“T A K E T H E
G E N T L E M A N ‘ S C A P E…”
T A I L O R I N G S U P E R M A N F O R C I N E M A
M A R T I N L A K I N
“Lets put him in this type of costume…And lets give him a big red ‘S’ on his chest
– and a Cape –
Make him as colourful and distinctive as we can…”
– Joe Shuster
This was ‘The Superman’s’ last chance. If this pitch didn’t fly, the project started by two ambitious Ohio teenagers five years prior would be scrapped for good. After seemingly no end of iterations with no publishing deal in sight, writer Jerry Siegel was convinced that this time, he’d nailed it. He’d made his usual journey a mile down the road to his artist friend Joe Shuster first thing that morning and they would brainstorm on his new idea all day long.
Inspired by the potential for a comic-book hero the likes of which the world had never seen, Joe immediately abandoned his initial Douglas Fairbanks-type swashbuckler sketches and started over. Jerry just hoped it wouldn’t end up being rejected by editors again and Joe blame it on his own rough & ready artwork. It was everything Jerry could do just to salvage the cover of the last book after Joe had burned it in frustration.
Shuster may have possessed a gritty pencilling style but it was perfectly suited to illustrate their new creation and his incredible range of abilities. The influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and early Sci-Fi Serials were undeniable but writer and artist agreed their hero’s outfit had to combine function with symbolism to lift it from the page. The character’s great strength recalled the attire of old-time Circus Strongmen, where long-sleeved leotards were worn over tights for flexibility and to compliment physique. A belt would be added to break up the midsection and the wide neckline was perfect to accommodate a flowing cape reminiscent of a Roman Centurion. Lastly, a motif featuring the letter ‘S’ emblazoned on the chest would make the imposing figure uniquely identifiable across all cultures as a figurehead for Truth, Justice and the American Way – Superman.
Publisher Jack Liebowitz, under pressure to meet deadlines at National Allied Publications urgently needed material for an new anthology comic-book series titled Action Comics. Siegel & Shuster’s hitherto rejected pages had been unearthed through publisher Vin Sullivan and the pair were offered a deal to submit a last minute lead feature. Superman would therefore debut on the cover of Action Comics No.1 in June, 1938, which sold out of its 250,000 print run almost immediately. The character gained greater exposure as a widely-circulated newspaper strip which began in January 1939 with a Sunday strip added the same November.
The immediate impact made by the caped wonder on consumers made a transition from print to other mediums an inevitability. In 1940, the dramatic opening narration of ‘Look! Up in the sky!’ across radio airwaves welcomed ‘The Adventures Of Superman’ into homes across the US five days a week with an action-packed 15 minute broadcast. Already a familiar voice across radio networks, star Bud Collyer skilfully introduced duality to his portrayal by dropping his vocal register to utter the immortal line “This looks like a job – For Superman..!” during every episode.
Publicist Allen ‘Duke’ Duchovny capitalised on the burgeoning popularity of the character by organising a promotional appearance of Superman ‘In Person’ at the 1940 New York World’s Fair. The World Of Tomorrow theme was the perfect platform for ‘Superman Day’ where eager children could see their hero live and in full costume for the first time –
In the intervening months, Superman’s look steadily evolved as the character was re-interpreted by various artists keen to make their mark at the now flourishing National Comics. The striking combination of primary colours of the costume may have originally been dictated by the cheapest ink to print but by now had become symbolic of the character’s core values of strength and optimism. In 1939 the costume would receive another overhaul courtesy of artist Paul Cassidy, who in the course of refining Shuster’s pencils would also endow the cape with an ‘S’ shield that swiftly became canon.
Having already thrilled audiences on both radio and in theatres – courtesy of the ground-breaking animations produced at Paramount Studios by Max Fleischer again voiced by Bud Collyer – it would nonetheless be a decade before Superman would finally arrive onscreen in live-action. For the Movie Serials Superman (1948) and Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950) produced by Columbia Pictures, the Western Costume Company of Hollywood concocted outfits for actor Kirk Alyn in shades of grey and brown for shooting on black & white filmstock.
