Since his debut in 1941, Marvel’s Captain America has been a symbol of the American spirit. Born from creators’ Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s desire to comment on the United States’ lack of involvement in World War II, Cap has always represented his creators' conception of the United States at any given time. In order to see the ideas the character represents to his creators, you need look no further than Cap’s costume. Cap’s stars and stripes are iconic (and probably a violation of the United States Flag Code, but nobody really enforces that). Cap wears his heart on his sleeve. And his pants. And his head. And across a stripy midsection.
Captain America’s costume is one of the most-recognizable in the entire Marvel Universe, and maybe across comic books as a whole. Through the years, however, Cap’s costume has undergone a significant number of changes to adjust with the times, the context, and the person who is currently holding the title of “Captain America.” This list presents a ranking of 15 of Cap’s costumes over his many years of active duty, and though it’s not comprehensive, it shows just how much variety Captain America’s threads have had since the '40s.
15 EXOSKELETON CAP
Left paralyzed after the Super Soldier formula that grants him his enhanced abilities burns out, Captain America is forced to face the reality of spending the remainder of his days lying on a gurney, unable to move anything besides his lips. But it’s impossible to keep a good man down, so Cap’s pal Tony Stark outfits him with neural receptors and an armored exoskeleton that allow Cap to keep up the good fight.
The suit makes its debut in 1995’s Captain America #438 in a story called “The Bombs Bursting in Air” that features a buffet of Cap characters: Free Spirit, Jack Flag, and Flag-Smasher. But these folks take a backseat to Cap’s utterly hideous armored costume that looks like what Cap would wear to a Blood Bowl match. Thankfully, the suit -- and Cap’s paralysis -- only lasted a handful of issues.
14 AVENGERS CAP
Poor Cap. He gets thawed from the ice, and the time is right for him to suit-up, he has to wear this monstrosity. The moment when Cap first gets ready to put this costume on in the 2012 Avengers film, Captain America fanboy Agent Phil Coulson explains that the old-fashioned look was a deliberate attempt to inspire people. And Coulson add that he “had a little design input.”
Though this costume retains much of what makes Captain America’s look so iconic, the details are just distracting and silly. The legs feature visible zippers that serve no purpose, and this is the only MCU Cap costume without a way for Cap to carry his shield on his back. Coulson is not, apparently, a very good fashion designer.
13 MANGAVERSE CAP
Making its debut in 2002’s Marvel Mangaverse: New Dawn, this Captain America costume is a slight improvement over the Exoskeleton, but it still sports a retro-future football lineman look. It also loses any semblance of the stripes that usually mark a Cap costume. The upper half of the costume also looks like it’s swallowing Cap’s head. Couple that with a glowing visor piece, and you’ve just moved too far away from a Captain America that we can take seriously.
The costume doesn’t even look particularly “manga.” This version of the costume discards Cap’s signature shield in favor of a pair of hard light-projections, and those look cool, but a Captain America without a shield he can toss is not a Captain America worth having. That’s probably why he dies a few issues later.
12 1602 CAP
What happens when Captain America is fighting with the President-for-Life in an alternate future timeline? He’s shot in the head and sent back to the 1600s, of course. 1602 tells the story of the time-displaced Cap and his journey to and from the Roanoke Colony and England. Along the way, he meets an assortment of alternative-versions of Marvel characters. The versions of Peter Parker and Matt Murdock are particularly interesting.
Cap adopts the dress of period Native Americans, including buckskin and head feathers. It sounds worse than it looks. Seeing lily white Steve Rogers affecting the stereotypical dress of a Native American is more than a little offensive, but the warpaint on his forehead tries its best to make up for it. I’m a little surprised Marvel hasn’t created an actual Native American Captain America to try to play with this theme a little more.
11 SAMANTHA WILSON CAP
When Samantha Wilson of Earth-65 first encounters Gwen Stacy as Spider-Woman in Radioactive Spider-Gwen #1, she debuts with a bang, easily dispatching an assortment of Lizards and taking Spider-Gwen into custody. This Captain America costume owes a lot of its flourishes to influences from Captain America: The First Avenger, and adds some great modern camouflage on the pants and aviator fur around the neck line, hinting at the character’s past as a pilot.
The costume maintains enough familiar elements to let the reader know this is Captain America, but it’s not the Captain America we know. This alternative version Cap hasn’t caught fire the same way Spider-Gwen has, but like Gwen, it’s another example of great costume design coming from Marvel’s alternative universes.
10 BUCKY CAP
In 2010, Steve Rogers is killed on the Capitol steps. With Captain America gone, who will be Captain America? His old play. Bucky, of course. Fresh off his role as the assassin Winter Soldier, Bucky is tapped by SHIELD Executive Director Tony Stark to serve as the new Captain America. This costume made its debut in Captain America Vol 5 # 34, with a design by Alex Ross.
For an adamantium-laced uniform, it looks pretty good, though seeing Captain America, any Captain America, brandish a pistol so cavalierly is very off-putting, despite the character’s origins as a soldier in World War II. This costume also includes a great deal of black, perhaps reflecting Bucky’s more dour nature, and the tragedy of his accession to the role of Captain America.
9 THE WINTER SOLDIER CAP
Speaking of Bucky, the next entry on the list comes from a Bucky-centric motion picture. Released in 2014, Captain America: The Winter Soldier strikes a much darker tone than the pervious Cap-movie, and that’s reflected in Cap’s muted costume. Gone are the bright red stripes across the midsection, and the white reads more like a burnished silver.
