I love superhero costumes. The tights and the capes and the colors are honestly some of the elements of superhero comics and stories that appeal to me the most. But I think there’s definitely some issues within the industry in regards to how superhero costumes are often designed. So I wanted to look outside of comics and see how other forms of clothing used in certain circumstances could be compared to superhero costumes, and see what lessons superheroes could learn from them. For this entry, let’s take a look at the costume design of lucha libre.
Let’s face it: luchadors are probably the closest we will ever get to superheroes in real life. Secret identities, battles of good versus evil, names passed down to successors for generations; luchadors apparently sprang into being when someone neglected to tell Mexico that superheroes didn’t actually exist. But perhaps the greatest similarity between superheroes and luchadors are the colorful, outlandish costumes. And it turns out there’s a lot of ways that luchadors are doing these costumes better than comic books, and there are many lessons comics could learn from luchador fashion sense. Lessons like:
These Costumes Will See Battle
Similar though they may appear at times, luchador costumes have one major distinction from your average superhero cosplay: luchador costumes are actually fought in. This means that there is a certain level of practicality in design that must be taken into consideration. Material needs to be comfortable and flexible, it needs to be able to breathe and vent body heat. It needs to take extra care to protect or cover certain key areas. Footwear needs to stay firmly in place yet maintain flexibility. Joints need extra protection. Embellishments need to not hinder mobility, so loose or flowing elements need to be short enough not to interfere with the movement of the limbs. The mask needs to simultaneously conceal the true identity, express the show identity, and needs to be tailored for different situations (including situations outside of the ring), all without obscuring field of vision, making breathing difficult, or otherwise interfering with situational needs. These kinds of needs dictate the materials, texture, and placement of costuming on the luchador’s person, and have to be taken into consideration in the design stages.
In recent years, superhero costuming has been trending towards realism, but a number of these frequently reoccurring elements are actually at odds with realistic practical design as expressed in luchador costumes. The ‘armored’ look is very common at this point, yet never shows up on luchadors as it would only limit mobility or slow down the wearer. Areas of the human body that do need extra padding, like knees and elbows, however, rarely get the coverage in superhero costumes that they do in luchador designs. Busy textures abound on superheroes today, but is focused on unnecessary seams and piping, typically along the body and mask, but not often on the areas where it would actually be useful, like laces up cloth boots or the natural seam lines along the mask or leggings. The logic behind the claim of ‘practicality’ or ‘realism’ in most modern superhero design simply does not stand up to the areas of focus when compared to the luchador costumes that actually see battle.
An argument can be made that luchador costumes, while actually fought in, are not facing life or death situations or heavy real life weaponry. This is true. But there is already a suspension of disbelief that must be had to believe that the kind of full body tactical armor needed to best protect a body from gunfire (which in real life, looks like this) could also allow the kind of mobility needed for a crimefighter to execute the spectacular fighting styles they are so known for. Luchador costumes are far closer geared towards the kind of needs that a superhero costume has, and if there must be a disconnect somewhere between this fantasy and reality, it should be a disconnect that still allows for colorful, creative costume choices. Creative expression in superhero design is important, because (as luchadors already know):
Lucha Libre may have a strong element of practicality evident in its designs, but expression of identity is another key component of a successful luchador costume. This goes back, in part, to the entertainment aspect of Lucha Libre as a sport. Good guys and bad guys, at least as we are familiar with them in fiction, don’t exactly exist in real life in the same format. Sports on their own don’t have heroic or villainous personalities, but professional wrestling, and Lucha Libre in particular, have really gained their popularity by blending the line between sports and storytelling, and this involves carefully constructed personalities for the wrestlers in the industry. Part of their character is expressed via their move styles (good guys, or técnicos, use spectacular, high flying, well practiced moves, while bad guys, or rudos, are more simple brawlers who often cheat while the ref isn’t looking), the other major form of character expression is their costume.