In 1951, George Reeves would fill Alyn’s boots and sport a similarly monochrome ensemble for the independently made feature ‘Superman And The Mole Men’ which served as a pilot for ‘The Adventures of Superman’ (1952-1958) on Television. The show would run two seasons before the advent of colour broadcasting in 1954, when Reeves’ costume would be remade in its true comic-book hues for the remainder of its 104 episodes –
For the next two decades, the creative teams charged with enthralling the readership of its flagship character month after month would prosper and mature until both inevitably showed signs of fatigue. Editor Mort Weisinger had laboured on the title since 1941 and had made significant contributions to the mythos, but as the Red Sun set on the Silver Age, he realised the ever-more outlandish stories were falling out of touch with the readership, culminating in a steady but sure decline in sales.
By 1970 the comic-book industry had evidently become more socially aware and reflective of modern society, pioneered by Stan Lee’s grounded and introspective characters from the up and coming Marvel Entertainment Group. Superman had been a lynchpin of the WWII campaign but had flown clear of many a real-world political entanglement since. The dawn of the Bronze Age, then, would see the Man of Tomorrow revitalised under new editor Julius Schwartz in a back to basics approach that would soon send him soaring back to the forefront of popular culture. The character’s universal appeal also continued to attract other mediums, with a return to both Television and animation in ‘The New Adventures Of Superman’ Produced by Filmation as part of CBS Saturday morning schedules. Its 68, six-minute segments were the first time Superman had been seen in cartoon form since the Fleischer brothers shorts with Bud Collyer reprising his role for the final time.
Superman would also embark on first flight into Broadway in 1966 for the stage production of “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, Its Superman”. The Hal Prince musical closed after 129 performances in the wake of a world consumed by TV ‘Batmania’ and was considered a victim of ‘Capelash’, despite good reviews. The camp theme of the Batman show would permeate the Superhero genre and tarnish its image for years, the 1975 TV adaptation of the Superman musical for ABC-TV starring David Wilson epitomising just how low the bar had sunk. Development was already well underway, however, on a project that would forever change public perception of the live-action Superhero and revolutionise the Movie industry itself…
Two years prior to the ABC broadcast across the pond in Europe, ambitious young film producer Ilya Salkind backed by his mogul father Alexander were already in negotiation with DC Comics in a concerted effort to return Superman to the silver screen. The terms of the deal were exhaustive but eventually reached and planes were soon in the air over Cannes trailing banners heralding Superman’s imminent arrival. The Salkinds had pitched a no-expense-spared 70mm extravaganza but needed to attach bankable names quickly to secure investment for what was essentially an independent film.
Already reputed for hiring the best in the industry, their selection of Marlon Brando to star and Mario Puzo to write, for example, would generate the necessary investment and media controversy regardless of their suitability for the material. Conversely, there was a wealth of technical and artistic talent at their disposal after the success of the ‘The Three Musketeers’ (1973) and its sequel for what was already being touted as the ‘Super-film of the Seventies’. And who better to translate the iconic superhero from page to screen than Academy Award® winning costume designer Yvonne Blake?
“The premise of Superman’s costume was, theoretically, ridiculous.
It would be completely counter-character that the guy would put an ‘S’ on his own chest to say ‘Superman’.
We made it the family crest. “
– Pierre Spengler
Screenwriter Puzo had envisioned the retelling of Superman saga as a Greek Tragedy, an epic drama of three acts packed with thrills and spectacle. Such was the scope of the project that the Salkinds would split the 600 pages of the script in half for a story told over two chapters, dictating that Superman: The Movie and its sequel would be filmed simultaneously akin to the Three (& Four) Musketeers.
