­tion of the Won­der Woman char­ac­ter, par­tic­u­lar­ly regard­ing her posi­tion as a fem­i­nist role model.

The Creation of Wonder Woman

Since her “birth,” Won­der Woman’s cos­tume has been cen­tral to her char­ac­ter. Though cloth­ing has long been under­stood as a key influ­encer of social iden­ti­ty (see Bar­ry; Entwistle; and Wil­son), for women fash­ion takes on even greater impor­tance. In dis­cussing the impact of fash­ion on plot and char­ac­ter, Bruzzi and Church Gib­son write that “tra­di­tion­al­ly [it has] been women whose char­ac­ter, iden­ti­ty and fem­i­nin­i­ty have been under­stood through their mode of dress and self-pre­sen­ta­tion” (116). In the case of Won­der Woman and her inven­tors, her cos­tume was one of the first aspects of her char­ac­ter to be devel­oped; nuances of her per­son­al­i­ty and super­pow­ers were defined through her clothing.

Won­der Woman was cre­at­ed in 1941 by Dr. William Moul­ton Marston, an aca­d­e­m­ic who also invent­ed the lie-detec­tor test. Marston hired artist Har­ry G. Peter to illus­trate the first drafts of the super­hero. Lep­ore explains how, in 1941, Peter sent sketch­es to Marston that includ­ed Won­der Woman’s red shirt, tiara, gold bracelets, and skirt, instead of the shorts that became a part of her more clas­sic out­fit. Lep­ore notes that “Marston liked every­thing but the shoes.” One of the first cri­tiques of Won­der Woman’s dress was thus made by the cre­ator him­self. Marston also point­ed out in a sub­se­quent illus­tra­tion “that the col­lar on [Won­der Woman’s] hal­ter top would look dat­ed quick­ly” (Lep­ore). Strict instruc­tions regard­ing how Won­der Woman should be dressed con­tin­ued to accom­pa­ny her cre­ation: “Every­one agreed about the bracelets […] she’d wear a tiara […] she had to be super patri­ot­ic. Cap­tain Amer­i­ca wore an Amer­i­can flag […] Like Cap­tain America—because of Cap­tain America—Wonder Woman would have to wear red, white, and blue, too. But ide­al­ly, she’d also wear very lit­tle” (Lep­ore 196). Regard­less of her fem­i­nist ori­gins in Marston’s ideals, Won­der Woman had parts of her cos­tume mod­elled after what male super­heroes at the time were wear­ing. We can also see that her bracelets were ini­tial­ly one of the least cen­sored aspects of her cos­tume, despite Won­der Woman’s lat­er links to bondage lead­ing to crit­i­cism of her acces­sories. This account high­lights how much detail and dis­cus­sion went into each piece of her out­fit, illus­trat­ing its importance.

Won­der Woman’s con­nec­tion to fash­ion can also be found in her famil­ial his­to­ry. Lep­ore explains that Won­der Woman’s moth­er, Hip­poly­te, “recounts for her daugh­ter, Diana [Won­der Woman’s alter-ego], the his­to­ry of the female race,” cit­ing her mag­ic gir­dle as the rea­son she was able to beat her neme­sis in one-on-one com­bat and secure the Ama­zon women’s free­dom (Lep­ore 199). How­ev­er, her gir­dle is then stolen, and the Ama­zon women are cap­tured by men (Lep­ore 199). When they are final­ly freed, it is decid­ed that they “must always wear these bracelets fash­ioned by our cap­tors, as a reminder that we must always keep aloof from men” (qtd. in Lep­ore 199). In this account, the very his­to­ry of fem­i­nin­i­ty and Won­der Woman is tied to mate­ri­al­i­ty; it is from clothing—a girdle—that all their pow­er is sourced, and their future depends on jew­el­ry, which serves as a sym­bol of their val­ues. It is also Won­der Woman’s moth­er who “stitch­es for her a red, white, and blue cos­tume,” link­ing Won­der Woman’s matri­ar­chal past with cloth­ing (Lep­ore 200). Entwistle argues that “Women have long been asso­ci­at­ed with the mak­ing of clothes,” in part as a means of gain­ing finan­cial inde­pen­dence from men (146). That Won­der Woman’s moth­er, a ruler over a land of women exclu­sive­ly, craft­ed Won­der Woman’s cos­tume illus­trates materiality’s impor­tance in the superhero’s leg­end and aligns her with this real-life his­to­ry. Here, cloth­ing is depict­ed as respon­si­ble for main­tain­ing women’s free­dom, feed­ing into both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive read­ings of fashion’s impact and its rela­tion­ship with feminism.

