The Victoria and Albert Museum’s recent exhibition, Hollywood Costume, began with a textual declaration that “movies are about people.” As Deborah Nadoolman Landis notes in the accompanying book, “they are at the emotional core and it is their stories who hold our attention, provide the action and establish the framework for a screenplay.”[i] Born out of this is the need for actors to become characters. Costume, therefore, is a defining visual marker of the character on-screen (see sidebar article below). It is often difficult to separate characters from costumes in the mind of the audience. Some notable examples are Scarlett O’Hara’s green curtain dress in Gone With the Wind (1939); James Dean’s red windbreaker jacket in Rebel Without a Cause (1955); Keira Knightly’s vintage green evening dress in Atonement (2007); Richard Gere’s Giorgio Armani suits in American Gigolo (1980).



Sarah Street’s Cinema and Costume: Dress Codes in Popular Film[ii] suggests costume often functions as both realism and spectacle. She states, “films draw on complex codes of verisimilitude in order to convince and enthrall their audiences.” Costumes often have “social verisimilitude” through their appropriateness to particular situations (for example, the social and emotional conditions of the character) while also containing “generic verisimilitude” by adhering to generic iconography.[iii] In fact, many genres are inexplicably linked to specific costumes- the suits and fedoras in gangster films, cowboy hats and denim in westerns, period clothing in historical dramas. Costumes go through a process of adaptation to fit the character, genre, setting, scene, but also the audience’s expectations, which can be influenced by genre, star, auteur or even fashion trends. Thus, film costumes must “conform to notions of realism, but they also need to employ notions of cinematic spectacle.”[iv]


The tension between realism and spectacle is especially apparent in films that also explore this tension through their narrative, with the superhero genre an especially interesting case. As many have noted, Christopher Nolan’s recent trilogy of Batman films (Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)) sought to reestablish and reauthor the Batman myth through a somber and realistic portrayal of the caped crusader.[v] However, rather than being seen as an auteur [vi], Nolan is viewed as an editor of the Batman meanings and “recycler of previous texts” as opposed to the “idea of the author as creator of individual and original meaning.”[vii] Therefore, although the Batman series is a collaboration between screenwriters, actors, costume designers and the director (among others), the films are focused on one central character- a masked superhero- and this impacts on the films’ use of costume.


Superhero costumes engage in many oppositions between fidelity and spectacle, concealment and exposure and performer and self. As noted, the multiplicity of Batman images and meanings throughout different media and time periods makes it difficult to locate one single image that defines the Batman costume. At the same time, the popularity of the Batman image for over seventy years also means that the costume can only deviate so far from earlier incarnations before appearing as a different superhero, no longer representative of Batman. The last Batman film before the Nolan’s involvement, Batman and Robin (1997), in the eyes of many, took the costume into ridiculous territory especially with the addition of nipples.


Among the common elements of the costume are the pointed bat ear mask, cape and utility belt, seen in almost all incarnations. These act as visual markers of the character, but also point to the masked and performative element of Batman. Superhero masks indicate the concealment of one identity and exposing of another. Vicki Karaminas suggests, “the invisibility offered by the mask is embodied in the formulations of costumes that obscure the body and provide a distinction between the dual secret and private identities that are essential to the superhero genre.”[viii] Batman is the powerful exposed hero while Bruce Wayne is the mortal human concealed. These distinctions are made clear through costume, especially in the Nolan films that often frame Bruce Wayne and his costume in the same space, but separated, suggesting how connected and disconnected the two identities are. Bruce Wayne is only Batman when he puts on the suit, concealing his true identity and exposing his superhero identity. The body that is constructed through the costume is a heightened vision of strong masculinity (toned abs, defined shoulders and arms), but also armor to protect the human identity underneath. As compared to earlier versions of the Batman costume, especially the 1960s television show that seemed to only function as concealment for Bruce Wayne’s true identity with a costume made almost entirely of lycra tights, Nolan’s films present an overly armored costume intended to protect


Bruce Wayne. The theme of protection is further evidenced by the inclusion of the Lucius Fox character in Nolan’s films: a
research head in the Applied Sciences division of Wayne Enterprises who helps develop Batman’s costume and various gadgets, some originally intended for the US Military (In Batman Begins, Wayne asks Fox to find him some amour). This also associates Batman with James Bond, men enhanced by gadgets and technology, however, Batman’s costume is a hyper-body, moved and controlled by the human body underneath, but enhanced through technology and specific pieces of armor (In The Dark Knight, Wayne asks for a new design and specifically tells Fox, he is interested in function, not fashion). Within Nolan’s Batman universe, the training of Bruce Wayne by the League of Shadows (in Batman Begins) strengthens this connection between costume and armor by associating Wayne with ancient warriors, especially through the breastplate he wears as a student of the league of shadows.