As one of the first artistes hired for the picture, British-born Blake would submit her first sketches during pre-production at Cinecittà Studios in Rome in 1976. As the first act would delve deeper into Kryptonian mythology than ever before, Blake imagined that a more advanced civilisation would adopt a minimalist approach over the garish robes portrayed in the comics. Research into reflective fabrics lead to experimentation with 3M™ Front-Projection (FP) material, which could be torn into strips and applied by hand to cotton undersuits. For the eventual shooting, Cameraman Peter MacDonald custom built a lightbox atop the Panavision lens to illuminate the glass beads embedded in the fabric, giving the costumes an ethereal glow.
Other notes contained in the Puzo script suggested that both Superman and his father, Jor-El, be portrayed by the same actor and that he and all the members of the council should exhibit the famous ‘S’ symbol. Upon hearing this, allegedly Marlon Brando himself proposed the ‘S’ represent the family coat of arms, inspiring Blake to re-invent the diamond-encased ‘S’ as one of many abstract forms to represent Kryptonian heritage –
By now so iconic in its own right, the Superman shield had become a globally recognised Trademark, distilled from a multitude of artistic interpretations and finally codified by National in 1972. This branding would be key to the upcoming marketing campaign, with the comic shield just one of an eventual trifecta of ‘S’ designs to be associated with the movie. The Salkinds had engaged the talents of Stephen O. Frankfurt Design as early as 1976 to create a unique shield for a series of full-page ads in Trade Magazines. First appearing as a monochrome 2D spin on the comic ‘S’ to compliment reprints of Neal Adams comic art, the ‘Promotional shield’ blossomed into a fully-fledged 3D painting with a crystal theme that dominated the marketing strategy and became synonymous with ‘the motion picture event of the year’ –
Not to be outdone and in acknowledgment of its comic-book roots, the ‘Trademark shield’ would be worked into both the trailer and the opening titles of the finished film courtesy of R. Greenberg & Associates, who, having already stunned audiences with the ‘streaking’ visual effects in the titles for the trailer, were working on a full credit sequence that was destined for film history.
Last but by no means least, Yvonne Blake applied the new rationale for the family crest across the entire Superman ideology, seeking to undo the general perception of the suit as mere ‘costume’ by establishing its origins in Kryptonian culture and making it prevalent in society –
After months of preparation in Italy, The Salkinds had made the decision to relocate production to England for budgetary purposes. This lead to the departure of Director Guy Hamilton for tax reasons and the hiring of American Richard Donner as his replacement due to his status at the time as the director of the No.1 hit The Omen.
With millions of dollars already spent on material deemed unusable, Donner’s insistence on infusing the project with verisimilitude and the change of location gave him the opportunity to bring in his own trusted crew – including Tom Mankiewicz to polish the script and John Barry to replace Michael Stringer as Production Designer. As most of Yvonne Blake’s work had been pre-approved by the producers before the transition to Shepperton Studios she would remain onboard, though Donner allegedly had little experience with Costume Designers and thought Blake’s designs too cartoonish –
“Superman’s costume was created for the comic and I could not change it. It was not allowed.
So I tried to make a costume as attractive as possible for the actor and as correct as possible for Superman fans.
I was not particularly a fan; but I had to reproduce a costume that did not seem ridiculous,
it had to be credible and manly, and not similar to one worn by ballet dancers…”
– Yvonne Blake
With media hype building around the picture, Blake was invited to the 1976 San Diego Comic-Con to preview her Superman sketches in a presentation for fans. While the response was positive overall, some comic purists objected to the addition of the shield on the belt buckle. Surrounding herself with a huge pile of DC back issues upon her return to the UK, Blake sought as faithful an interpretation as possible for her revisions. Between her mood board and the pages of Superman Family, however, her research had posed interesting questions regarding the source material –
In illustration there was no obligation by artists such as Curt Swan and Neal Adams to depict practicalities in the costume such as exposed seams, zippers, poppers or straps. The challenge, therefore, of realising the suit in three dimensions was one of disguising functionality. Much of this could be explained away by Its fictional alien origins but just how did that yellow belt fit together? How does the cape actually attach to the shoulders? How do the boots retain shape? All this and more had to be addressed way before concessions were made for the actor and the actual mechanics of leaping with a single bound.