Inspired by Cap’s look in the Steve Rogers: Super Soldier comic book series, this costume is sleek, all business, and realistic. Cap is on a personal mission that doesn’t require he serve as a visible symbol of a set of ideals. This version of the costume picks up on that perfectly. Eschewing the bright-color origins of superhero costumes doesn’t always work for movie adaptations (looking at you, almost-every recent Superman movie), but this time, it works.
8 HYDRA CAP
The costume featured in Captain America: Steve Rogers is straightforward in its utilitarianism. It lacks helmet wings, and downplays the midsection stripes. The costume hits the same notes as most of the rest of Cap's uniforms, but the song it plays feels different. Maybe it's the passage of time that reveals this costume was wrong all along, because as now readers know, this was the costume Cap wore when he said those two magic words:"Hail Hydra."
With those two little words, Marvel threw one of their most-recognizable, most-marketable characters into a whole new light. Captain America was a bad guy all along. Few people doubt that a heroic Steve Rogers will one day again wear a Captain America costume (that's what Cosmic Cubes are for, after all), but for now, Hydra Cap is the cap readers have got.
7 FALCON CAP
It’s as if someone asked “What would make Captain America’s costume better?” and then someone shouted “Wings!” When former-Falcon and long-time Cap partner Sam Wilson takes over the mantle of Captain America, he wisely takes the best of both his costumes and makes one super-costume!
Falcon Cap looks great, and from a comic book practicality standpoint, it makes sense that Sam would keep the wings he’s spent so much time training with and add Cap’s shield to his armament. The winged star on his chest combines both of his superhero identities in an inventive way, and the goggles match his comic book appearance to the look from the movies (or vice versa). A costume that could have been a busy mess becomes a happy combination of two great costume legacies.
6 "THE CAPTAIN" AKA U.S. AGENT
When Steve Rogers gives up the title of Captain America in protest, he also must give up his costume. But losing his threads or his official status won’t keep him from being a hero. In Captain America # 337, Rogers first wears the black, red, and white costume for his new identity, The Captain. It’s a simple, clean look, instantly recognizable as in the Captain America lineage, but with an appropriate dash of protest.
It’s ironic that the suit is a gift from the pandering D-Man, a character who isn’t exactly known for his fashion sense. The Captain costume would eventually be adopted by Rogers’s replacement, John Walker, when he assumes the role of U.S. Agent, ensuring that a solid costume design stays in circulation.
5 EARTH X CAP
Grizzled and busted, but not beaten, the Steve Rogers from Marvel’s Earth X Universe is another example of the character trampling all over the United States Flag Code. Here, Cap has lost his costume from the waist up and replaced it with an American flag. The flag, like Rogers himself, is tattered and torn, but still proud.
Instead of appearing on a helmet or cowl, Cap’s iconic forehead “A” is now a set of scarred lines. That must’ve stung! Is there Neosporin in the Earth X Universe? This is the second costume on our list from master artist Alex Ross. The changes made for the Earth X Universe costume are simple, and effectively tell the story of this version of Cap without needing a single word.
4 THE FIRST AVENGER LEATHER JACKET CAP
Although most of the classic Captain America costume design is covered-up in this version, the practical leather jacket and army fatigues that Rogers wears over his USO uniform in Captain America: The First Avenger retains enough of that Cappy-goodness to still represent Captain America in a powerful way.
Chris Evans wears the costume with the swagger of someone just coming to truly understand how powerful he’s become, and coupled with the motivation to rescue his friend, fills the costume with deadly purpose. This is a war costume, but manages to de-emphasize Cap’s use of guns, an interesting accomplishment that reads more in line with Cap’s comic book exploits. This costume draws heavily on a version of Captain America that featured in the Ultimates comic series.
3 JACK KIRBY' S CAP
This is the costume that featured on lunch boxes and bedspreads across the world, and this list may be the only list ever to feature Jack Kirby at a position other than first. Cap is thawed from the ice after World War II and makes his first modern appearance in Avengers #4. All of the elements that we associate with modern Cap are here: the forehead A, the colors, the stars and stripes, and the round shield.
Avengers #4 would go on to be one of the most-important comic books in publication history. This is Cap’s first appearance in the Silver Age, and firmly establishes his history with the Avengers. Perhaps without this book, and Cap’s sharp costume on the cover, modern motion picture history would look very different. When we think of Captain America’s costume, we start with this book, and this cover.
2 MODERN AGE CAP
This costume is essentially the same as the costume holding our number three spot, but it’s included here on its own because of the way contemporary artists portray Cap’s costume these days. Cap’s uniform has been made of a chainmail-type material for most of his publication history. That texture was usually depicted with a few clusters of fish scales, and readers were allowed to fill in the blanks.
It made things easier on the artists, and much clearer in the earlier days of printing technology. Modern artists have taken to rendering more completely the textures on Cap’s uniform. Certainly this serves to make his appearance seem more real, and better depicts the measure of protection the uniform offers him. Cap, after all, isn’t bulletproof.
1 FIRST APPEARANCE CAP
When Captain America Comics first hit the newsstands, the United States was not yet involved in World War II, and it wasn't a forgone conclusion they'd ever get involved in a conflict that was half a world away. Here was an American superhero serving as a political vehicle, sending a clear message about what his young, Jewish creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, believed the United States should be doing in Europe.
Based on a sketch by Joe Simon, Cap's costume leaps from the page, almost fully-formed as the Cap we recognize today. The only real change would come in Captain America Comics #2, when the pair changed the shape of Cap's shield to address the complaints from MLJ (now Archie Comics), who felt Cap too-closely resembled their character, The Shield. This is the costume that shook comics, not to mention how it impacted Hitler's jaw.
What do you think about Captain America’s costumes? Let us know in the comments!