Let's be honest: For most people, the world of comics and cartoons are the last place anyone would go to find outfit inspiration outside of a theme day at work or school or Halloween. Saturday morning TV and the graphic novel aisle of any chain bookstore tend to evoke echoes of '90s nostalgia for many of us, sure, but for all the reasons we look back at them fondly, classics like "Hey Arnold!" or old issues of Batman and Superman are anything but pinnacles of fashion.
Of course, there are reasons for this. When constructing two-dimensional worlds either for comics or cartoons, every aspect is a labor of love. Complicated design work, a rotating roster of outfits — that represents a major challenge that many artists and studios can't afford to undertake and still keep their products moving on time. So, traditionally, the results have been simplified: boxy shapes, unchanging T-shirt-and-jeans combos for every teenage protagonist; squiggly-lined sweater vests and turtlenecks; and lots and lots of spandex — you get the idea. Artists and animators saved time and kept themselves sane by inventing shorthand for clothing that worked – and continues to work — in place of any real fashionable merit.
But over the last several years, a quiet revolution has been taking place. Bolstered by advances in technology, as well as the unstoppable march of comics and cartoons into the adult-focused pop culture mainstream, artists and animators have begun folding modern style and sensibility into their work, making things like comic books home to far more than just Lycra leotards and vaguely defined sport coats and slacks.
Artist and illustrator Jen Bartel, who has worked doing both covers and interior pages for comics properties like Jem and the Holograms and Josie and the Pussycats, understands the value of keeping looks trendy and ready-to-wear. She often looks to sources like Vogue Runway when she designs outfits for characters. "I definitely think the most important thing is to keep up with trends — the ready-to-wear runway shows are always the best for pulling inspiration from," she says. "I love Balmain and Alexander Wang the most, but the last couple of years some of my favorite looks have come from more lowbrow brands that focus on athleisure/sporty wear, like Adidas."
Bartel's work ranges from over-the-top and punk — she's gained a huge following for her "Girl Gang" line of designs featuring recognizable characters from comics and video games redesigned in spiked leather jackets and Doc Martens — to classic and luxury-chic. She calls out Rihanna as a specific inspiration for her range of style, saying she's "a perfect fashion icon to look at for everything from high fashion to gym wear."
But Rihanna isn't the only source of inspiration of Bartel's illustrative work. She approaches her designs with the eye of someone dressing an actual flesh-and-blood human being. "The first thing I think about is functionality: As a woman, one of the things that will immediately pull me out of a story is if the female characters are all dressed in absurd clothes that wouldn't even physically work, and would likely make it impossible for them to move around or even walk properly," she explained. "Once I've figured out how functional her clothes need to be, I start thinking about who she is as a character. Is she someone who is sexual and seductive? Is she shy and quiet? When designing clothes for fictional characters, my main goal is to help further the narrative and help the viewer understand what the character is all about."
The Costumes in Marvel's New Teen Superhero Series, 'Runaways,' Include Pink Pussycat hats and Feminist Slogan T-Shirts
Bartel is open about using her own sense of style as inspiration, as well. "It's always easier to root things in reality and pull reference from items you have access to in real life, so a lot of my drawings have featured articles of clothing that I actually own myself," she says. "It helps that I'm often designing 20-something-year-old edgy fashionistas, though."
Other artists approach their work differently. Paulina Ganucheau, who draws comics like Zodiac Starforce, a high-flying space adventure about young adult heroes that follows in the footsteps of favorites like Sailor Moon and "Star Wars," laughs about "rarely" using herself as inspiration for her designs. "I'm not unfashionable, to say the least, but I am nowhere near as stylish as the characters I draw," she says. "I wish I was a bomb fashion diva, but I draw in a chair all day so I opt for comfort! Athleisure is my own personal favorite dress code to live by."
Ganucheau does, however, understand the importance of making sure her designs feel grounded and real, whether they're for cosmic superheroes or an everyday person. She credits cosplay — the act of fans dressing up as characters for events and conventions — as a major influence. "I always, always take cosplayers into account when I design something. It not only benefits them, but it's also for me," she says. "If you can see and portray the structure and style of the outfit you're designing in a way that makes people go, 'I want to wear that,' then I think you've won the fashion battle with yourself."
The popularization of costume-focused cosplay and the recent mainstreaming of phenomena like "Disneybounding" — the act of putting together street clothes outfits that evoke Disney characters to be worn to various Disney properties — have become game changers for many artists in pop culture bubbles, as well as social media platforms like Pinterest, which allow artists to amass inspirational style boards in real time for each of their characters that can be instantly shared with their collaboration writers, animators, or colorists. The final product is a much more sophisticated and well-communicated vision for the clothes on character's imaginary backs.
Technological advancement and trends in fandom aside, Bartel sites one other major reason for the quiet fashion revolution happening right now in comics and cartoons.
"I also think that as female readership rises in comics and other 'nerd' media, fashion is becoming increasingly relevant as a way for these new consumers to connect with the franchises," she says. "I would like to see a wider range of people and corresponding fashions represented. That's the biggest opportunity right now, in my opinion — we've had a hundred years of beautiful chiseled characters in skin tight leotards, and there will definitely always be a place for that, but more than ever, readers want to see themselves represented on the page, and not everybody looks the same. Having more diversity in body types, skin tones, hair styles and corresponding fashion will allow for more accessible media across the board."