According to comic book lore, by 1940 the only explanation given for Superman’s impregnable suit was a ‘special fabric’ which he himself had invented – ‘immune to the most powerful forces!’. It would be two decades before this would be revised in the pages of Superboy, where in a hitherto ‘untold’ story The Origin Of Superboy’s Super Costume! revealed it was instead fashioned from components of the Rocket Ship that had brought him to Earth. After rigorous testing for durability(!) by Pa Kent, the three blankets in which baby Kal arrived would be cut to size by Ma Kent with the assistance of young Clark’s heat vision. Accessories such as the belt and boots would be salvaged from the seat belt and moulded from the lining of the of the Rocket respectively. The resulting outfit, combined with Superboy’s Kryptonian ‘aura’, would never wear, mark or tear and was comparatively indestructible –
Superboy #78 in 1959 introduced several Super-costume tropes that would remain canon for decades, including the first true definition of the ‘S’ emblem – ‘Saving Lives,’ Stopping Crime, and Super-Aid..!’
While no such details were explicit in the screenplay, the metallic blankets in which infant Kal-El makes his journey would evolve into the full Superman costume enroute. This theory was supported by scenes of young Clark being swathed in the adult-sized cape by the Kent’s and a fleeting glimpse inside teenage Clark’s rucksack on his journey to the North Pole. The full ‘Superman’ uniform would be bestowed upon Kal-El after 12 years of training under the tutelage of his father before returning to the outside world to begin his mission.
Meantime, the well-publicised two-year search for a Superman was nearing its conclusion. A slew of actors had been approved in advance by DC Comics – including such unlikely candidates as Sylvester Stallone and Muhammad Ali – but with top billing already filled there was latitude to fill the role with a more suitable newcomer. The open casting call meant aspiring Supermen were invited to screentest in a hastily assembled loose-fitting bodysuit with tiny separate briefs, a cape made from a piece of orange fabric tucked in at the collar and knee-length socks for boots.
Thanks to the diligence of casting director Lynn Stalmaster, 24-year old Christopher Reeve had finally been selected to portray the Man Of Steel but after viewing his test, Blake would need a quick fix for the unforeseen issue of his slight build. Standing at 6’4″ with clear blue eyes and chiselled jaw, Reeve was the living embodiment of the character but weighed in at a slender 170lbs. With only months to go before shooting commenced, a latex musclesuit sculpted by Graham Freeborn was prepared out of concerns Reeve wasn’t going to able to build up in time. Makeup artist Nick Maley ran tests with Reeve in the appliance but found it would inhibit movement and looked unnatural on camera. Rejecting the idea of wearing fake muscles to reaffirm his commitment to bulking up to the requisite physique naturally, Reeve embarked on a diet and weight-training regimen to add another 33lbs to his broad frame –
Throughout pre-production, Yvonne Blake would liaise with head of manufacture Noel Howard of world-renowned British costumiers Bermans and Nathans Ltd. who would be supplying the wardrobe for the picture. After the successful roll-out of the reflective material for the Krypton costumes, Blake was now seeking a similarly cutting-edge fabric for its Last Son. Howard, meanwhile, had managed to source a newly-developed stretch fabric called Lycra from a mill in Europe and had obtained some of the very first on the market.
As the casting process continued throughout 1977, so too did the regularity of the fittings as the costume was refined piece by piece during screentests for potential Lois Lane’s. A new bodysuit would try out opposite Anne Archer, an amended belt for Debra Raffin, and by the time of Margot Kidder’s successful audition Reeve was virtually modelling the final outfit.
Bermans & Nathans’ team of 60 skilled seamstresses would produce a total of 110 bodystockings for Christopher Reeve, his stand-in’s, stunt doubles and the numerous Special Effects flying miniatures. The final costume would undergo minor adjustments throughout shooting as Reeve’s workout regime steadily yielded results under the tutelage of famed bodybuilder David Prowse. Director Donner would cheat some early footage by photographing Reeve from lower angles to exaggerate his size until Reeve attained his physical ideal, revealed to the world in an exclusive series of iconic publicity photographs shot by Bob Penn against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline –
“I decided what I would do was let the costume do all the work. Don’t do too much, don’t pose.
