Marguerite Sauvage’s Wonder Woman And The Slowly Changing Face Of Comic Book Fashion
Fashion matters. Your experience with superhero comics might have led you to believe otherwise, but I assure you, fashion matters—and should matter particularly to people who read, write, and/or draw comics. Crazy, right? Who would have guessed that such an omnipresent element of our daily lives, used to communicate everything from our politics to our career goals to the circumstances of our laundry cycle should be of consequence to a visual medium!
Fashion—by which I mean all clothes and all styles, not just what you might find folded in the juniors’ department—is capable of communicating basically anything to the audience. A character’s unemployment might be evidenced through their yoga pants and ponytail; their ambition through their pressed pantsuit; their hobbies through a paint-flecked smock. Generally, American comics get those most basic of rules right, but anything beyond that—anything not strictly tied to a vocation or place—is fumbled. Clothes are bland when they aren’t embarrassingly out of date. Women’s fashion is a bizarre mélange of male fantasies, ranging from obvious fetishwear to….heavily fetishized selections from the 2007 Delia’s catalog. Thong straps are hiked high above brutally low-waisted jeans, high heels are worn with absolutely everything, and crop tops are issued upon the first sign of puberty. I mean, I say this as someone who owns two: they aren’t that popular.
This is pathetic, because what easier way is there to show instead of tell? What easier research is there to do? You flip a few catalogs, browse some street fashion blogs, ask a friend or two about their tastes. The slightest hint of a damn given to the fashion featured in a comic book makes it immediately more immersive, more affecting, more resonant—because suddenly, its characters look more like real people. Suddenly, the reader has gained insight through a new layer of meaning. Fashion is characterization and world building and visual design all in one. Ignoring it isn’t just lazy—it’s actively detrimental to the work as a whole. It is a fundamental, non-negotiable aspect of storytelling.
For the most part, though, mainstream comics don’t care. But sometimes, something sneaks through and reminds us all of why this matters. Sensation Comics #7, illustrated by Marguerite Sauvage from a script by Sean E. Williams, is that rare, trembling shaft of light into the dank, Dragon Ball Z-print-button-downed basement that is the state of fashion in comics.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on Wonder Woman’s fashion through the ages. Variations on her iconic onesie have actually been pretty minor: boots vs. sandals, eagle vs. a stylized W, skirt vs. shorts vs. horrible ‘90s thong. Her sartorial history only really contains two big shakeups. The first was likable, if wrongheaded: the New Wonder Woman era, which remade her into a knockoff Emma Peel with a closet full of Pucci prints. Infamously dissed by Gloria Steinem, I actually sort of dig this take. It was aimed squarely at the young female audience, which isn’t really something DC does anymore to their general thematic decay. I like the idea of a boutique-owning superspy in go-go boots—“A brand new story that will bring you a brand new kind of thrill,” as the promos promised. Though it wasn’t, ultimately, a good fit for the (generally pretty stuffy) Amazon, the era’s wardrobe remains solid, and girl-centric. It’s stylish, cute, and even sexy, but never exploitative.
But then there is the other era: the biker chick costume wore for a minute in the mid 1990s.
I refuse to prevaricate: it sucked. The design is a hot dumpster stew from its weird neck straps to its weird waist straps to the weird bolero jacket, lodged uncomfortably in design between classic Chanel and Biker Mouse from Mars. Like the mod era, it grafted contemporary style uneasily upon a classic character—but where the mod era was simply a bad fit, this was embarrassing and antithetical. It’s the noxious product of fanboy indulgence and a total lack of fashion and costume design fundamentals.
The alternative Wonder Woman look of the time was Mike Deodato’s own cheek-chafingly-high-cut thong version of the classic costume, and biker Wonder Woman is still worse. It was as blatantly for men as mod Wonder Woman was for girls, the nadir of “bad girl” art. It was diametrically opposed to everything the character is supposed to stand for (hint: not men’s boners). And really, above all, it was just ugly.