Once she was cre­at­ed, rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Won­der Woman as a fem­i­nist fig­ure can be seen through the first press release sur­round­ing her char­ac­ter. Lepore’s descrip­tion of the release again cites fash­ion as an impor­tant aspect of her char­ac­ter and val­ues: “‘Won­der Woman’ has bracelets weld­ed on her wrists; with these she can repulse bul­lets. But if she lets any man weld chains on these bracelets, she los­es her pow­er” (220). Here, Won­der Woman’s acces­sories reveal her sta­tus as inde­pen­dent from men, as per her famil­ial his­to­ry. Although the press release seems to imply that Won­der Woman was cre­at­ed as a pos­i­tive fig­ure, in March 1942, one year after her cre­ation, Won­der Woman was placed on the Nation­al Orga­ni­za­tion for Decent Literature’s list of “Pub­li­ca­tions Dis­ap­proved for Youth” because “‘Won­der Woman is not suf­fi­cient­ly dressed’” (Lep­ore). The orga­ni­za­tion does not spec­i­fy the mean­ing of the word “suf­fi­cient­ly;” her cloth­ing is defined as inde­cent for youth with­out fur­ther expla­na­tion. As we shall see, accu­sa­tions even­tu­al­ly took on addi­tion­al force, par­tic­u­lar­ly sur­round­ing what was under­stood as her character’s sex­u­al nature.

Hypersexual Representations of Wonder Woman

Descrip­tions of Won­der Woman’s char­ac­ter often include her cloth­ing, which in turn is often tied to her sex­u­al­i­ty: “She wore a gold­en tiara, a red busti­er, blue under­pants, and knee-high, red leather boots. She was a lit­tle slinky; she was very kinky” (Lep­ore xi). For Won­der Woman schol­ar Mitra C. Emad, the super­hero can be read as hyper­sex­u­al based on rep­re­sen­ta­tions of her clothed, phys­i­cal fig­ure, “marked by a large amount of flow­ing hair” and “large breasts and a cos­tume that bare­ly cov­ers her body” (975-6). Emad is not the first to point out the rela­tion­ship between Won­der Woman’s cloth­ing and her sex­u­al­i­ty. A female edi­tor of Won­der Woman com­ment­ed that “There has been a ten­den­cy in the past to play up WW as a rather sexy crea­ture […] Her cos­tume may be one of the rea­sons why she cre­ates this impres­sion,” fol­lowed by the sug­ges­tion that she wear a skirt as opposed to shorts (qtd. in Lep­ore 239). Here, Won­der Woman’s cos­tume is specif­i­cal­ly men­tioned as a rea­son she may be viewed as hyper­sex­u­al. Sim­i­lar­ly, accord­ing to Edward Avery-Natale, a female writer for Won­der Woman “request­ed that the character’s breasts be reduced in size to make her more real­is­tic, but her request was denied” (75). These instances indi­cate that Won­der Woman was cre­at­ed as a pur­pose­ful­ly hyper­sex­u­al char­ac­ter. As Michael R. Lavin explains in “Women in Com­ic Books,” the “con­tra­dic­tion is that between women as role mod­els and as sex objects […] they are invari­ably depict­ed as allur­ing objects of desire, wear­ing the scant­i­est of cos­tumes” (94).While Marston intend­ed Won­der Woman to be a fem­i­nist fig­ure, in this case her char­ac­ter end­ed up as an object cre­at­ed for het­ero­sex­u­al male plea­sure because the male writ­ers of Won­der Woman reject­ed the sug­ges­tions of their female co-creators.

Anoth­er aspect of Won­der Woman’s char­ac­ter that helped to cre­ate her hyper­sex­u­al rep­u­ta­tion was her con­nec­tion to bondage. As Avery-Natale explains, “female char­ac­ters, par­tic­u­lar­ly Won­der Woman, are often por­trayed in bondage, fre­quent­ly, though not exclu­sive­ly, to oth­er women, pro­mot­ing a kind of het­ero­sex­u­al male, les­bian fan­ta­sy” (76). Marston him­self was crit­i­cized for often includ­ing pan­els where Won­der Woman was tied up or restrained using links, chains, and ropes (Lep­ore 236). Along with her gold­en bracelets, oth­er acces­sories such as her las­so link Won­der Woman to themes of tying, restrain­ing, and bind­ing. How­ev­er, in using and con­trol­ling her las­so Won­der Woman can also be under­stood as an active par­tic­i­pant in bondage, imply­ing that it is not just for male plea­sure, but for her own as well. Addi­tion­al­ly, Won­der Woman can be read as a dom­i­na­trix fig­ure (Brown 65). Won­der Woman’s cos­tume and acces­sories are evi­dence of her con­struc­tion as both a hyper­sex­u­al char­ac­ter cre­at­ed for het­ero­sex­u­al male plea­sure and as a fig­ure who uses her sex­u­al­i­ty for her own plea­sure and in her own right (fig­ure 2). Because of the many rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Won­der Woman avail­able, the reader’s inter­pre­ta­tion of these iter­a­tions and their over­all moti­va­tion and mean­ing may vary in response to visu­al and tex­tu­al con­struc­tions of her persona.