Realism and spectacle are brought to the focus by demonstrating how the body inside the costume is weakened and damaged while the costume acts as a spectacular vision of power and protection. The suit appears as though it cannot be penetrated, however, in the course of the trilogy Wayne physically suffers from the punishing blows he receives in the costume (By the beginning of the third film, The Dark Knight Rises, he can barely walk without the help of a cane). Again, this links Batman with the Bond franchise, especially the Daniel Craig films that have presented a physically scarred Bond underneath his impeccably tailored clothing.


Tellingly, the promotional material for The Dark Knight Rises included images of Batman, Catwoman and Bane (Batman’s main nemesis in the film). Although the costumes looked very different in the film, the posters focused on similarities between each costume by making them all black, sculpted to the body and held together with a belt. This implies that these superhero costumes function as shields as opposed to purely hiding one’s identity and creating another persona. The atmosphere of the poster appearing as acid rain and the political context of The Dark Knight Rises (with its “Occupy” movement [ix]storyline) confirms that in the contemporary period, heroes and villains are using costume to arm themselves for battle. And as opposed to presenting a strong body, the need for such armor exposes how vulnerable the human bodies are underneath (Bane’s need for a mouth guard to pump drugs into his damaged body also represents a weakened body).  


Missing from this poster is the bat cape, which often dominates the mise-en-scène [x] and promotional materials for all Batman incarnations. Batman’s wing span, created by the cape, is the symbol used by Police Commissioner Gordon to contact Bruce Wayne, but is also shorthand for Batman (just as the “S” symbol represents Superman). In one of the major posters for The Dark Knight Rises, Batman is positioned as a statue, with his head hanging down, as the city of Gotham crumbles above him. His cape is barely recognizable; instead, his wingspan is emblazoned in the sky above, an obvious connection to film’s story of Batman returning to action as Gotham suffers. This presents Batman’s wings as angelic, complicating the text that boldly proclaims, “a fire will rise.” Batman/Bruce Wayne’s conflict over protecting Gotham as a physical presence (as Batman) or a financial presence (as Bruce Wayne) is conveyed in this poster, as is the emotion felt by the man inside the costume.    


Studying Costume in Genre Film
by Julie Lobalzo Wright
Actors, directors and costume designers work closely together to determine what costumes appear on screen, beginning with the screenplay as a guide for the story, but also as a description of the character that will be brought to life through costume.
As essential as costume is to cinema, it is still an underdeveloped area of film studies, although many significant contributions have been made to the field. Pam Cook notes, “costume design is one of the least explored of all aspects of the film-making process, and most textual analysis prefer to minimise its contribution to the activity of making meaning.”[xiv] Various texts have examined the relationship between costume and cinema through genre (Sue Harper’s work on the Gainsborough melodramas[xv]), national cinema (Pam Cook’s Fashioning the Nation: Costume and Identity in British Cinema[xvi]), stardom (Rachel Mosley’s edited collection, Fashioning Film Stars: Dress Culture, Identity[xvii]), race, gender and identity (Stella Bruzzi’s Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies[xviii]) and personal transformation (Tamar Jeffers McDonald’s Hollywood Catwalk: Exploring Costume and Transformation in American Film[xix]). Costume dramas automatically lend themselves to research into costume and cinema, as Susan Hayward has suggested, “costume design is integral to the genre- after all, the word ‘costume’ is embedded in the very typology (‘costume drama’).”[xx] Many studies have sought to understand how costume supports, but can also transcend film narratives with costume dramas an especially interesting case, as the spectacle of costume is often central to the film. Bruzzi’s book has been an important addition to the field, arguing that genres we do not normally associate with costume, such as gangster films and black American cinema, often present costume as spectacle and function as “iconic clothes.”[xxi] Undressing Cinema also extended costume and cinema analysis to male costuming (an underrepresented area) and examined costume in relation to race and androgyny. The field of fashion, costume and cinema is continuing to expand, intersecting with established fields of study, including stardom (Sarah Gilligan’s forthcoming, (2013) Fashion and Film: Gender, Costume and Stardom in Contemporary Cinema[xxii]), celebrity (Pamela Church Gibson, Fashion and Celebrity Culture[xxiii]) and television (Forthcoming special issue of Film, Fashion and Consumption, guest edited by Helen Warner[xxiv])
Identity is often created through the space between the body and costume. As Joanne B. Eitcher puts it, “costume is an ensemble created to allow the individual to present a performance identity for the theatre, cinema, or masquerade.”[xi] As opposed to dress that “establishes individual identity within a cultural context,”[xii]costume sets the individual apart from society. Superheroes are also set apart, often acting as the protectors and saviors for society (Indeed, they are “super,” “heroes”).
They are above the law, but devoted to justice with this complex relationship lending itself to vigilantism (Many have questioned if Nolan’s films are “pro-vigilante” or “anti-vigilante” with the director stating, “it’s kind of both at the same time.”[xiii]). As the Batman trilogy displays, Bruce Wayne’s physical power is through the Batman identity, on show in the costume. By the third film, Wayne is physically weak and his business empire is frail, headed towards bankruptcy. Although Wayne is able to create and maintain the costume through his money and power, Batman ultimately saves Gotham from ruin- the created identity of a masked cruisder to protect society as opposed to Bruce Wayne, an individual man within society. Batman’s identity, however, is completely shaped through costume: his name is identifiable through bat signifiers (ears, wings and emblem) and his power and strength though the bodily armoured protection and metal gantlets on the arms (adapted from the League of Shadows). Therefore, costume acts as the sole creater of Batman’s identity, an identity, suggested at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, that can be passed on to new individuals and new bodies.    


