They say clothing makes the man, but what if you’re Superman? Superman’s outfit is one of the most iconic costumes in comic book history, but even the Man of Steel in his almost 80 years of existence had to make some changes to his wardrobe. Clark Kent may have had the luxury of changing his clothes, but it took Kal-El decades before he changed out of his red underwear!
Some of his outfit changes have been subtle, others not so much. Over the years, his outfit transformed from a super-cool costume his adopted mother made for him to being Krpytonian Battle Armor. Look closely and you may even see some hidden messages (literally) in his uniform. On that note, we at CBR figured it’s time for us to take a closer look with these 15 facts about Superman’s cape and costume.
15. THERE’S A HIDDEN POCKET IN HIS CAPE FOR CLARK KENT’S CLOTHES
Whenever someone calls for help, famous reporter Clark Kent immediately runs to the nearest phone booth, rips off all his clothes when no one is looking and changes into Superman. Ta-daa: instant superhero! But what about when Superman wants to revert back to his alter ego? Does he make a quick trip back to his apartment in Metropolis for a change of clothes, or does he make a super-fast journey back to the Fortress of Solitude for another business suit?
In early versions of his costume, not only did his red cape make him look regal when he flew, but also it contained a small hidden pouch where he’d store his Clark Kent outfit when he was done being super. The clothes make sense, but what about his fedora and glasses? Maybe he hides it inside his boot, next to his house keys, his pen and notepad, spare toothbrush, kindle…
14. THE S ON HIS CHEST IS A KRYPTONIAN SYMBOL
Batman has a giant bat symbol on his chest. Green Lantern has a giant green lantern symbol on the front of his costume. The guy’s name is Superman, so naturally he’s going to have a big letter S on his chest. S stands for “Superman,” right? The S in the insignia is actually a Kryptonian symbol for “hope” and is also used by any and all members who are part of the House of El. This was established in the 2004 series Superman: Birthright written by Mark Waid. In the John Byrne reboot of Superman that happened after the first Crisis on Infinite Earths, the symbol was designed by Pa Kent and was based on a Native American Snake symbol. If you take the symbol and invert it, in Kryptonian it means resurrection.
13. THE S-SHIELD IS COMPRISED OF MINIATURE VERSIONS OF THE SHIELD
The S-Shield is one of those icons that can be recognized, even if you’re not a die hard comic book fan. When X-Men director Bryan Singer left X3 to direct Superman Returns, he added a variety of elements that were controversial. Fans had critiques about the movie ranging from the plotline involving Kal-El’s potential son to the size of the S-Shield worn by Brandon Routh. People thought it wasn’t big enough for the costume, but it also contained a weird detail that was overlooked: the S-Shield was a raised insignia that consisted of hundreds of tiny S-Shields.
In the book “The Art of Superman Returns,” costume designer Louise Mingenbach admits that you can only see the fine detail if you were a “few inches away” from the shield and even then it “takes some squinting.” We blew up a close-up image of the shield for you above and no kidding!
12. CLOTHING OF STEEL
Superman is nearly indestructible, but what about his clothing? Given all of the battles Superman engages in and all of the punishment he takes from his enemies, does he have a closet filled to the brim with spare costumes? In some iterations of Superman’s origin, his iconic costume was made by Ma Kent from the material that he was found wrapped in as a baby. The material was almost as indestructible as he was. In other versions, Superman’s powers cause him to emit a nano-thin personal forcefield of sorts that encompasses everything that’s about one inch away from his body.
In current versions of Superman, his costume is less indestructible clothing and more like indestructible Kryptonian armor. When he first sees his future costume, it’s completely white and moves like a regular cloth outfit. When Superman puts it on, it becomes plated armor and features the primarily red and blue outfit that we all know and love.
11. THERE’S A KRYPTONIAN JOSEPH CAMPBELL QUOTE
Nowadays, superhero films are jam-packed with easter eggs. If you do a screen grab of the suit that Henry Cavill wears in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice you’ll see that there’s Kryptonian writing on it, but did you know that if you took the time to translate it there’s a hidden quote on the S-Shield and cuffs?
