When it is said that Superman is a “universal icon” [i] it is perhaps the costume that comes to mind, rather than the character. The same body dressed in anything else renders him unrecognizable; the costume is one of the main signifiers of the Superman identity. However, the costume is something of an oddity today. Morrison sums up the problem in one question: “if he’s so god damn super, why does he wear his underpants outside his tights?” [ii]. Superman’s distinctive look, imitated by many afterwards and today a signifier of the superhero [iii], was originally derived from the image of the 1930s strongman. Underwear above tights was a signifier of “extra-masculine strength and endurance in 1938”, though the association is largely lost today. The circus look emphasizes the “performative, even freak-show-esque” aspect of the character [iv]. However, tights and capes were also “standard equipment” for science fiction heroes pre-dating Superman, read by Siegel and Shuster [v]. Thus in the 1930s, Superman’s costume may have been read as futuristic.


Although artists have periodically tried to update the look of Superman 7, it is remarkable how little the costume has changed over the years, compared to the frequent redesigns of other characters. The illustrations to the left reflect this; while the logo and belt details have changed, the colours and shape remain almost exactly the same. Grant argues that clothes are a reliable indicator of differing periods of history and nothing “more cruelly reveals the business of our ageing” than sticking to the same clothes[vi] – indeed, Morrison questions whether the superhero is now a “nostalgic fantasy…a sad, tired muscle show” [vii].While underpants-over-tights originally drew on associations of strength, modern audiences associate them only with superheroes; the signifier has become self-referential.


These criticisms may go some way to explaining why artists continually attempt to redesign the costume. It is perhaps the iconic nature of the original costume that continues to return the character to the same look; in redesigns such as the image to the right, the logo remains untouched, as do the colours. While it appears the costume is padded or armoured and less ‘skin-tight’ the red boots and cape also remain. It is the struggle to modernize the costume while at the same time keeping the universal recognisability of the original that fuels this cycle of redesign and reversion.


In the first two illustrations shown, as well as functioning as a means to identify the character and as a signifier of strength, futurism and performance, costume is employed to highlight the body underneath. This corresponds to Entwistle and Landis’ ideas of the costume inextricably linked to the body; the skin-tight silhouette allows us to read the meanings attached to the muscular body while serving to keep the character clothed and concealed [viii].The various fetishistic readings of superhero costumes seem to apply mainly to the second of the images – the body is very much on display, or as Morrison puts it, essentially naked. By leaving out some detail, the first image implies cloth covering the body – while the second leaves nothing to the imagination.


Arguably the most important, and almost always untouched, feature of the costume is the logo. The eye is immediately drawn to the centre of the body rather than the face; the logo both guides the eye and functions as a narrative disguise in its distraction. The shield logo can be interpreted as both a linguistic and iconic message. The initial “S” stands in for “Superman”, but letters in themselves are a phonetic code.



In combination with its ‘frame’, the letter has become a signifier of the Superman character. Shuster’s initial drawings show the frame as a shield (see above left), a symbol in itself of protection, associated with the archetypal ‘knight in shining armour’. By Superman #1 (1939, see first image), the shape had been simplified to a triangle, which seems only to emphasize the shape of the chest beneath it, rather than retain its previous significations. By Superman #9 (1941, see above right) the corners begin to turn inwards to form the familiar diamond emblem that many recognize today. The diamond, too, has connotations of strength and protection, one of the hardest materials in the world.


Commercial factors may account for the increase in logo size between the first two illustrations shown above. Just as corporate logos are placed on the bodies of athletes, the character promotes its own brand with the ever-present logo, representing the same “pop morality” of a Nike-sponsored athlete [ix]. The larger the logo, the more instantly recognizable the character becomes.


Rather than logos, McCloud [x] emphasizes the importance of colour in recognizable superhero costumes. The repetition of colour combinations, panel after panel, comes to symbolize characters in the mind of the reader. The gaudy, almost circus-like primary colours provide additional connotations of hope[xi]. Red and blue directly relate to the US flag, giving Superman a “patriotic touch”[xii]. Both character and costume have come to be part of a network of signs where now “the garment itself is transformed into the [sign] of America”[xiii]. It is perhaps due to the start of WW2 soon after the character’s debut that the red and blue of the costume was seized upon, transforming Superman into an All-American hero – in war, “patriots are heroes” [xiv]. Superman conforms to ideas of the patriotic athletic body and the exemplary masculinity of war heroes.