Fig­ure 2. Won­der Woman restrained with chains in the Won­der Woman: Earth One series. Grant Mor­ri­son (w) and Yan­ick Paque­tte (a), Won­der Woman: Earth One (April 2016), DC Comics; Richard Guion, “Won­der Woman- Yan­ick Paque­tte,” Flickr, 1 April 2016, www​.flickr​.com/, accessed 31 July 2018. 

Wonder Woman as Consumer

Given the ten­den­cy in patri­ar­chal cap­i­tal­ism to stereo­type women as nat­u­ral­ly inclined towards shop­ping, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the realm of fash­ion, it is unsur­pris­ing that there are allu­sions in Won­der Woman’s his­to­ry to her char­ac­ter as a con­sumer. As Joanne Entwistle explains in The Fash­ioned Body, “For cen­turies woman has been asso­ci­at­ed with ‘fick­le’ fash­ion, vain dis­play and indul­gent nar­cis­sism”; women are both encour­aged and dis­cour­aged from spend­ing time and resources on how they look, despite being read through the lens of appear­ance (145). In the 1950s comics, alter-ego Diana Prince is employed as a fash­ion mod­el (Lep­ore). More­over, in Won­der Woman #203, Diana is approached to endorse a depart­ment store as her celebri­ty alter-ego, Won­der Woman. Accord­ing to Ann Mat­su­uchi, the store-owner’s plan is to “appro­pri­ate the image of Won­der Woman and of women’s lib­er­a­tion for com­mer­cial pur­pos­es,” play­ing on Won­der Woman’s sta­tus as a fem­i­nist fig­ure and its poten­tial neg­a­tive con­se­quences (130). For Won­der Woman, con­sumerism dilutes the strength of her fem­i­nist message.

In attempt­ing to escape moral­is­tic judge­ments of the character’s appear­ance and dress, Won­der Woman’s writ­ers have cre­at­ed changes to her cos­tume. How­ev­er, Avery-Natale argues that for many female super­heroes, these cos­tume changes “[dis­play] their sup­posed love of fash­ion and fre­quent chang­ing of their minds with regard to cloth­ing” (89). Won­der Woman’s fic­tion­al character’s posi­tion as a fem­i­nist fig­ure is com­pro­mised each time her dress is mod­i­fied, regard­less of the style or func­tion­al­ism of these changes, as I will demon­strate in the next two sec­tions of this arti­cle. These moments of extreme change can be cat­e­go­rized as “rebirths,” and though they have sparked con­tro­ver­sy, they also offer key insights into the ways in which Won­der Woman’s cos­tume has shaped fem­i­nist inter­pre­ta­tions of her char­ac­ter and the piv­otal role her dress plays in these interpretations.

Wonder Woman’s First Rebirth, or, the “Diana Prince Era”

Cloth­ing changes in both real­i­ty and fic­tion were often prompt­ed by all-too-real polit­i­cal and social events. Won­der Woman’s first rebirth began to take shape dur­ing the after­math of World War II. Amer­i­cans began to wor­ry about the effects that com­ic books were hav­ing on soci­ety, par­tic­u­lar­ly on youth, and Won­der Woman’s cos­tume was once again heav­i­ly ana­lyzed and crit­i­cized. Lavin explains that a 1948 sym­po­sium on the “Psy­chopathol­o­gy of Com­ic Books” result­ed in the cre­ation of “the Comics Code Author­i­ty, a vol­un­tary indus­try group which estab­lished a writ­ten code of accept­able comics pub­lish­ing guide­lines” (96). This major event in com­ic book his­to­ry occurred only sev­en years after Won­der Woman’s cre­ation (Lavin 96). One year lat­er, Won­der Woman was depict­ed being car­ried over a stream by a man, as opposed to pre­vi­ous cov­ers that dis­played bat­tle scenes. This moment reflects the begin­ning of a slow, sub­tle shift in her per­sona: “Instead of her badass, kinky red boots, [Won­der Woman] wears dain­ty yel­low bal­le­ri­na slip­pers” (Lep­ore 271). A change in Won­der Woman’s char­ac­ter mir­rors changes in both cos­tume and society.