Among the examples where this is most evident is likely the most famous luchador of all time, Santo. Compared to others, his costume might be a lot simpler or more basic (then again, so is Superman’s), but it expresses his character, and his devotion to this identity was legendary. Santo was famous for never going in public without his mask. He wore his mask in private company, he had a version of his mask made with a cut away mouth so as to eat in public while masked, he flew on different flights from his crew so they would never see him remove his mask to get through customs, and he was even buried in his mask. Through this devotion, he expressed the importance of the identity he had crafted, and the result is that he is considered the greatest luchador of all time, his identity bleeding beyond just professional wresting, and into local folk lore, film franchises (including foreign bootlegs where he teamed up with Captain America), and even comic books.
In universe, superheroes are often presented as operating within a similar setup. The masks and the costumes aren’t merely meant to conceal a civilian identity, but to project a chosen, public identity. It’s been with Batman from the start, that his bat centric costume doesn’t just hide the identity of Bruce Wayne, but is meant as a kind of warpaint to intimidate the ‘cowardly and superstitious lot’ that he fights on a nightly basis. Superhero costumes are meant in universe to be expressive, something hindered by modern comics’ (and live action adaptations’) insistence on supposedly practical gear. Like the luchador, superhero costumes must be allowed to express their identity through their design, because it is through that constructed personality that true greatness of fictional characters lies.
And on that subject:
Capes Matter, Too
This is a very similar note, but I feel it’s important enough to get its own point.
Let’s face it, capes may be awesome, but they’re all for show. CBS’ Supergirl might lovingly try to insist that her cape serves an aerodynamic function, but the reality is that Supergirl (and Superman) wears a cape because it expresses her identity as a superhero and looks amazing. A cape is not something that you could ever really wear in hand to hand combat, which is why luchadors don’t. But that doesn’t mean they don’t wear capes for special occasions. For public appearances, or in the moments before entering the ring, many luchadors frequently sport capes. Many of these luchadors are shirtless, which means that with nothing to pin the cape onto, a special harness had to be devised for the luchador to wear the cape while shirtless. Keep in mind, the cape comes off before the luchador actually begins their match, so a special harness was constructed so a shirtless luchador could still wear a cape for about five minutes while making their entrance into the arena. Is this ridiculous? Yes. Is this fantastic? Absolutely. The cape represents power, prestige, nobility, status. It is a meaningful garment that, consciously or not, instills in the viewer some reaction to this figure.
As much as modern superhero stories might like to make jokes at the expense of the cape, the cape has been a frequent and integral part of superhero costume design for the last 75+ years for a reason. This isn’t about practicality, this is about visual presence. Like luchadors, not every superhero needs one, and the cape may not stay on all the time. But it is a grand, symbolic piece of design that should be respected and never forgotten.
Specific Body Shape, However, Matters Less
Superheroes are famous for their idealized, Olympian physiques. Powered or unpowered, science or magic, ninja detective or flying brick, superheroes have instantly recognizable, classic, and ultimately incredibly similar body shapes: tall, rippling muscles, barrel chested and square jawed men, and voluptuous, hourglass, athletically toned women. Across the board, this look is ubiquitous with superheroes.
With real life people, however, not so much.
Luchadors, much like real life people, do not have the exact same body shapes across all individuals in the profession. While weight classes exist to keep the competition fair, the wide spread distribution of weight classes mean that anyone, from the heaviest of the heavyweights, down to the dwarves of the mini-estrella class, are welcome in Lucha Libre. Even within these weight classes, body shape is its own separate thing entirely. Real people have variety in body shape. Your shoulders, your hips, your feet, your hands, your facial structure, your fat to muscle ratio, it all changes from person to person to person. While we have this idea in our heads that the individuals who represent the most athletic and powerful of us should look a certain way (and many superhero artists operate off of this idea in their art), taking a quick look at the varying weights and shapes of luchadors (and other real life professional athletes) can quickly dispel that myth.
