Iron Bikini Logic: Reasons for minimalist armor
Does Red Sonja's skimpy scale mail have value?
The most infamous thing about Red Sonja is her armor, or lack thereof. Sonja wears what writer Roy Thomas has dubbed an “iron bikini” which reveals more than it protects. It has been the subject of frequent outside criticism, “[It] combined discomfort with impracticality, but made up for it by being extremely implausible.” As well as frequent criticism within the comic “I’ve seen more armor on a man’s foot than you’re wearing right now lass.” However it’s worth asking, does Sonja wear an iron bikini?
Any history of Red Sonja begins with how she was originally named “Red Sonya of Rogatino.” when she first appeared in Robert E. Howard’s short story Shadow of the Vulture in 1934. When the character was adapted to appear in Conan comics in 1972, Sonja's clothes drew inspiration from the outfit described in the story: a mesh-mail shirt and high leather boots, but with the baggy breeches replaced with short-shorts. This outfit has made an occasional comeback in the Dynamite Comics days.
During the 1980’s Sonja was usually depicted wearing a blue lace-up outfit that would vary between being a raggedy mini-dress, a tunic, a leotard or a top and skirt. The 2011 comic Red Sonja: Blue gives this outfit its own origin story. Sonja is facing off against Bhamothes, a blue demon dog, when her iron bikini top is destroyed. A toppless Sonja quips “Enjoy the look dog, they’re the last things you’ll ever see!” Sonja then kills Bhamothes, skins him, and fashions an outfit from his fur. Yes, Sonja can make her own clothes, as she puts it “Any soldier worth a damn can cook and sew.”
Sonja was sometimes unrecognizable when she appeared in the black and white Savage Sword of Conan. For example when Sonja appears in issue 179 she appears to have black hair and to be wearing tattered rags that she’s picked off fallen adversaries (though there’s still plenty of cleavage and thighs displayed).
Probably the worst outfit she ever put on was in Marvel’s 1995 one-shot Red Sonja: Scavenger Hunt. In it Sonja wears oversized boots that go well past the knee and strap on to her… clothes things. There are no words for what she’s wearing. It’s like someone cut up a one-piece swimsuit and two bikini tops and stitched them together. She also has bandages on her forearms, a headband and spiked armor on her left shoulder. Topped off with a massive mane of hair that goes to her butt, the whole thing screams “This is not your daddy’s Sonja, this is Red Sonja for the 90’s!”
In Dynamite’s Red Sonja Volume 2 Sonja starts off wearing the iron bikini but then changes her outfit several times, wearing plate armor or tough looking leather as needed. When she’s obliged to wear a fancy party dress she complains “It itches.”
When she appeared in Dynamite’s volume 3 (also known as Red Sonja: The Falcon Throne) it was in a kind of scale mail halter top, loincloth, cape and once again, bandages on her forearms.
The only thing that tends to be consistent with Sonja’s outfits is that she almost always wears high brown boots and she usually has metal bands on her biceps. With all that said, no matter what Sonja wears she always swings back to the iron bikini. Even in stories where she’s not wearing the iron bikini, she’s still often depicted wearing it on the cover. Dynamite’s current series she’s back in the iron bikini.
Talking about it, first note that it is not a “chainmail bikini” In Sonja’s words “Not chain. Scale.” Secondly, Sonja is frequently depicted wearing her iron bikini in frozen, snow covered lands, which would seem like a fatal choice of attire. A possible answer to this comes when Sonja is transported to modern day New York in the winter time and is compelled to steal a jacket. She comments “I have fought in the upper reaches of Vanaheim, but this is a different kind of cold.” Perhaps Sonja’s Hyborian age is not as cold as our age, even if it appears so.
Now that the important issues have been addressed, let’s ask the question, why does Sonja wear such an outfit? Setting aside the obvious answer (fan service) could Sonja benefit from having armor that gives more coverage? Red Sonja is frequently depicted as having the blessing from a goddess that makes her particularly deadly in battle. However, she doesn’t appear to have any superhuman abilities, and her fighting ability doesn’t seem closely linked to whether a given series includes a blessing or not. Sonja is at the pinnacle of human abilities, like many comics characters, but that’s it. Sonja can and does get injured in battle. So while a more traditional full body armor might slow her down it would probably be worth the added protection.
What reasons are given for her armor? From Dynamite's Red Sonja: Volume 1: “I… I hadn’t really thought about it before. I always said it was a good distraction, men would watch my body closer than my blade… But perhaps I am seeking that attention again. Maybe because I have sworn not to lay with a man who could not best my sword… or… Or maybe I am calling to those who would force themselves on a woman… like a siren calling sailors to their deaths… Calling such men to my blade so that I may slay them again and again…”
So there are three different explanations there. First that men will be too distracted by her exposed body to effectively fight her. This works to a degree in the comics but a problem there is that she is often fighting beings deadlier than men. Your sex appeal isn’t going to help a whole lot when you’re facing a giant spider. Besides the most dangerous men she faces don’t seem to notice her curves anyway.
Next is that she wants a swordsman to challenge and defeat her so that she can have sex without breaking her vow that she would only lay with a man who bested her in fair combat. The vow itself is so odd it’s hard to know what to say here. (It's a great relief that her vow has largely been dropped from current issues) The thing is in the comics she’s always on some kind of dangerous adventure, her love life is in the background at most. Maybe if she was actively looking for love you could kind-of-sort-of buy that she’s wearing the outfit to entice suitable lovers. Since she’s constantly fighting monsters instead of doing that, this explanation doesn’t really hold up that well either.
Then we have it that she wears it to act as a kind of rape bait, luring men with shaky concepts of consent to their deaths. This sort of thing does seem to happen in the comics. However, this explanation carries with it the gross implication that women wearing certain clothes are “asking for it.” Rapists do not require seduction.
In Red Sonja: Blue when Sonja loses her armor she says “Killed four bandits on the road that would have pissed their britches and let us be if I’d had it on. That ‘slip of armor’ makes men’s knees weak from Aesgaard to the Black Kingdoms.” So here she is so famous for being deadly and wearing bikini armor that she doesn’t even have to fight some opponents who see it. The problem here is that never seems to actually be the case—wouldn’t be much of a comic if her enemies all meekly stood down when they caught sight of her.
Your author once put forward the following theory. The iron bikini is quite simply a terrible choice of armor, but that works for Red Sonja because she’s kind of a terrible hero. She kills so many people. Her involvement often makes situations worse. In the Blue story just referenced she beheads the boy she was hired to save. Entire cities have been destroyed because of her poor decisions. Not saying the comic is terrible, it’s great seeing how Red Sonja goes around screwing everything up. Saying she’s not very good at being a hero, and part of that is not being very good at a basic thing like dressing herself.
Except that isn’t really fair. For any comics character that’s been around long enough you can cherry pick some blunders to make them look bad. Sonja frequently saves entire cities, and indeed the entire world, from destruction. So here is a new theory: fuck you, she can wear what she wants. Sonja is a body confident woman who owns the iron bikini, don’t try to slut shame her into wearing what you think she should wear.
The easy rejoinder to this is that she’s not a real woman but a character created by men, put in a bikini by men, for the amusement of men. Firstly, that dismisses the existence of Sonja’s female fans, writers and artists. Secondly, those same men put Conan in fur speedos--which he doesn’t wear in the original books. Why is it OK for him and not her? Besides you can believe that Sonja would fight monsters but you can’t believe that she would wear a bikini? Women in real life wear bikinis.