Released in 1968, Won­der Woman #178 was the begin­ning of the “Diana Prince Era,” when Won­der Woman lost both her cos­tume and super­pow­ers (Lep­ore). With the change in cloth­ing, Won­der Woman trans­forms into a mod Diana Prince, stripped of any ref­er­ences to her past self (Lep­ore). Inter­est­ing­ly, this phase in Won­der Woman his­to­ry has been cit­ed as not being fem­i­nist, in par­tic­u­lar because Won­der Woman is per­ceived as not being true to her­self (Mat­su­uchi 129). The biggest con­tention sur­round­ing her role as a fem­i­nist icon appears to have been the loss of her cos­tume. Despite these crit­i­cisms, it was dur­ing this time that an attempt at a fem­i­nist plot­line was launched (Lep­ore). The first cov­er of this sto­ry arc, released in Decem­ber 1972, depict­ed Won­der Woman in a white uni­tard and long sleeves and long pants (Lep­ore). This was a shift from her short shorts and strap­less top, though the tight fit remained. Lavin writes, “Some fem­i­nists applaud­ed the change, espe­cial­ly now that Diana had lost the provoca­tive cos­tume […] oth­ers com­plained she had been stripped of her strength” (97). This reac­tion prompt­ed DC Comics to aban­don the new sto­ry­line, return­ing her to her for­mer pow­ers, and costume.

Wonder Woman’s Second Rebirth

The cred­it for Won­der Woman’s sec­ond rebirth and return to her most icon­ic cos­tume goes to the read­ers who iden­ti­fied as fem­i­nists and were angry about the changes made to the beloved super­hero they had grown up idol­iz­ing (Mat­su­uchi 134). To these women, includ­ing icon Glo­ria Steinem, Won­der Woman’s cos­tume was an essen­tial part of what defined her as a fem­i­nist fig­ure, and they employed sev­er­al strate­gies to encour­age its return: “In 1972, the found­ing edi­tors of Ms. put Won­der Woman on the cov­er of the magazine’s first reg­u­lar issue. They hoped to bridge the dis­tance between the fem­i­nism of the 1910s and the fem­i­nism of the 1970s with the Won­der Woman of the 1940s, the fem­i­nism of their child­hood” (Lep­ore). Co-found­ed by Steinem, “Ms. was meant to be an organ for a revived fem­i­nist move­ment,” mak­ing Won­der Woman’s return to her orig­i­nal cos­tume on its cov­er par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant (Lep­ore 283). Won­der Woman’s cloth­ing was seen as key sym­bol of the sec­ond-wave fem­i­nist movement.

Thanks to these women’s efforts, in 1973 Won­der Woman reap­peared with her super­pow­ers, acces­sories, and cos­tume restored in Won­der Woman #204 (Mat­su­uchi 134). This time peri­od is pop­u­lar­ly known as the fem­i­nist rebirth of Won­der Woman’s char­ac­ter (Mat­su­uchi 134). How­ev­er, it is impor­tant to note that her first rebirth had orig­i­nal­ly been intend­ed to be fem­i­nist as well; both of these stages are open to read­ers’ own inter­pre­ta­tions and opin­ions of her appar­el, informed through the con­text of the comics them­selves. Nev­er­the­less, “This chap­ter in Won­der Woman’s his­to­ry […] pro­vides a reveal­ing insight into the rela­tion­ship between Amer­i­can com­ic books and sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism” (Mat­su­uchi 120). Won­der Woman was a lens through which to view the fem­i­nist debates occur­ring at the time. Refer­ring to these con­flicts, Lep­ore writes, “In that bat­tle Won­der Woman wasn’t caught in the cross­fire; Won­der Woman was the ammu­ni­tion” (290). This sen­ti­ment sum­ma­rizes the idea that Won­der Woman, and her cos­tume, were used to reflect fem­i­nist val­ues and debates. These con­flicts con­tin­ued through twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry rep­re­sen­ta­tions of her char­ac­ter, shaped by con­tem­po­rary con­flicts, debates, and forms of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in new media.