The importance of colour, America and the logo to the costume is highlighted in Superman: Red Son (2004) by removing the ‘S’ and replacing it with a communist sickle and hammer (see image to left). The story is based on a ‘what if’ scenario, imagining a Superman raised in communist Russia. By changing the logo to another equally recognizable symbol, our entire reading of the character is altered; gone are the associations of ‘Americana’. The yellow is replaced with black, the blue muted to grey, giving the outfit a sinister feel while serving to emphasize the ‘Soviet red’.


Returning to the first images shown above, both can certainly be considered as examples of Bruzzi’s spectacular costume[xv]; the eye is immediately drawn to the contrasting colours in the centre of the image. The spectacular nature of it also reminds us of the theatrical functions of the costume, particularly in the first image where his costume relates to its original circus strong-man influences. Superman is here to perform his “DARING EXPLOITS” for our amusement. But the costume does transmit information and is thus still functional: the ‘S’ reminding us of the name and brand, the red and blue tells us of the all-American nature of the character. The cape also serves a function. These images are clear examples of how capes are used to show action, billowing behind Superman as he rises.


The iconic nature of the costume transmits clearly to us the identity of Superman. However, the relation of costume to his alter ego, Clark Kent, has not yet been considered.



Both body and costume are used to form Superman’s alter ego and human disguise, Clark Kent: this is perhaps best seen in All Star Superman (2007). As Clark Kent (see above left) he is slouched over; his face seems chubbier as a result, and he is constantly stumbling. His business suit furthers the disguise, allowing Clark to “blend into the urban environment” rather than draw attention to himself[xvi]. His suit is baggy and ill fitting, which combined with his posture, disguises the muscles underneath. Instead, the viewer presumes him to be overweight.


In contrast, Superman stands tall and straight, giving the impression of authority (see above right). Jaw jutting out, his face like that of an American footballer. The familiar costume remains – while Quitely does not draw it as skin-tight as others have, he exaggerates the thickness of Superman’s neck to lead us to suppose the heavyweight athlete’s body exists underneath it. Quitely’s art is an example of Landis’ idea that the costume designer includes the body as part of the costume [xvii].


Even artists who do not go to such lengths to express the difference in these identities show the effectiveness of simple devices to change the reading of a character, as shown in the caption to below left:


See, Ma? With his hair all slickered back and an old pair of my spectacles, his whole face seems to change. All he needs to do is stoop a tad, and he looks like a whole different man. [xviii]



Byrne does not draw Superman’s body or posture any differently, besides the “slickered back” hair and spectacles, but still our reading is imperceptibly altered. Glasses are a signifier of the failure of the body to function[xix], creating the classic ‘nerd’ image. Just as Clark Kent’s ‘uniform’ suit serves to make him invisible [xx] the unremarkable nature of his glasses add to this effect and become a “mask”; the visual artefact serves to convey “the subjective duality of the double identity” [xxi]. Both Quitely and Byrne demonstrate Eco’s idea of demeanour through costume[xxii]. The suit and glasses moves Clark Kent into the intellectual world, while the tight-fit of the Superman costume prompts him to stand tall, ready to fight - thus the nerd may transform into a jock through costume.


The image of Clark Kent ripping off his disguise to reveal the Superman costume is perhaps one of the most recognizable of comics – an example of a reinterpretation by Alex Ross is seen in the image above (right). The double-life is, to use Wolk’s phrase[xxiii], another “formal convention” of superhero comics that began with Superman. However, Superman is one of a minority of heroes whose false identity is their human one. The literal positioning of the suit above the Superman costume reminds us that his human identity is entirely contained within a set of clothes. But if he always wears this hidden costume, then the tight material, according to Eco, would also be a constant reminder of his superhumanity.


Grant presents us with the idea that clothing is essential to the new life of an immigrant, allowing a “process of assimilation” [xxiv]; by dressing the same way others do, one changes their signified message from ‘foreigner’ to ‘local’. In donning a suit, he inhabits and realizes the role of the working man [xxv]; Superman is thus assimilated into human society as Clark Kent. Morrison, too, considers immigration and assimilation to be essential to the character as a metaphor for the immigrant in America, speaking of the idea that anyone can become an American – even an alien.


But why an American alter ego at all? Daniels [xxvi]suggests that the dual-identity was “a way of taking the curse off a character with too much power”. As Superman, he is almost godlike. As Clark Kent, he is “a sympathetic everyman” [xxvii]deliberately choosing characteristics that are “admirable, but…undesirable” and is perhaps “masochistically” patterned after his own timid creators [xxviii]. This humanisation allows the reader to empathize with the character, despite the fact he is an alien. Morrison notes that the dual-identity of Superman relates to religious stories of the god among humans, disguising himself to “walk among the common people” [xxix].