Marguerite Sauvage’s take on Wonder Woman is barely even a deviation compared to these two. It adds some piping, changes the proportions of the classic suit a little, adds some laces to the boots and later in the issue, an angular jacket. Yet it is the first time in too long that Wonder Woman’s fashion has been aimed explicitly at girls and women. Informed by Sauvage’s extensive work in fashion illustration, advertising and commercial art, her Diana’s look is stylish and wild, but in a distinctly modern, woman-centric way. The adjustments are subtle—a structured bustier, high-waisted shorts—but they mirror what’s happening in actual women’s closets the world over.
Moreover, each woman featured in the issue sports thoughtful, individualized looks that not only tap into current expressions of style, but expressions of womanhood in general. The drummer in Wonder Woman’s band, Bullets and Bracelets, wears a pompadour, a spiked headband, and jeans. I look at her and I see someone who grew up listening to Shirley Manson wail out “Only Happy When It Rains,” a woman who decoupaged her coffee table with gig flyers according to a Pinterest tutorial, a woman who’s thinking of taking her girlfriend to the aquarium this weekend. I look at the two young girls Wonder Woman takes under her wing in their hoodies, cutoff shorts, Ugg boots and starry knee socks and I see girls who write Teen Wolf fanfiction, share a yard-sale copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and are teaching each other how to play guitar according to Youtube tutorials. They are real to me in a way that women from superhero comics are rarely real to me. They are aspirational and relatable, in tune with the fraught, yet joyful interplay between femininity, fashion, and performance.
Spiritually, Sauvage’s take falls in line with mod era Wonder Woman: it’s for girls. It’s funny—I love Cliff Chiang’s take on Wonder Woman. I was hooked from the moment he put her in a white double-breasted pea coat and offered a sleek headband alternative to the classic tiara. His work, regardless of what title it’s in service to, is an absolute beacon of style unto the benighted industry. But there’s something Sauvage nails in this issue that feels comfortable to me in a way that even Chiang’s work does not. It feels….well, like it comes from a woman. It feels as though it comes from a place of experience and emulation, rather than sheer knowledge. It feels like it’s explicitly, rather than incidentally, for girls and women.
Sauvage’s treatment of fashion in Sensation Comics #7 is thus symbolic of how to portray women in comics. The bare truth of it is that hiring women to create and depict women is generally the best way to go about it, and should be the highest priority for publishers that want to do better by that half of the world. Greg Ruckas, Cliff Chiangs and Terry Moores exist, but we shouldn’t rely on them—and we should understand and embrace the fact that women will capture certain nuances that men, typically, do not. Sauvage, with simplicity and style, has visually transformed a character utterly alien to modern girls to one representative of them. And in doing so, she has returned Wonder Woman to her roots: serving as a symbol of inspirational womanhood. Because—here’s The Point for any befuddled executives that might be reading—Wonder Woman should be for women. Why go the Deodato route and chase guys that could just as easily read Witchblade or Tarot—stuff that doesn’t carry the taint of ever having been for girls at all? Why court flies with heavily sugared vinegar? Make Wonder Woman a title for women, and anyone interested in reading about women. Hire women to depict her. Embrace things that scare you—like fashion—and discover a whole new world of storytelling, and a whole new audience.
I know DC has been burned by attempts at the young female market before—it wasn’t really that long ago that Minx, their short-lived imprint of girl-centric graphic novels went under. But you know what my real problem with it was, as a teen girl once excited for that line’s offerings? It was mostly written and illustrated by men. It was male approximation after male approximation of what “teen girl” feels like. In one issue, Sauvage created a world that feels more authentic to me than any Minx book ever did.
Hire women. Hire women to depict women. For god’s sake, hire women to produce Wonder Woman, of all books. ComicsAlliance has a well-organized series dedicated to putting talented women in the public eye—avail yourself of it! Because beyond issues of political point scoring or quotas or public relations, it’s just the smart storytelling choice. Sauvage has proved that in 22 pages.