There are Practical and Sexy Luchadora Costumes
This applies both for male and female wrestlers, but because of the current general state of superheroine design let’s focus for a minute on the costumes of luchadoras. The discussion at the moment often can be typified as practicality vs. sexiness in costumes, but a satisfying answer would need to accommodate varying approaches. Luchadora costumes have struck an interesting balance between these two aesthetics, and there are two ways they do this.
First, luchadora costumes are the wardrobe choices of real women, and some choose to lean more towards practical while others choose to lean more towards sexy. When it comes to superheroines, few would argue for the complete exclusion of sexuality in female costume design; instead, what readers want is a variety of costumes to express a variety of personalities. Among real life luchadoras, you can find plenty of examples of women who chose to dress in more fully covering costumes, focusing their persona on their prowess in the ring and their strength and skills.
Likewise, you can also find many luchadoras who dress more provocatively, crafting a persona with a more risque appeal.
Still others manage to incorporate elements that are often associated with oversexualized superhero costumes yet themselves defy classification as either overtly sexual or exclusively practical.
The fact that there are successful and popular examples of both demonstrates that these options are available for all incoming new luchadoras, without a specific pressure to appeal to one aesthetic or another. The bottom line is that real women chose to enter the ring wearing these costumes because it expresses their own personalities (or at least stage personalities). Superheroines need to have that same level of expression and variety in expression; a character whose costume is prominently sexualized ought to dress that way because it expresses her character; a character whose costume is highly practical and covering ought to be expressing her character; and there ought to be examples of both because this better represents the variety of self expression in real life women.
But there is still a second way luchadora costumes demonstrate an interesting balance.
The Line Between Practical and Sexy Costumes is Thinner Than You Might Think
Whether practical or sexy, there are elements of both design approaches found in examples that could be classified as one side or the other. These costumes must be fought in, so however provocatively a luchadora chooses to dress, there will always be practical elements she needs to maintain. One area of particular note for luchadoras is support and popout protection. While many use tight fitting tank top style outfits or even designs that go up to the neck, even the luchadoras who bare cleavage keep pieces in place that will prevent unwanted wardrobe malfunctions (if visible, these additional support pieces are often decorated to maintain the aesthetic).
I also mentioned earlier that practical costumes must vent heat. Well, there’s only so many ways to do that. Breathable material helps, but on women’s costumes there’s still that same need for support. For this reason, stiffer, tighter materials are often employed, but this goes back to trapping heat inside. The solution is leaving part of the body uncovered. Bare skin, bare shoulders, bare midriffs, short shorts, swimsuit cut leotards, belly holes, holes along the neck and shoulders area, and yes, even cleavage holes, are often employed in luchadora costumes, even on costumes that would otherwise evoke a purely practical aesthetic (and often still do). Some luchadoras choose to emphasize these patches of bare skin, while others minimize them, but the fact remains that these design elements have legitimate purpose. There’s more to a sexualized or practical outfit than any of these elements individually, it comes down to presentation and intent. In superheroine costume design, these elements shouldn’t necessarily be outlawed, but at the same time, these characters’ aesthetics needs to be consciously approached, both in design and in body language. There needs to be better balance, and luchadoras are quite a distance ahead in that regard. And on the subject of balance...
Where Are All the Shirtless Dudes?
It’s no secret that there is a huge gender parity between the sexualization of male and female characters in comic books (technically, you could say most medias and industries, and to be fair Lucha Libre isn’t perfect either). Just look at the amounts of sexualized costumes and poses that female characters are consistently put in and then compare it to the number of similarly suggestive positions or revealing attire male characters find themselves in. The difference is obvious.
Lucha Libre, on the other hand, has a much greater amount of diversity when it comes to levels of exposure in male costumes. A huge number, including their three arguably most famous luchadors, Santo, Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras, all go entirely shirtless. Again, there is an element of practicality in it, in the form of heat venting and a lack of obstructing or confining pieces of clothing. There is also an element of power display, with the luchador’s muscles proudly on display, often oiled and glistening. This is all achieved while displaying an objectively desirable male body in a way that female viewers would be able to enjoy, but also not undermining them as people or athletes. Frankly, the way female characters in comic books are sexualized could take some cues from the way male luchadors are in real life, but this lesson applies most directly to male superheroes.