Wonder Woman Today

The chap­ter “Won­der Woman & Black Canary Fight the Gen­der War” from the 2008 graph­ic nov­el Jus­tice League: The New Fron­tier includes Won­der Woman’s breast­plate catch­ing on fire, prompt­ing her to pum­mel her male oppo­nents with her burn­ing bra (Mat­su­uchi 138). This image of Won­der Woman as a “bra burn­er” is an overt ref­er­ence to her fem­i­nist ties, rep­re­sent­ed through an engage­ment with fash­ion and her cos­tume. Glo­ria Steinem is ref­er­enced in the com­ic as well, link­ing her both to the icon and the character’s fem­i­nist back­ground. In this inter­pre­ta­tion, Won­der Woman is under­stood as a part of fem­i­nist his­to­ry, sig­naled to read­ers through her dress.

Despite this, Won­der Woman remains a polar­iz­ing fig­ure in rela­tion to fem­i­nism; her cloth­ing con­tin­ues to be rein­ter­pret­ed, as do the under­tones and debates sur­round­ing her cos­tume. In 2010, for the 600th issue of Won­der Woman, artists chose to revamp her appar­el. This time, they placed her in tight black pants, a red tank top, a navy jack­et, and flat black boots. Her accessories—the bracelets, tiara, and lasso—remained. Accord­ing to Deb Water­house-Wat­son and Evie Kendall, the pur­pose of this makeover was to “celebrat[e] the Ama­zon­ian superhero’s longevi­ty in print media”; how­ev­er, they also men­tion that the new cos­tume was “less reveal­ing” (114). As they explain, the character’s “shift to more prac­ti­cal, less sex­u­alised wear arguably reflects chang­ing atti­tudes about gen­der and the grow­ing female pres­ence in the comics indus­try. Nev­er­the­less, the change prompt­ed some con­tro­ver­sy online amongst fan com­mu­ni­ties, again high­light­ing the prob­lem­at­ic his­to­ry of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women as pow­er­ful fig­ures” (Water­house-Wat­son and Kendall 114). Despite the fact that cos­tume choice was meant to reflect con­tem­po­rary, female-pos­i­tive sen­ti­ments, once again analy­sis, debate, and con­tro­ver­sy fol­lowed. This may be the rea­son that Won­der Woman is still most often shown dressed in her icon­ic apparel.

An addi­tion­al reboot fol­lowed in 2011, result­ing in the reap­pear­ance of the 1970s Diana Prince comics. In this ver­sion, Won­der Woman appears dressed again in her all-white cos­tume, which she describes as “‘(o)ne of the out­fits I wore after I renounced my pow­ers […] before I real­ized who I real­ly am’” (Mat­su­uchi 138). Here, she is once more with­out super­pow­ers or her orig­i­nal cos­tume. In this rep­re­sen­ta­tion, a “con­fus­ing final pan­el points to [the idea that] despite the inten­tions of the men and women who cre­at­ed her, Won­der Woman remains an uncer­tain, com­pli­cat­ed icon, claimed by a legion of fans with wide­ly dis­parate needs and expec­ta­tions” (Mat­su­uchi 138). In Adorned in Dreams, Eliz­a­beth Wil­son argues that “we may view the fash­ion­able dress of the west­ern world as one means where­by an always frag­men­tary self is glued togeth­er into the sem­blance of a uni­fied iden­ti­ty” (11). Won­der Woman’s iden­ti­ty is con­stant­ly being recre­at­ed with each cos­tume change, pre­vent­ing a coher­ent, sta­ble per­cep­tion of the character.

Media inter­est in Won­der Woman con­tin­ues today, even out­side of the realm of com­ic books and graph­ic nov­els. Twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry rep­re­sen­ta­tions large­ly inter­pret Won­der Woman’s char­ac­ter as fem­i­nist, though debate sur­round­ing her cloth­ing per­sists. The char­ac­ter con­tin­ues to be ref­er­enced across mul­ti­ple forms of media, from the pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion series Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life to fash­ion cat­walks (fig­ure 3). In anoth­er exam­ple, Lux Alptraum’s arti­cle “30 Hal­loween Cos­tumes for Badass Fem­i­nists” (2016) claims that “Won­der Woman’s been inspir­ing girls and women for decades […] now that she’s got the option to wear trousers, she’s even more fem­i­nist than ever.” State­ments such as this one with­in pop­u­lar media illus­trate the sig­nif­i­cance of Won­der Woman’s cloth­ing in con­struct­ing her posi­tion as a fem­i­nist figure.

