How Superhero Costumes Are Made

As "Guardians of the Galaxy" costume designer Alexandra Byrne puts it: "We don’t want it to look like a man in tights."
By Fawnia Soo Hoo ,

There's no avoiding superheroes these days, with a "Supergirl" pilot in production at CBS, monster trailers for the upcoming "Avengers: Age of Ultron" blowing up our Twitter feeds and next summer's "Suicide Squad" — which has cast mega-model Cara Delevingne as the evil Enchantress, and woefully deprived us of Jared Leto's long, ombre hair — on the way. That's not to mention current running ABC series "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and the CW's "The Flash" and "Arrow." 

And while what some superheroes aren't wearing might be an image to linger on for a bit (ahem, Oliver Queen's abs), what these icons are wearing requires a great deal of coordination, creativity and technical skill. 

"It’s an amazing, broad and complex experience," Oscar nominee Michael Wilkinson, the costume designer behind "Man of Steel" and "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," says. In addition to the director and costume design team, illustrators, production designers, visual effects artists, stunt teams, fabric specialists and speciality costume manufacturers are all involved in building a suit. "It is a massive collaboration," says Alexandra Byrne, the Oscar-winning costume designer for "Thor," "Guardians of the Galaxy" and the "Avengers" series of films.

Stephen Amell encased in Oliver Queen's Arrow costume. Photo: Jordon Nuttall/The CW

First, the designer must understand the director's vision for the movie or TV show: Is it a modern-day rendition like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." or does it have the retro feel of "Guardians of the Galaxy"?  Zack Snyder, director of "Batman v Superman," "Man of Steel" and "Justice League" parts one and two, likes to keep his superhero-studded films rooted in the present day. "He really wants these characters to connect directly to our world," says Wilkinson. "So if you were walking down the street and you came across Superman or Batman — of course it would be startling and powerful — but it could actually happen in our world rather than in a stylized version of our reality."

Once the vision is communicated, a costume designer begins hunting for ideas. Wilkinson says he looks to ancient Greek sculpture, high fashion, video art, and high-tech sports and military apparel for inspiration, and organizes all the imagery into Photoshop collages. To create her mood boards, Byrne does "historical research" on the characters' origin stories, past portrayals and iterations. "With the superheroes I’ve been doing, the idea is to give them street-cred while paying homage to their roots," says three-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood, who designed "The Flash," "Arrow" and the newly-debuted "Supergirl" costumes. "In Supergirl, I really liked the 'real' person side of her character and wanted that to 'play' in costume."

New Supergirl Melissa Benoist in her Supergirl suit. Photo: Warner Bros.

When updating the iconic costumes of these characters, designers have to take the expectations of an emotional and extremely vocal fan base into account. "This is their show," says Ann Foley, costume designer for "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." "These are their characters, so I really try to give the fans something to be excited about." Byrne, for her part, relies on producers and the experts at Marvel to help her honor the fans' expectations.

Wilkinson, who's responsible for designing the new Batsuit for Ben Affleck, says he likes being part of the online discussion. "It’s no longer a designer just in his workroom pushing a costume out into the world and that's it," he says. "There’s a real sense of a conversation and engaging in a dialogue about this stuff." It's worth pointing out that the recently revised costumes for Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman were all unleashed onto the world not through studio press releases, but via director Zack Snyder's tweets

Re-imagining Aquaman for his appearances in “Batman v Superman,” “Justice League,” and his own movie in 2018 presented a “huge challenge” for Wilkinson in terms of fan expectations. Or low ones, because, apparently, the superhero’s past interpretations have made him not as “cool” as the other guys. “People have a lot of complaints about the orange skin and the green tights and that whole thing,” said Wilkinson, who actually has a soft spot for superhuman fish-whisperer.

Creating superhero costumes isn't just about aesthetics. It's also important to know how the heroes move and fight and use their weapons and superpowers, says Byrne. "In 'The Flash,' it was all about a costume that could sell speed," says Atwood. "Grant [Gustin, the actor who plays The Flash] was continually moving in the suit, so it had to be designed to make that all happen visually and functionally." 