Director Zack Snyder was a fan of the author Joseph Campbell, who in his writings talked about the concept of the monomyth and the hero’s journey. Written digitally into the shield, the biceps and the belt is the Campbell quote “Where we had thought to stand alone, we will be with all the world.” Costume designer Michael Wilkinson said “it was a quote that has to do with the idea of alienation, of coming together and feel[ing] part of a society. That’s something that Superman is sort of battling all the time – feelings of alienation and connection. The quote deals with those issues.”
10. SUPERMAN BLUE AND RED
Sometimes we need to make a radical change in our lives. That change could come in the form of a haircut, quitting our jobs, or moving to another country. Or, your change could take the form of a complete redesign of your costume and obtaining completely different powers. In 1998, Superman lost his cape, traditional uniform, and his ability to absorb solar energy. He also split into a red and blue version of himself (that’s right, there were two Supermen). Not only were the colors of their costumes red and blue, but also their respective skin colors as well.
This was also a reference/homage to a storyline that occurred in Superman#162, an alternate reality issue published in 1963. Superman used a kryptonite powered machine that increased his intelligence but also unexpectedly made a clone of himself. Superman Red married Lois Lane and Superman Blue asks Lana Lang to marry him. Ah, the 1960s!
9. COSTUME WAS MORE LIKE ARMOR
You should feel lucky, Superman, because in this day and age there aren’t any more phone booths for you to use. In the comics, Clark Kent would famously sneak off to a phone booth to do a quick change into his Man of Steel uniform. However, the Man of Steel’s quick change today looks less like something Superman would do and something Tony Stark would initiate when donning the Iron Man armor.
In the New 52 era, Superman’s uniform is established as being Kryptonian armor, and the armor shapes around him by assembling outwards from the S-Shield and over his body. Superman co-writer and artist Dan Jurgens commented it’s “Kryptonian nano-tech activated by the wearer.” It bares an odd resemblance to Tony Stark’s “Bleeding Edge” Iron Man armor, which he stored in the hollow of his bones. It may not feel as classical, but it certainly saves on ripping open white dress shirts.
8. THE S-SHIELD CAN BE USED AS A WEAPON
Besides super strength, heat vision, speed, and a slew of other powers, there’s one superpower Superman has that’s so unbelievable, you literally won’t believe it when he uses it. You also won’t understand it. In Superman II, starring the late, great Christopher Reeve, Superman fights General Zod (played not by Michael Shannon but by Terence Stamp) and his two henchmen, Ursa and Non in his Fortress of Solitude. During the fight, Superman throws a funky energy version of his S-Shield at Non which incapacitates him only for a mere few seconds. Not only was Non confused by this, so were Superman fans. Arguably, it was added by Richard Lester, the director who controversially replaced Richard Donner as director and added campy elements due to pressure from the studio.
In 2006, the Richard Donner cut of Superman II was released and it contained fewer of the silly elements that Lester had in the film. But is the cellophane shield throw still in it? Watch to find out!
7. S BY THE DOZENS
Just how many variations of the Superman S-Shield have there been over the years? The very first symbol at first glance resembles a police officer’s badge (which would later become the shape of the shield used by the street-level hero known as The Guardian). Most of them have kept the pattern of the red S with a yellow background, although some iterations like the Superman from Kingdom Come has a red S on a black background (as well as the animated series produced in the 1940s by Fleisher Studios). When Superman returned from the dead after fighting Doomsday, he sported an all-black costume. Emblazoned on his chest was a silver S on a silver background.
Although slight, there have been dozens of variations of the shield over the years. As for the symbol appearing on Superman’s cape? More recent versions of the character has his cape pure red with no markings whatsoever.
6. THE COSTUME WAS AUCTIONED OFF FOR OVER $55,000
Christie’s is a world-famous auction house that has sold a variety of high-priced items since they first opened in 1766. Among other rarities and gems (many of those being actual gemstones, by the way), Christie’s has sold a rare Stradivarius violin for $3.5 million and a Picasso painting for $106 million to name a few items. What probably interests you the most is Superman’s costume, worn by Christopher Reeve in the 1978 film Superman, which was auctioned off for a price of $56,400. Another version of the costume was featured at an auction in mid-January of 2017 for $40,000, but did not sell. It didn’t feature the cape and was only the top, and because it had snaps in the crotch, it made it resemble a giant baby onesie (who wouldn’t want to buy that?).