Clark Kent also serves as a narrative foil to Superman – we read him as super based on the dialectical relationship between him and the “incompetent Clark Kent” [xxx], also conforming to Mosse’s idea of stereotype versus countertype masculinity [xxxi]. Klein refers to hegemonic, heroic masculinity reinforced through exaggerating an alter ego’s cowardice as “Wimp and Warrior”. The jock/nerd binary is reinforced in identity change through costume, separating the “intellectual” from the “physical” while also highlighting their co-dependent nature - Koda and Martin consider “bravado masculinity” the inevitable alter ego of the nerd [xxxii]. The transformation of the nerd to the jock through costume renders him a “male counterpart to Cinderella”[xxxiii].


Perhaps the most important reason for both Clark Kent and Superman’s existence is the idea of wish-fulfilment. Freud proposes that dreams possess meaning and “can be recognized as a wish-fulfilment” [xxxiv]. In our dreams, we play out what we cannot have or achieve in real life. Kaveney extends this idea to stories and media – superheroes, too, are “wish-fulfilment people”, living lives that we envy [xxxv]. Clark is “the ultimate nerd fantasy”, because he suggests anyone could be hiding a Superman costume directly beneath their clothes [xxxvi]. The idea that Superman could be disguised as a human allows us to believe in “the existence of an inner Superman” within ourselves.


In his original context of “Depression-weary” 1930s America, Superman served as a distraction[xxxvii] while simultaneously allowing for fantasies of “power and agency” that many were denied in reality [xxxviii]. Before WW2, Superman was a hero of the people; his enemies were “ordinary decent criminals” such as wife-beaters and thieves, the sort people may well have had to deal with in everyday life [xxxix]. He is described as a “humanist response” to cultural fears, not just of criminals, but of “runaway science”[xl]. Morrison gives the example of his own childhood in which the big fear was nuclear war – he needed Superman as a wish-fulfilment, not to be “real”, but “more real than the Idea of the Bomb”: a powerful idea to counter a powerful fear [xli].


The idea of wish-fulfilment is inextricably linked to the body of Superman. As Wertham so critically claims, superhero comics “instil a wish to be a superman” [xlii] in the reader, but perhaps Superman is mesomorphic in order to fulfil our wish of having the body that cannot be attained in reality. Kaveney likens the superhero to the celebrity [xliii], as they are seemingly perfect figures we wish we could be, yet we must settle instead for reading stories of their lives.


Though the performative and wish-fulfilling aspects of the character are unlikely to have been intentional in 1938, Gravett’s [xliv]analysis of the The Superman Brand (2005), a ‘brand bible’ intended for circulation only within corporate spaces, reveals that DC Comics are fully aware of the potential of the character for these readings; a photo in the book of a woman wearing a Superman logo shirt is accompanied by the text “When I wear the S-Shield, I have the power to be my own person…When I wear the S-Shield, I am a hero”. Presenting Superman as an empowering, wish-fulfilment figure for consumers is actively encouraged by the company.


Alternatively, Superman and Clark Kent could be viewed through the Jungian dualities of ego/self or persona/shadow. If Superman is taken as ‘good’, he can be interpreted as the embodiment of the self – “the complete realization of the blueprint for human existence”[xlv] , while Clark is comparable to the imperfect, fallible ego. But if the Superman character is negatively seen, his identities are comparable to the persona and shadow archetypes. The constructed persona of Clark Kent is designed to seem acceptable and human, while the shadow is representative of the stranger (Superman as alien), the unacceptable traits we hide [xlvi]. The fetishistic body and costume (of the second image shown) and its threat of uncontained, violent power is relevant to this reading. The externalisation of the shadow through costume, to M. Clark [xlvii], is a way of delivering it to “the level of farce” – indeed, Jung stresses the importance of integrating it into the ego [xlviii]to bring its inherent darkness to light.


Rather than wish-fulfilment, Wolk sees superheroes as metaphors. Superman represents ideas of “human perfectibility”[xlix]. But why make Superman an alien? Why not merely superhuman? As Daniels  tells us, the character we know today is the third iteration of Siegel and Shuster’s idea. The first Superman was a villain – the power would be “too much for any mere human” [l]. The second version was heroic, but a human without powers. It seems Siegel believed humans were inherently imperfect. Daniels supposes the final Superman became alien to free him from “human weaknesses” [li]. Perhaps this includes the limits of the human body.


