How Marvel’s The Defenders Designed Its Superhero Costumes

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Quite the well-dressed quartet. Photo: Sarah Shatz/Netflix

One of the great strengths of Marvel Television’s output on Netflix has been its aesthetic variety. Though all of the stories are united by their New York setting and street-level focus (no flying Iron Man–esque suits or magic hammers are to be found), they’ve so far been easy to distinguish from one another in terms of their look: Daredevil is all reds and blacks, Jessica Jones is draped in blues and purples, Luke Cage is as golden as sunshine, and Iron Fist is fixated on greens and yellows. Key to conveying that imagery, of course, is the costuming. Enter Stephanie Maslansky.

Maslansky has been the lead costumer for each of those Marvel Netflix series, joining up right at the beginning with 2015’s first Daredevil season. With the exception of Daredevil’s battle suit, she’s the costuming genius behind all the outfits worn by Matt, Jessica, Luke, and Danny — and she’s back at it again with their team-up show, The Defenders, which premieres on August 18. The Defenders presents the unique challenge of meshing all those various costumes into a seamless whole, and Vulture caught up with Maslansky to talk about her journey with Marvel and how she pulled all of her work together for the new series.

By the time she got recruited for Daredevil, Maslansky was already a veteran of gritty, urbane shows like Oz, Third Watch, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. But she had no superhero experience. That was just fine, as Marvel wasn’t looking for anything too superhero-y. Instead, they wanted someone who could capture the city in which Daredevil would take place. “I think I’m a New York–centric costume designer and I’m a big observer of people in New York,” Maslansky said. “I feel that I’ve been sort of gearing up for something like this for quite some time with the particular experiences I’ve had doing costume design.”

Daredevil. Photo: Jessica Miglio/Netflix

When she got the Daredevil gig, she immediately consulted the comics from which it sprung. “Where I landed and what really influenced me was how he was drawn in the mid-’60s, which was such a great look, mid-century men’s style,” she recalls. Though it may have originated 50 years ago, Maslansky felt that it had contemporary relevance. “It’s just a little bit different from today because silhouettes are slimmer, but there’s been a resurgence of narrow ties or narrow lapels and slimmer trousers and I really wanted to keep Matt Murdock’s look very strongly reflective of that style. I really considered it a uniform that he wore in the comic book illustrations.”

But her most clever choice related to Murdock’s blindness. “I just imagined that, as a blind man, he would limit his palettes so that anything that he went to his closet to get would go with anything else, so his palette was black, gray, navy blue,” Maslansky says. “In that way, no matter what he chose out of his closet, it always worked. He didn’t have to worry about it.”

Jessica Jones. Photo: Sarah Shatz/Netflix

Next came Jessica Jones, and there, she thought about the results of the title character’s trauma as a result of being raped and abused by the villainous Kilgrave. “She started drinking more,” Maslansky says. “Really just tried to get through life without being noticed in a certain sort of way. That was reflected in the way she dressed: Her uniform is jean jacket, light-blue jeans, ankle boots, and then a T-shirt or two. She had about five pairs of the same jeans so that when one was too dirty, she just put on the other pair when she woke up with a hangover in the morning. She just grabbed the pair that was nearest to her.”

The key to Jessica’s look is her leather jacket. The inspiration for it came partly from the early-aughts comics in which the character originated, and partly from the actor who plays her, Krysten Ritter. “In the comic book illustrations, she wore more of a blazer-style leather jacket and one of the important things about what we were doing here was updating everything to 2015,” Maslansky says. Ergo a smaller piece that sits higher on her body. But Ritter had final say: “Ultimately, she was the one who chose. A lot of leather jackets are tried on, and the one that she wound up in was an Acme jacket.” It got beaten up during the shooting a few times, but Ritter stepped in there, too. “If the jacket ever ripped,” Maslansky says, “she would just have it repaired or repair it herself.”

Luke Cage. Photo: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Luke, like Jessica, is partially defined by past trauma — in his case, torture in prison and the loss of his beloved wife. Maslansky once again used that as inspiration, but the results were quite different. Of particular importance is Luke’s black hoodie with a golden-yellow inner lining. “I sort of created a backstory for that sweatshirt with the yellow interior, and that backstory was that he had originally was given that sweatshirt by his wife,” Maslansky recalls.

Iron Fist. Photo: Jessica Miglio/Netflix

Danny Rand, the hero of Iron Fist, had to look radically different from his Defenders counterparts because his backstory is so wild: A rich boy from New York, Danny was stranded in the Far East and raised by warrior monks to be a mystical living weapon before traveling more or less on foot back to his hometown. In other words, leather jackets and jeans were out. When he returns to New York in Iron Fist, he has a look that’s “practically homeless,” as Maslansky puts it, but that isn’t to last either. Once he steps into the boardroom, what’s he supposed to look like?

“I wanted to reflect the guy that suddenly comes into money and has to be this CEO character all a sudden and wear a suit,” she says. “I thought, okay, this is the guy that’s been barefoot for 15 years. What would he wear on his feet? Even with a suit? I thought, ‘Well, he’s going to wear sneakers. Really high-end sneakers.’ He’s got the money to spend on great sneakers. It happens to be a style that fits with this whole athleisure movement. People do that. They wear sneakers with everything.”

Of course, Danny isn’t always in the office. You can’t have a Marvel Netflix show without some beat-’em-ups. “When he got into fighting, his look just became more casual,” Maslansky says. “He wore a lot of black. He also wore hoodies, but more high-end hoodies than what Luke Cage wears. Luke Cage being kind of a working-man’s hero, whereas the hoodies and sweats that Danny Rand wears are a far more sleek and more technical fabric, and just higher end, a little slimmer.”

Once all those looks were established, it was time to unify them in one place for The Defenders. How would they all interlock? The quick answer: They don’t, and that’s just how Maslansky likes it. “I will say that it became less about how to make them all blend together than to just celebrate their differences, celebrate their individual color palettes, and to really shoot in that direction,” she says. However, there are still bits of meshing, though you may not notice them right away.

“As the episodes go on, with characters crossing to each other’s lands and stories, a decision needed to be made: Are we going to shoot the Luke Cage palette or are we going to shoot the Daredevil palette? The Jessica Jones or the Iron Fist?” Maslansky says. “If a Luke Cage character came into Jessica Jones’s world, we shifted the color palette toward Jessica Jones’s world. So you might see, for example, if Misty Knight is interviewing Jessica Jones, Misty Knight is wearing blue as opposed to her usual Luke Cage colors. Just keep your eyes open when you see the series and you might recognize some of this.”

Though Maslansky is responsible for coming up with all these costumes, she isn’t the only one constructing looks in the Marvel Netflix world. There are, of course, all the cosplayers paying tribute to her work. She loves them dearly. “Oh my God, it’s just a thrill,” she says of seeing cosplayers. “I love it. I think, ‘My God, they’re dressed like how I designed these characters.’ It’s really a huge compliment. These characters are so beloved and they’re so popular, and this whole cosplay movement is very interesting to me.”

There’s one thing Maslansky has kept out of her mind: the Marvel movies. Although the Netflix shows are ostensibly set in the same universe, she says she no interest in using the bright primary colors of an Iron Man or a Thor. That said, she’s interested in the challenge that might entail. “There are rumors that those worlds are going to cross over,” Maslansky says, though she’s careful to point out that they’re just external rumors and not edicts from within Marvel itself. “I’ve still yet to see any indication that that’s going to happen, but when and if it does, I am happy to rise to the occasion and address it then.” No offense to Captain America, but Jessica Jones is way better at street style.

How Marvel’s The Defenders Designed Its Superhero Costumes