The power display is the only thing here that has really been translated to superheroes as they are now. It does so with a paper thin veneer of costume, the muscles so apparent beneath whatever fabric that the superhero is wearing that their costume might as well be painted on, but by displaying their muscles, their power, with even that slight covering of clothing, it does so in a way that removes any amount of potential sexualized intention. Female viewers looking for the same stimulus as many male viewers are left in the lurch. This is inherently unfair. The same displays of power can be accomplished in a way that also allows, or even encourages, the female gaze.
And while I’m not suggesting that every, or even most, male superheroes go shirtless from now on, there are figures on whom it would work. Superman springs immediately to mind; being nigh invulnerable, he doesn’t need a shirt for any real purpose, and deriving his power from sunlight, it makes sense that he would leave himself as much room for energy absorption as possible. The Green Lanterns’ costumes are made of energy constructs and tend to feature a general protective aura over uncovered parts of their bodies (like their faces), so they ought to be able to go shirtless with the exact same amount of protection. Given the revealing costumes that literally every female Star Sapphire wears, John Stewart as the only male Star Sapphire has no good reason why he’s wearing as much clothes as he is. While I’d more often suggest powered or supernaturally protected characters for shirtlessness as opposed to street level vigilante superheroes, Wildcat would make sense shirtless as it reflects his daytime job as a boxer, another frequently shirtless profession.
Well, these are some lessons that superhero comics could learn from Lucha Libre costume design. But are there any superheroes who are already taking these lessons into consideration? There actually are. Here are some examples of superheroes already up to Luchador Standard:
Superman: A fairly obvious example, as his costume is based on a wrestling/strongman uniform to begin with. The colors are bold and expressive, the design simple yet evocative. While the mask is a major element of luchador design typically, Superman’s masklessness is itself an expression of his character, trustworthy and honest. Suggestions for improvement: For a true luchador costume, the cape would need to be removable (this will be a recurring theme), a shirtless version should be optional, and I’d suggest kneepads on his leggings.
Huntress (Helena Bertinelli): And yes, I am talking about the divisive “ab-window” version, here. The mask is very lucha libre-esque, the ab window and bare shoulders provide heat venting while the top part of her costume provides proper chest support, her knees and elbows are protected. Suggestions for improvement: the armor could be less bulky, the shorts ought to provide a bit more coverage (this does depend on the artist), and the cape should be removable. The cross motif could be a little more obvious, as the design on her chest gets a bit muddled.
Martian Manhunter: One of comics’ few consistently shirtless male superheroes, Martian Manhunter’s design would actually make a decent luchador costume. The shorts are perfect luchador standard and the clasps on the cape suggest it could be removed when necessary. Suggestions: the red X could be implemented better, I’d suggest more focused on the upper chest, wrapping around the shoulders rather than attaching to the shorts; as much of a fan as I am of foldover pirate boots, a real luchador would want more practical wrestling boots.
Starfire (Amanda Conner design): Nearly note perfect luchadora design, actually. The material, the placement of the windows in the costume, the chest support, everything. If there was a mask and more obvious protection on the joints it would be a luchadora costume.
Keep in mind, none of this is to say that superheroes need to look exactly like luchadors. Similar as they may be in certain ways, there are still major differences between superheroes and masked wrestlers, and superhero design will continue to explore those differences. But superheroes have spent the better part of the last century taking inspiration from a huge number of sources, and that level of influence from outside material shouldn’t be ignored, but should continue. As superheroes and their sense of design evolve, they should be able to keep looking for new ideas and new ways to implement their unique sense of style. This melting pot method of superhero design has worked for decades, it can work in the decades to come.