The recent Batman trilogy displays how vital costume is to cinema. Although superhero films place an emphasis on costume that can only be matched by other costume-centric genres such as heritage or historical films, Batman illustrates the care that is taken to ensure that the costume is representative and expressive of the character. This emphasis on armor and protection is most explicit in Batman’s costume, but also Catwoman and Bane and suggests a real approach to living in the twenty-first century- the need to protect oneself from climate change, terrorism, changing financial fortunes, but through the spectacular bodies of superheroes and villains- bodies we mere mortals could never hope to attain. 


The Armored Knight: Batman, Costume and Cinema
by Julie Lobalzo Wright

[i] Landis Nadoolman, Deborah (2012) “What is Costume Design?” Hollywood Costume, ed. Deborah Nadoolman Landis, London: V&A Publishing, p. 48.


[ii] Street, Sarah (2001) Costume and Cinema: Dress Codes in Popular Film, London and New York: Wallflower.

[iii] Street, p. 7.

[iv] Street, p. 9.


[v] Schatz, Thomas (2012) “Movies and a Hollywood Too Big to Fail” American Cinema of the 2000s: Themes and Variations, ed. Timothy Corrigan, Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, p. 199.

[vi] Auteur Theory suggests that the director enacts his own artistic vision for a film.

[vii] Brooker, Will (2012) Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman, London and New York: I.B. Tauris, p. 17.


[viii] Karaminas, Vicki (2009) “Übermen: Masculinity, Costume, and Meaning in Comic Book Superheroes” The Men’s Fashion Reader, eds. Peter McNeil and Vicki Karaminas, Oxford and New York: Berg, p. 180.


[x] Mise-en-scène refers to everything that visually appears in front of the camera and how they are arranged.


[xi] Eicher, Joanne B. (2010) “Clothing, Costume, and Dress” The Berg Companion to Fashion, ed. Valerie Steele, Oxford and New York: Berg, p. 152.

[xii] Eicher, 152.


[xiii] DiPaolo, Marc (2011) War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film, Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, p. 68.


[xiv] Cook, Pam (2007) “Costume Drama” The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook, London: BFI Publishing, p. 291.


[xv] Harper, Sue (1987) “Historical Pleasures: Gainsborough Costume Melodrama” Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Women’s Film, ed. Pam Cook, London: BFI Publishing.


[xvi] Cook, Pam (1996) Fashioning the Nation: Costume and Identity in British Cinema, London: BFI Publishing.


[xvii] Moseley, Rachel, ed. (2005) Fashioning Film Stars: Dress, Culture, Identity, London: BFI Publishing.

[xviii] Bruzzi, Stella (1997) Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies, London: Routledge.


[xix] McDonald Jeffers, Tamar (2010) Hollywood Catwalk: Exploring Costume and Transformation in American Film, New York: I.B. Tauris.


[xx] Hayward, Susan (2010) French Costume Drama of the 1950s: Fashioning Politics in Film, London: Intellect, p. 17.

[xxi] Bruzzi, xv.


[xxii] Gilligan, Sarah forthcoming (2013) Fashion and Film: Gender, Costume and Stardom in Contemporary Cinema, Oxford: Berg.


[xxiii] Church Gibson, Pamela (2012) Fashion and Celebrity Culture, London: Berg.


[xxiv] Warner, Helen (2013) “Fashion and Television,” Film, Fashion and Consumption, Intellect.