Melissa Benoist as Supergirl.
There’s no doubt that Supergirl, CBS’s foray into comics-based TV, is largely a feminist show. The first line the character utters in the series is, “I’m not afraid.” In his review of the show, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, it’s “aware of the cultural and political implications of everything it’s showing us, whether it’s Kara taking issue with a prototype of a costume with a bared midriff or defeating a brawny, hateful, openly sexist foe by, essentially, destroying his symbolic phallus.” But I still have one nagging question on my mind: Why the hell is Supergirl wearing a skirt?
There is nothing fundamentally wrong about a woman wearing skirt; in many — almost any — contexts, it makes sense. Except for one: changing into a skirt to do something extremely physically demanding, like fighting crime and aliens. Supergirl’s costume has long been critiqued and scrutinized, and it’s gone through multiple changes since her debut in 1959. Comics collector and expert Brian G. Philbin laid out an extremely interesting history of Supergirl’s wardrobe with the help of original art submissions from fellow fans and collectors. The first iteration of her outfit had Supergirl, a.k.a. Kara Zor-El, decked out mostly in blue, much like her cousin, Superman. But despite the inclusion of the feminine skirt, the costume was criticized for being all blue, and thus too masculine. The red skirt was a variation on the original theme and became the more iconic look for the character we more often recall, pictured above.
In 1970, Supergirl’s artists and editors were interested in giving her a more modern and “groovy” look. Design ideas from fans came pouring in, some of which heavily incorporated the flared look of the era’s fashions. But what’s most notable about these fan-submitted designs is the inclusion of pants and leggings. By the time feminism entered the conversation, Supergirl’s readers didn’t think their hero required a skirt to (a) be feminine or (b) kick butt.
Throughout the rest of the 1970s and into the ‘80s, Supergirl always sported a combination of blue and red with some yellow trim, but the variations came and went faster than a speeding bullet. There was a bizarre evening-gown design, puffy booty shorts, Peter Pan−esque shoes in place of her boots, a full-body tunic, lace-up ballet slippers, and this unfortunate bathing-suit concoction. The most recent controversy surrounding Supergirl’s outfit came in 2009, when DC Comics editor Matt Idelson declared, “I never want to see Supergirl’s panties again.” Soon after, a pair of red biker shorts appeared under her tiny skirt.
The 1984 film version of Supergirl closely resembles some of the earliest looks, and is probably the vision that pops into most heads when imagining the character. Supergirl’s costume in the new CBS series largely imitates that one, with a few minor tweaks: darker shades, black tights, and higher boots. But the skirt remains.
Melissa Benoist, who plays Supergirl, goes through her own costume transformation over the course of the pilot episode, with the help of her confidant and co-worker Winn (Jeremy Jordan), who designs every stage of her various outfits. First there’s a tight fitting, long-sleeved blue crop top matched with what can only be described as underwear.
“I’m not flying around saving people in this,” Kara tells him. “I wouldn’t wear it to the beach.” Next up: a fuller top paired with a tiny skirt, followed by an iteration that includes the cape and some bright red flat-heeled boots. Her final look adds black tights and, for some reason, wedge-heeled boots.
Many would argue that Supergirl’s skirt is just another example in a long line of female superheroes whose costumes exist solely to titillate male viewers. Projects like the Hawkeye Initiative are wonderful in that they point out how female comic-book characters are repeatedly drawn in an oversexualized way as compared to male characters. But that’s not really the issue here — Kara is perfectly welcome to wear as skimpy an outfit as she likes. This is about the practicality of being Supergirl. There’s a scene in the pilot where Kara does the iconic opening of her button-down shirt to reveal the signature S on her chest. Like Superman, she wears her uniform under her everyday clothes. Are we supposed to believe that she’s sporting her flouncy skirt under the form-fitting office pants she was wearing just the moment before?
Supergirl costume designer Colleen Atwood said in a press release, “In designing Supergirl, I wanted to embrace the past, but more importantly, thrust her into the street-style action hero of today.” “There’s a real love for Americana with Supergirl,” she expanded in an interview with Variety in June, “and I wanted to really embrace that heart of women — there’s enough skin out there in the world.” It’s true that with the addition of black tights, the new Supergirl doesn’t show much skin. And it’s laudable that Atwood wants Kara to be modern, chic, and stylish. Indeed, when she first appears, Kara is sporting a bright red skirt, a nice homage to her character’s roots. But when she’s out in the streets, fighting crime as Supergirl, I really wish she would put some pants on.