Costume allows us to read the Superman body through the use of skin-tight silhouettes while keeping him clothed, also adding early 20th century associations of the circus strongman. Costume functions as an additional narrative element in its own right, serving to identify the character, drawing on ideas of Americana, nationality, performativity and demeanour, fetishism and spectacle, and themes of identity. In this way, the costume may be considered both functional and as spectacle. Just as the athletic body serves as a corporate space, so too does the body and costume of the comic book superhero, the logo and repeated colour combinations reminding us of the character brand.


Costume and body combine to create the superhero fantasy, which can be interpreted as a performative medium of wish-fulfilment. The Clark Kent-Superman duality allows us to believe in our own inner-superhero and our ability to transform from one identity to another through clothing (such as the nerd to the jock), while the alien body of Superman allows us to push past the limits of natural possibility and the imperfection of our own humanity.


Designing for Duality: Costume, Clark Kent and Superman by Josceline Fenton



[i] Daniels, L. (2004) Superman Complete History. Chronicle Books, p11

[ii] Morrison, G. (2011) Supergods: Our world in the age of the superhero. Great Britain: Jonathan Cape, p 14

[iii] Karaminas, V. (2009) Ubermen: Masculinity, costume and meaning in comic book superheroes. In: Karaminas, V. and McNeil, P. (2009) The Men’s Fashion Reader. London: BERG, p180

[iv] Morrison, 2011: p14

[v] Daniels, L. (2004) Superman Complete History. Chronicle Books, p18

[vi] Grant, L. (2009) The Thoughtful Dresser. Great Britain: Virago Press, p120

[vii] Morrison, 2011: p294

[viii] Karaminas, 2009: p181

[ix] Shilling, C. (2005) The Body in Culture, Technology and Society. London: Sage Publications, p109

[x] McCloud, S. (1994) Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Perennial, p188

[xi] Morrison, 2011: p16

[xii] Morrison 2011: p15

[xiii] Karaminas, 2009: p183

[xiv] Morrison, 2011: p38

[xv] Bruzzi, S. (1997) Undressing Cinema: Clothing and identity in the movies. London, Routledge.

[xvi] Karaminas, 2009: p182

[xvii] Landis, D. (2003) Screencraft: Costume Design. Switzerland: Rotovision

[xviii] Byrne, 1986, The Man of Steel

[xix] Koda, H. and Martin, R. (1989) Jocks and Nerds: Men’s style in the twentieth century. Rizzoli: New York, p35

[xx] Street, S. (2001) Costume and Cinema: Dress codes in popular film. London: Wallflower Press, p38

[xxi] Karaminas, 2009: p181

[xxii] Eco, U. (1976) Lumbar Thought. In: Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality. Vintage

[xxiii] Wolk, Douglas (2007) Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels work and what they mean. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press

[xxiv] Grant, 2009: p161

[xxv] Koda and Martin, 1989: p7

[xxvi] Daniels, L. (2004) Superman Complete History. Chronicle Books, p19

[xxvii] Koda and Martin, 1989: p42

[xxviii] Daniels, 2004: p19

[xxix] Morrison, 2011: p15

[xxx] Klein, A. cited in Karaminas, 2009: p182

[xxxi] Mosse, G.L. (1996) The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[xxxii] Koda and Martin 1989: p37

[xxxiii] Koda and Martin 1989: p38

[xxxiv] Freud, S. (1997) The Interpretation of Dreams. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions p33

[xxxv] Kaveney, R. (2008) Superheroes! Capes and crusaders in comics and films. New York: I.B. Tauris, p10

[xxxvi] Morrison, 2011: p9

[xxxvii] Wright, N. (2000) The Classic Era of American Comics. London: Prion Books, p2

[xxxviii] Morrison, 2011: p9

[xxxix] Kaveney, 2008: p100

[xl] Morrison, 2011: p8

[xli] Morrison, 2011: pxv

[xlii] Wertham, F. (1954) Seduction of the Innocent. Toronto: Irwin, p217

[xliii] Kaveney, 2008: p10

[xliv] Gravett, P. (2011) Grant Morrison: Supergods: http://www.paulgravett.com/index.php/articles/article/grant_morrison/

[xlv] Stevens, A. (2001) Jung: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p61

[xlvi] Stevens, 2001: p64

[xlvii] Clark, M. (2011) Throwing Light on the Shadow: Carl Jung’s answer to evil: http://epages.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/throwing-light-on-the-shadow-carl-jungs-answer-to-evil/

[xlviii] Jung, C.G. (1975) The Collected Works Volume 9 Part 1: The archetypes and the collective unconscious. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. Fourth Printing. London, England: Routledge and Kegan Paul, p20

[xlix] Wolk, 2007

[l] Daniels 2004, p14

[li] Daniels 2004, p19


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