In the recently released Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor, an American spy (played by Chris Pine), takes Gal Gadot’s Diana to a department store. She’s fresh from the Amazonian island of Themyscira and unfamiliar with men, gender conventions, and other imaginary social constructs. Diana’s bewilderment at the sartorial conventions of the day is played as comedy: When presented with a whalebone corset, she asks, “Is this your version of armor?” A few shots later, she splits a full-length skirt trying to high-kick, then asks: “How can a woman possibly fight in this?”
The gag is played up with doe-eyed wonderment by Gal Gadot, whose Wonder Woman is so achingly earnest you can’t help but fall for her. The purity of her intentions is matched only by the ferocity and fearlessness of her skilled fighting style, which is captured in long, glossy sequences wherein she takes on hundreds of soldiers with machine guns, a German general on speed, and, eventually, the god of war, Ares. All of this female power is set against the sexist backdrop of the real world (in this case, London in 1918), where Diana crashes through social mores, completely unaware. As Amy Nicholson wrote in her MTV News review, “At times, Wonder Woman feels like watching Splash with a shield — another babelicious naïf breaking all the rules. Yet the joke isn't on her. It's on all the men mistaking unsophistication for weakness. To be uncultured is to be mentally free; no one's put on a yoke.” Seeing as our society is still governed primarily by sexist white men, watching Diana obliterate social tradition feels both urgent and thrilling.
Back in the department store, Diana eventually settles on what would have been considered modern for 1918 London: a dark, floor-length two-piece suit, the kind favored by suffragettes. These clothes allow Diana to navigate from London to the front, but when she runs across a no-man's-land directly into heavy German fire, she strips off the suit to reveal a bronze bustier cast in faded red and blue, paired with an unrestricted Grecian skirt. In that moment, she is finally recognizable as the Wonder Woman we know. Everyone in the theater cheered.
When Wonder Woman entered the DC Comics universe in 1941, her uniform wasn’t that far from what Lynda Carter would immortalize on television in 1975, though quite different than Gal Gadot’s more metallic, muted interpretation. Her bulletproof cuffs were narrow and black, her roomy shorts echoed women’s athletic costumes of the day, and the eagle emblazoned on her bustier was less gestural, more literal. Over the years, costume designers and comic-book artists alike have fiddled with the formula: adding and then removing leggings, swapping her signature knee-length red boots for lace-up ballet flats or slouchy boots.
There are quite a few elaborations on Wonder Woman’s signature uniform that are perhaps best left behind in the annals of comic-book history. A tiara-less Diana in regrettable black hot pants and a bolero made an ill-fated appearance in comic books in 1995. Only a year earlier, her signature spangled briefs had been pulled up to Jamie Lee Curtis heights, even occasionally shrinking into a thong. The artist behind the thong, Mike Deodatao Jr., correlated the superhero’s popularity with the size of her briefs: “Every time the bikini was smaller,” he noted, “the sales get higher.”
But there were often repercussions from straying too far from the original formula. A 1974 Wonder Woman made-for-TV movie featuring a mod costume redesign and a blonde Diana flopped so badly that when ABC gave the material a try the following year, they dialed the setting — as well as the costume — back to the comic’s 1940s origins. Lynda Carter wore the blue-spangled diaper, the gold tiara, the red patriotic bustier with an eagle. It stuck.
In 2011, Warner Bros. outfitted Friday Night Lights’ Adrianne Palicki as the titular superhero in cheap-looking blue leggings and overspilling cleavage for a Wonder Woman series pilot. Prematurely released photos were mercilessly mocked, and the costume adjustments were skewered by Gloria Steinem. She wrote at the time, “I don't have a big issue with jeans versus skirt — though jeans give us the idea that only pants can be powerful — tell that to Greek warriors and sumo wrestlers — and though in fact, they're so tight that they've just painted her legs blue; hardly a cover-up.” The show never aired.
Steinem famously put Wonder Woman on the inaugural cover of her magazine, Ms., a reflection of the fascination the superhero has consistently held for feminists and their beliefs. Diana has long been hailed as a much-needed female role model in the testosterone-fueled DC universe, so changes to her uniform are often seen as compromising or devolving the superhero’s original promise. A 2010 Jezebel article (pegged to that doomed WB series), noted, “Wonder Woman donning what looks like skinny jeans is being spun as a direct result of the successes of the Women's Liberation movement ... As originally portrayed, Diana Prince was sexy not because of her bare legs and cleavage but because her personhood wasn't defined by them and her powers not derived from fashioning herself for the male gaze. She could work a 9 to 5 job, hold down a relationship, subvert international conspiracies and toss the villains in jail, and perhaps, as the first cover of Ms. magazine suggested in 1972, even be president — and the way she looked was, as it should be, simply an aside."
Much of the backlash against changing Wonder Woman’s uniform focuses on the misguided intentions of such shifts; male artists imparting their vision of feminine modernity onto an iconic figure undermines the longevity of her legacy. Ham-handed attempts at “updating” Diana’s costumes, ostensibly to play along with a feminist narrative, often miss the point. Feminism doesn’t mandate longer sleeves and higher bustlines, but rather the ability to physically and sartorially kick ass.
Wonder Woman’s 2017 uniform was being simultaneously developed by two costume designers at once: Batman v Superman’s Michael Wilkinson, and Wonder Woman’s Lindy Hemming. Director Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman focuses heavily on Diana’s origin story. The first third of the film takes place on the idyllic all-female island Themyscira, where Diana’s aunt (played expertly by a scarred and impressively muscled Robin Wright) trains her to be an elite warrior, against the protests of her sister, Diana’s mother and the Amazonian queen. All the Amazonians wear variations on Diana’s trademark silhouette, in different metal finishes. The lack of sleeves allows for full range of motion, while short hemlines make sense in a tropical climate.
According to an interview with Fashionista, Hemming drew from time periods before ancient Greece, “places where there had been societies run by women: queens and warriors.” She also kept an eye on contemporary athletic wear and current high-fashion trends, while aspiring to position functionality above all else. Gadot, who once served as a combat instructor in the Israel Defense Forces, performed a good chunk of her own stunts, so the costume designers were forced to provide accessibility of movement.
Ironically, one of the first versions of the costume Gadot donned on the set of Batman v Superman was corset-tight to the point the actress could barely breathe. Later evolutions featured a better fit and “ traditionally handcrafted leather, which was then dyed, gilded, and/or leafed with faux-metallic finishes. The leather was then steamed and molded onto mannequins made out of body scans of each actor for the perfect, streamlined fit.”
While Gadot’s molded breastplate may not showcase enough cleavage to apparently please some of the film’s (male) critics — David Edelstein, in a widely panned Vulture review, wrote, “Slobbering, S&M-oriented American patriots will be even more put out, given that WW is no longer dressed in red, white, and blue but golden-toned ... I didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup, though” — it makes perfect sense in a society where fighting and training are so highly valued that women have their armor custom-made. The one impracticality seems to be Diana’s much-discussed heeled boots, which Wilkinson invented, Hemming reluctantly included, and Jenkins defended in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: “It's total wish-fulfillment. I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time — the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body. That makes them feel like the hero they want to be.”
Wonder Woman is, and has always been, ethereally beautiful. She’s always been an expert fighter, committed to love and justice. She’s unafraid to kill — unafraid in general — and she does it wearing whatever crazy getup she’s put in, because as Gal Gadot’s Diana makes clear in that London department store, fighting is always more important than fashion.