Fig­ure 3. Stu­dents adorn super­hero sym­bols and cos­tumes. Ele­na Siemens, Stu­dent Mod­els at “Super­hero Fash­ion Cat­walk,” Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta, Sep­tem­ber 2016.

The 2017 Won­der Woman film brought on fur­ther dis­cus­sion of Won­der Woman’s icon­ic appar­el and how it should be rep­re­sent­ed today (fig­ure 4). In “The ‘Won­der Woman’ Cos­tumes Are A Cel­e­bra­tion of Female Empow­er­ment” by Faw­nia Soo Hoo, cos­tume design­er Lindy Hem­ming relayed the exten­sive research and effort that went into cre­at­ing a cos­tume that would harken back to Won­der Woman’s orig­i­nal out­fit while avoid­ing hyper­sex­u­al­iz­ing the char­ac­ter; as the design­er, Hem­ming was thought­ful, even cau­tious, when cre­at­ing Won­der Woman’s cos­tume. Hem­ming out­lined the care­ful bal­ance she aimed to strike between his­tor­i­cal­ly main­tain­ing Won­der Woman’s icon­ic dress and allow­ing her­self to be influ­enced by cur­rent fash­ion trends such as ath­leisure and mod­ern inter­pre­ta­tions of the char­ac­ter (Soo Hoo). Much like the debates which took place between var­i­ous com­ic book artists as they cre­at­ed Won­der Woman’s orig­i­nal char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, Hem­ming touched upon the changes she made to the Won­der Woman cos­tume, which she had “tweaked since its debut” in the Bat­man v Super­man: Dawn of Jus­tice film in 2016 (Soo Hoo). Giv­en that Won­der Woman is an action movie, her appar­el had to be func­tion­al on screen, prompt­ing Hem­ming and her team to remake the cos­tume in lighter mate­ri­als and to “re-[design] Won­der Woman’s over-the-knee boots into a sporti­er san­dal-boot hybrid” (Soo Hoo). Even today, it is not just Won­der Woman’s char­ac­ter that is sub­ject to change, but her dress as well. Adjust­ments to Won­der Woman’s cloth­ing are in part what allow her to remain an icon for the mod­ern-day con­sumers who engage with her.

Fig­ure 4. Gal Gadot in the Won­der Woman cos­tume cre­at­ed for the 2017 Won­der Woman film. Bren­da Rochelle, Won­der Woman Fea­tured, 5 June 2017, Flickr, www​.flickr​.com/ accessed 24 Octo­ber 2018.

In 2016, Won­der Woman was assigned both her biggest and poten­tial­ly most con­tro­ver­sial role yet: as Unit­ed Nation’s Ambas­sador of the Empow­er­ment of Women and Girls. As Veron­i­ca Arreo­la writes, this appoint­ment sparked intense debate: “While many are fans of Won­der Woman, they would rather see the UN final­ly select a real-life woman to lead the glob­al enti­ty.” Impor­tant­ly, Won­der Woman’s cos­tume was cit­ed as one of the con­cerns with the appoint­ment. Again, Won­der Woman is described as being “‘scant­i­ly clad,’” mak­ing her “not suit­able for an ambas­sador” (Arreo­la). The Unit­ed Nation’s Won­der Woman cam­paign had been accom­pa­nied by slo­gans, such as “Think of all the won­ders we can do: stand up for the empow­er­ment of women and girls every­where” and “The women and girls who rise up for a bet­ter world, and the men and boys who sup­port and stand with them, are super­heroes in their own right” (“Stand Up”). It is inter­est­ing to note that the pho­to that accom­pa­nied Won­der Woman’s web­page was cut off at the neck, poten­tial­ly attempt­ing to negate any crit­i­cism about her cloth­ing and cos­tume, along with crit­i­cism of her body itself (Aizen­man). Only her tiara and the top of a cape and top can be seen. The Unit­ed Nations’ hash­tags #Real­Life­Won­der­Woman and #With­Won­der­Woman fur­ther moved the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing the super­hero as a fem­i­nist fig­ure for­ward into the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. Despite efforts to main­tain the suc­cess of the cam­paign, Nurith Aizen­man explains that Won­der Woman was uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly removed from her role “less than two months lat­er” due to the above crit­i­cisms. This final, most recent exam­ple encap­su­lates the con­flict that has dogged Won­der Woman’s char­ac­ter since first incep­tion, of which cloth­ing is a part.