Grant Gustin as The Flash. Photo: Jack Rowand/Warner Bros.

For those old enough to remember Michael Keaton as "Batman" and not "Birdman," you may recall that the rigid head and neck piece (i.e. the "cowl") on the Batsuit circa 1989 didn't allow for the Caped Crusader to turn his head. So, say, if a villain snuck up behind Batman, he had to swing his entire torso around. Yeah, distracting.

"That’s actually one of the first things that Snyder mentioned to me in one of our initial meetings," Wilkinson says. "It’s a very important thing to Zack that the Batsuit would be comfortable and very flexible, but then would be able to perform in a very natural and forceful way. So a lot of incredible engineering went into the development of the new black cowl."

Byrne recalls the arduous process of integrating Peter Quill's gun holsters into his pants in "Guardians of the Galaxy" — which took about nine people and multiple departments to pull off. "That involved a prop department making the holsters, the holsters attaching to the trousers, how the trousers behaved when he bent down," she explains. "So we couldn’t really design the sides of the trousers until the guns were designed, to know how big [the guns] were going to be. Sometimes it’s a long process and a lot of communication to get just a small element of costume to work." 

Peter Quill and his special pants in "Guardians of the Galaxy." Photo: Marvel

The costumes' materials need to be both functional and cool-looking enough to convey that save-the-world quality. Ann Foley, who designed Mockingbird's suit on "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D," ensured freedom of movement for the super-heroine's butt-kicking action sequences with a navy and black one-piece look made out of euro-jersey. "So lots of stretch panels," she says, laughing. "And leather."

But, sometimes what looks like leather isn't leather. Since they're outfitting heroes from another planet, galaxy or realm, costume designers have to get creative with fabrics to evoke that powerful, otherworldly look and feel. Byrne explains that Peter Quill's vintage-looking, intergalactic moto-jacket isn't made of "rare exotic animal skin," as eager message board commenters have speculated. "It’s actually very basic cotton drill that has been ombré dyed and printed and waxed and then aged," she says. "So there’s a very basic fabric that we have made look like something else."

The millennial "Man of Steel" Superman, which was initially designed by James Acheson, is nothing short of a "wonder of engineering," according to Wilkinson. It involves a multiple layers: a sculpted chrome muscle suit (because a compression body suit actually flattens out an actor's pumped up muscles), then a thin, sheer and 3D-printed chainmail-like blue mesh overlaid with foam-latex shapes. "It’s all about building up layers and creating depth," Wilkinson explains. "It felt like some alien metal, something very strong and powerful." 

Adrianne Palicki as Mockingbird from "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Photo: ABC/Kelsey McNeal

Of course, there can't be just one copy of the Superman suit or Mockingbird's badass onesie — not only because of wear and tear, but also the context of the scenes and storylines. For instance, Superman might need a lightweight cape for action sequences, plus another that looks appropriate for standing or walking. Other versions might require strategically placed holes for wires and harnesses, or are manipulated to accommodate CG that's added during post-production.

Additional costumes are also needed to fit the proportions and individual movements of all the specialized stunt doubles. Mockingbird currently has three outfits (two for actress Adrianne Palicki and one for her stunt double) and Superman counts 18 multiples. "It sounds like a lot, but it’s never enough," Wilkinson says.

As you can imagine, getting the actor into the finished product isn't exactly as simple as walking into a phone booth to change outfits. Wilkinson says they've managed to efficiently whittle Henry Cavill's Superman dressing routine down to 15 minutes, while outfitting Ben Affleck in his Batsuit takes closer to 25 — and that's with help. "It does involve multiple costumers," Wilkinson says. "It’s not the sort of thing that I could just sit in Ben's trailer and he gets into it himself. It’s a six-handed operation."

At top: The "Avengers." Photo: Marvel

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