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Why Do Superheroes Wear Their Underwear on The Outside?

A Nod To The Historic Inspiration of Our Costumed Crime Fighters

By Neal LitherlandPublished 5 years ago 3 min read

Superman. Batman. Captain America. Spider-Man. What comes to mind when you hear those names? Chances are it's their costumes, with all of the accessories and accouterments that come with them. Whether it's Iron Man's red-and-gold Mark III suit, the Punisher's iconic death's head, or even Rorschach's constantly-shifting visage, a superhero's costume is part of what completes the image and makes them stand out to the reader. Without a costume there's something missing. Why is that? Well, the answer might surprise you.

And if you're looking for more facts like this, check out my other Geeks articles right here, or take a look at my full Vocal archive!

Lastly, if you're a tabletop RPG gamer, you'll find several of your favorite heroes statted out over on my Character Conversions page.

In The Beginning...

Who are you wearing? The Shadow knows...

It's important to remember that, culturally speaking, the superhero is barely a century old at time of writing. We can trace the origin pretty firmly back to the debut of Superman, who first started smashing cars with his bare hands in 1938 with the debut of Action Comics #1. The original cover boasts the original superhero in his classic red and blue uniform, with his red cape flaring out behind him as he sends the bad guys running. It's an image that most people have seen at least once in their lives, even if they're not comic book fans.

There were heroes and crime-fighters before Superman, though. Characters like Zorro, the Shadow, and the Green Hornet stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other pulp heroes like Doc Savage and Dick Tracy, for example, and all of them were predated by the grandfather of masked vigilantes the Scarlet Pimpernel. Many of these characters had unique powers and special training, as well as costumes of their own, but those costumes tended to be more for function and form than for showing off. Not only that, but they also tended to resemble the fashion of the day more often than not. The Green Hornet's topcoat, gloves, hat, and domino mask might be an emerald green, but they weren't too terribly different from what the average man on the street would wear on his way to the office... except for the mask, of course. The same goes for the Shadow's hat and cloak, or Dick Tracy's eye-searing mustard trench coat.

No heroes wore tights until Clark Kent came on the scene, and he set a trend that has firmly continued. But where did that trend draw its inspiration from?

So What Changed?

What ho, villain!

What changed was the inspiration for the character design. Previous heroes were inspired by fencing masters, cowboys, gunslingers, and detectives. And, according to both Beams and Struts as well as io9, Superman was inspired by carnies.

Specifically circus strongmen.

It all makes sense if you look at Superman's costume. He has big, chunky boots, a seemingly pointless cape, a big symbol across his broad chest, and most tellingly, he's wearing his underwear on the outside. That last fashion decision, which has led to endless questions from fans and fashion designers alike, is actually one of the most telling choices. According to comic book writer Grant Morrison, circus strongmen would often wear nude or colorful tights to draw attention to themselves in the arena, and over them they would wear some kind of codpiece with a big, impressive belt. The idea was to invoke powerful heroes of myth with a Herculean look and stature that would wow the audience all the way to the top of the stands.

This little historical footnote makes it interesting (if not outright ironic) that superheroes are often compared directly to the heroes and gods of mythology, considering the amount of power many of them wield.

Where It Went From There

For criminals are a cowardly and unfashionable lot...

The massive success of Superman as a character quickly led to other characters made in similar molds. Batman, and later Robin, are just two examples. Others include the Fantastic Four, most of the Avengers, Spider-Man, and a dozen more in the pages of Marvel, DC, and smaller imprints across the world of comics.

Because when something is unique and successful, as they say, you can bet it isn't going to remain unique for very long.


About the Creator

Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.



Blog: Improved Initiative and The Literary Mercenary

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    Neal LitherlandWritten by Neal Litherland

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