Won­der Woman’s cos­tume is an essen­tial part of her super­hero char­ac­ter. Even with­out it, as Diana Prince, a new cos­tume is cre­at­ed in the old one’s stead. The treat­ment of the cloth­ing of this fic­tion­al female super­hero illus­trates the impor­tant role fash­ion plays in the realm of fem­i­nism and more wide­ly in pop­u­lar cul­ture as well. Cloth­ing is the lens through which these char­ac­ters are cre­at­ed, designed, and redesigned as val­ues and motives shift. In refram­ing the aca­d­e­m­ic works that have stud­ied Won­der Woman, fem­i­nism, and fash­ion, it is clear that her cos­tume has been the key focus of the debates sur­round­ing her char­ac­ter and her valid­i­ty as a fem­i­nist icon. With the recent Unit­ed Nations con­tro­ver­sy and film release, these dis­cus­sions continue.


Wonder Woman remains caught up in a con­flict that women have faced for cen­turies. As I have illus­trat­ed through­out this arti­cle, Won­der Woman is judged based on her appear­ance and cloth­ing, forc­ing her to con­sis­tent­ly shift and change based on the per­cep­tions and crit­i­cisms of oth­ers. Dress, it seems, is more influ­en­tial even than Won­der Woman’s bracelets or las­so, and has the pow­er to reduce her from a woman to be admired to a woman scorned. Because of her con­tro­ver­sial apparel—too sex­u­al, too tra­di­tion­al, too mod­ern, too unrealistic—Wonder Woman’s posi­tion as a role mod­el is con­test­ed. The con­flicts sur­round­ing Won­der Woman as a fem­i­nist fig­ure have cen­tered on her dress, and each cos­tume change allows a new per­spec­tive on fem­i­nism, female role mod­els, and rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women with­in pop­u­lar cul­ture to unrav­el and be recreated.

Whether read­ers choose to under­stand Won­der Woman as a fem­i­nist fig­ure or not, inter­pre­ta­tions of her char­ac­ter are dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate from her dress. As the super­hero Hawk­man says upon first meet­ing Won­der Woman in All-Star Comics #11:

‘Diana Prince—why, you must be Won­der Woman!’

Why, how did you know?’

The Jus­tice Soci­ety man­ages to learn many things!’

Diana changes into her Won­der Woman cos­tume and joins the fight” (Lep­ore 204).

It is only once she has changed into her cos­tume that Won­der Woman is ready for battle.

Works Cited

Aizen­man, Nurith. “Remem­ber That Time When Won­der Woman Was A U.N. Ambas­sador?” Goats and Soda: Sto­ries of Life in A Chang­ing World, 1 June 2017, http://​www​.npr​.org/​s​e​c​t​i​o​n​s​/​g​o​a​t​s​a​n​d​s​o​d​a​/​2​0​1​7​/​0​6​/​0​1​/​5​3​1​1​0​6​2​9​9​/​r​e​m​e​m​b​e​r​-​t​h​a​t​-​t​i​m​e​-​w​h​e​n​-​w​o​n​d​e​r​-​w​o​m​a​n​-​w​a​s​-​a​-​u​-​n​-​a​m​b​a​s​s​a​dor. Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

Alp­traum, Lux. “30 Hal­loween Cos­tumes For Badass Fem­i­nists.” Refinery29, 20 Octo­ber 2016, http://​www​.refin​ery29​.com/​2​0​1​6​/​1​0​/​1​2​6​2​7​6​/​f​e​m​i​n​i​s​t​-​h​a​l​l​o​w​e​e​n​-​c​o​s​t​u​m​e​s​-​f​o​r​-​w​o​m​e​n​-​e​m​p​o​w​e​r​m​e​n​t​#​s​l​ide. Accessed 3 Decem­ber 2016.

Arreo­la, Veron­i­ca. “Won­der Woman in the Time of Hillary Clin­ton.” Bitch Media, 2 Novem­ber 2016, https://​bitch​me​dia​.org/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​w​o​n​d​e​r​-​w​o​m​a​n​-​t​i​m​e​-​h​i​l​l​a​r​y​-​c​l​i​n​ton. Accessed 3 Decem­ber 2016.

Avery-Natale, Edward. “An Analy­sis of Embod­i­ment Among Six Super­heroes in DC Comics.” Social Thought and Research, vol. 32, 2013, pp. 71-106.

Bar­ry, Ben. “Enclothed Knowl­edge: The Fash­ion Show as a Method of Dis­sem­i­na­tion in Arts-Informed Research.” Fash­ion Stud­ies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-43, www​.fash​ion​stud​ies​.ca/​e​n​c​l​o​t​h​e​d​-​k​n​o​w​l​e​d​ge/.