5. CONTAINMENT SUITS
Superman is one of the few remaining superheroes that can rock spandex and still look awesome, but his suit at times has been more than just cool threads that show off his awesome physique. Although he’s handsome enough to seduce Wonder Woman, Superman wore a Kryptonite Suit that contained a protective, face-covering helmet with a retractable one-way visor that allowed him to use his heat vision. He wore the suit and, with Batman, attempted to collect and dispose of all of the Kryptonite in the world.
When Superman lost the ability to absorb solar energy, he wore a blue and white containment suit to control his new energy-based powers (yes, the capeless “Electric Blue” outfit). Superman also returned from the dead, wearing a Kryptonian War Suit to help him in his recuperation. In All-Star Superman, Kal-El wore an all-white suite that protected him him from the solar radiation being emitted by Solaris, a man-made supercomputer the size of a sun that hailed from the 853rd century.
4. HIS ORIGINAL COSTUME WAS JUST JEANS AND A T-SHIRT
Have you ever shown up to a meeting underdressed? It’s certainly awkward to go to a fancy dinner party wearing jeans and a t-shirt. How was Superman feeling in the New 52 when he showed up to battle wearing an outfit more appropriate for a friendly game of softball? Besides his cape and S-Shield on a plain blue t-shirt, this felt more like cosplay than it did super-heroics. Even his iconic red boots were removed in place of what appears to be product placement for Timberland.
When discussing the origin changes, writer Grant Morrison said that the “new look reflects his status as a street-level defender of the ordinary man and woman.” Morrison on Superman’s cape: “It came with him from his home planet and is indestructible. No one’s depicted it as a security blanket before, protecting him from all harm. It gives it a fairy tale feel, before his powers fully develop.”
3. COSTUME WAS DESIGNED BY MARTHA KENT
Superman owes Ma Kent a big debt of gratitude. Thanks to having the same first name as Bruce Wayne’s mom, Batman stopped himself from killing Superman with a kryptonite spear in Batman V Superman. Martha Kent also raised her adoptive son, Clark, to be a respectful, highly moral boy. And it’s thanks to Martha Kent (hey, is Ma short for Martha?) that he has a uniform at all, because she was the person who assembled Superman’s iconic costume out of the material that baby Kal-El was wrapped in when he was found. The rubber lining of the passenger compartment of the rocket Kal-El came to Earth in was turned into his boots, and the rocket’s seatbelt became his costume belt. Who knew that she could be so handy?
The big question is: was it the Man of Steel or Martha’s hands of steel that was able to sew and cut the material into the uniform that he wears today? If Superman can find a way to shave, then Martha can find a way to tailor virtually indestructible material.
2. CAPE WAS USED TO SHOW HE WAS FLYING INSTEAD OF FALLING
Look up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane! No, it’s… a man falling from the sky! On second glance perhaps he’s flying? Leaping? In the Fleischer Studios cartoons, Superman is famously known for being “faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” Eventually, Superman graduated from just leaping to actual sustained flight because, by the studio’s own admission, the leaping looked rather “silly.” From there, the change to flying occurred in both the cartoon and the comic.
Although the notion of superheroes taking to the sky is somewhat common in today’s comic book world, in the 1930s, these tropes needed to be established, so to make sure it was clear that Superman was flying through the sky and not falling to his doom, the cape was stylized to articulate that the Man of Steel had the ability to fly.
1. OUTSIDE UNDERWEAR MODLED AFTER OLD-TIMEY STRONGMEN
Superman made his debut in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and if you take a look at strongmen at the time (those overly muscular folks in tights that traveled with the circus) also had a similar outfit. Grant Morrison, in his book Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, said that circus strongmen of the 1930s wore “the familiar, faintly disturbing overpants-belt combo.” Printing technology at the time was also extremely limited and given the poor quality of comic book printers and paper stock, the red underpants were added to allow for better definition of Superman’s body.
In an interview with the Man of Steel’s producer Christopher Nolan, he stated that “…everyone else said, ‘You can’t have the briefs on him.’ I looked at probably 1,500 versions of the costumes with the briefs on.” Thanks for at least trying, Chris.
Do you prefer Superman with or without his classic on-the-outside red underwear? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!