Brown, Jef­frey A. “Gen­der, Sex­u­al­i­ty, and Tough­ness: The Bad Girls of Action Film and Com­ic Books.” Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Pop­u­lar Cul­ture. Edit­ed by Sher­rie A. Inness, Pal­grave Macmil­lian, 2004, pp. 47-74.

Emad, Mitra C. “Read­ing Won­der Woman’s Body: Mytholo­gies of Gen­der and Nation.” The Jour­nal of Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, vol. 39, no. 6, 2006, pp. 954-984.

Entwistle, Joanne. The Fash­ioned Body. I.B. Tau­ris, 2015.

Lavin, Michael R. “Women in Com­ic Books.” Seri­als Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 1998, pp. 93-100.

Lep­ore, Jill. The Secret His­to­ry of Won­der Woman. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Mat­su­uchi, Ann. “Won­der Woman Wears Pants: Won­der Woman, Fem­i­nism and the 1972 ‘Women’s Lib’ Issue.” Col­lo­quy text the­o­ry cri­tique, vol. 24, 2012, pp. 118-142.

O’Reilly, Julie D. “The Won­der Woman Prece­dent: Female (Super)Heroism on Tri­al.” The Jour­nal of Amer­i­can Cul­ture, vol. 28, no. 3, 2005, pp. 273-284.

Soo Hoo, Faw­nia. “The ‘Won­der Woman’ Cos­tumes Are A Cel­e­bra­tion of Female Empow­er­ment.” Fash­ion­ista, 5 June 2017, https://​fash​ion​ista​.com/​2​0​1​7​/​0​6​/​w​o​n​d​e​r​-​w​o​m​a​n​-​f​i​l​m​-​c​o​s​t​u​mes. Accessed 7 Sep­tem­ber 2017.

Stand Up for the Empow­er­ment of Women and Girls Every­where.” un​.org, http://​www​.un​.org/​s​u​s​t​a​i​n​a​b​l​e​d​e​v​e​l​o​p​m​e​n​t​/​w​o​n​d​e​r​w​o​m​an/. Accessed 3 Decem­ber 2016.

Water­house-Wat­son, Deb and Evie Kendal. “Tights and Tiaras: Female Super­heroes and Media Cul­tures.” Col­lo­quy text the­o­ry cri­tique, vol. 24, 2012, pp. 114-117.

Wil­son, Eliz­a­beth. Adorned in Dreams: Fash­ion and Moder­ni­ty. I.B. Tau­ris, 2003.

Won­der Woman.” dccomics​.com, http://​www​.dccomics​.com/​c​h​a​r​a​c​t​e​r​s​/​w​o​n​d​e​r​-​w​o​man. Accessed 4 Decem­ber 2016.

Image Notes

Fig­ure 1. Won­der Woman in one vari­a­tion of her cos­tume. JJ_Dread, Won­der Woman, 11 Decem­ber 2015, Flickr, www​.flickr​.com/, accessed 24 Octo­ber 2018.

Fig­ure 2. Won­der Woman restrained with chains in the Won­der Woman: Earth One series. Grant Mor­ri­son (w) and Yan­ick Paque­tte (a), Won­der Woman: Earth One (April 2016), DC Comics; Richard Guion, “Won­der Woman- Yan­ick Paque­tte,” Flickr, 1 April 2016, www​.flickr​.com/, accessed 31 July 2018.

Fig­ure 3. Stu­dents adorn super­hero sym­bols and cos­tumes. Ele­na Siemens, stu­dent mod­els at “Super­hero Fash­ion Cat­walk,” Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta, Sep­tem­ber 2016.

Fig­ure 4. Gal Gadot in the Won­der Woman cos­tume cre­at­ed for the 2017 Won­der Woman film. Bren­da Rochelle, Won­der Woman Fea­tured, 5 June 2017, Flickr, www​.flickr​.com/, accessed 24 Octo­ber 2018.

I would like to thank Dr. Rebec­ca Hal­l­i­day for encour­ag­ing the pur­suit of this research and for the sup­port through­out the writ­ing of this arti­cle. Thank you as well to Dr. Ali­son Matthews David for her guid­ance. Thank you to Dr. Kat­ri­na Sark, Dr. Ele­na Siemens, and the Imag­i­na­tions jour­nal team for their assis­tance dur­ing the pub­li­ca­tion process. Final­ly, I would like to offer my appre­ci­a­tion to the review­ers who took the time to read this research and to share their insights.