I decided against wearing the Styrofoam padding under the blue tights, instead I went on a crash bodybuilding course to give me the right physique…”
– Christopher Reeve
The New York World’s Fair was a significant event in Superman’s history. Not only did it host the character’s first ‘live’ appearance but, purely by co-incidence launched a textile innovation which would inadvertently become forever entwined with ‘Superhero’ couture. Unveiled in 1939 and hailed, ironically, as ‘Stronger than Steel’, the all-new US invented ‘Nylon’ fabric would revolutionise the clothing industry with its multitude of applications. By 1958, the DuPont Company using the same principle was developing a stretchy blend of Polyester known as Fiber K, later to be re-branded as Lycra. Originally marketed as the ideal choice for women’s hosiery and underwear, the brand was adapted to meet the flourishing demand for aerobic and athletic wear in the mid-1970’s.
Yvonne Blake had first shortlisted Helenca as her fabric of choice on her sketches, a derivative of Nylon comparable to Lycra but with greater opacity. Given Lycra’s elasticity and strength there was an inevitability that Superman’s leotards for the screen would be accomplished in this new, exciting fabric and after trials, experienced costumier Howard was convinced he’d struck the perfect balance of weight and texture.
Presented with samples fresh from a manufacturer in Austria, Blake conceded it had all the requisite qualities, later describing it as ‘Bridal Weight Spandex’ due to its shimmer and thick mesh. An anagram of the word ‘expands,’ Spandex would become the preferred Stateside term while Elastane stuck in Europe. The actual composition of Spandex is derived from Polyamide, a generic term for synthetic fibres such as Nylon and Polyester –
Once the order for multiples of the Superman bodysuit were placed they were finished with Bermans & Nathans wardrobe labels and a pair of small tags stitched into the seams of the waistband of the tights, and sides of the tunics identifying the material as 100% Polyamid (sic) and the brand as ‘Zeta Modell’.
The Superman character in comic-book form was the very embodiment of the four-colour printing process, its basic combination of Yellow, Cyan & Magenta topped off with Black (CYMK). In order to reproduce exactly what was represented on the page under the strict guidelines, the staff at Bermans would conjure with a total of 16 dyes to obtain the perfect shades.
As the hue of the costume had to be consistent throughout its appearance onscreen, the Wardrobe Dept. was tasked with catering for the demands of the revolutionary Special Effects sequences and process photography. Foremost of these challenges were separating the costume from the Bluescreen or Chroma-Key backing which required a turquoise blend of dye, and another combination to maintain the colour in scenes where it was soaked through with water.
Once bathed in Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s light, the Superman costume on film was a perfect representation of its four-colour origins in three dimensions, however the blue in particular would fluctuate in shade and photograph darker than it appeared in reality. This phenomenon would also extend to still colour images taken in costume, where, by its very nature, the two-tone sheen would transpose through the lens as anything from a flat Navy Blue to Cyan, making its precise colour designation an enigma –
Production made custom dyed Polyamid –
In Daylight/Direct Sunlight –
Indoor Lighting –
“They had a special machine and some guy who had been sitting there waiting all his life for a chance to put this costume together.
I don’t know what he’s going to do now the picture’s finished…”
– Christopher Reeve
The first pair of Superman bodystockings trialled had been carefully tailored to give the impression of a second skin by limiting all the seaming to one side. The logistics of shooting an already complex picture around left or right biased suits became insurmountable so subsequent garments restricted the majority of the seams to the rear.
The final bodysuit would comprise of two pieces – the Tunic (Leotard), incorporating Overshorts with belt loops (Briefs) and Tights (Leggings). The order of dress would firstly be tights, followed by tunic, then shorts. Assistance would be required for the accessories with the securing the belt, zipping of the boots and mounting of the Cape.
Screen-ready costumes were designated by their Bermans & Nathans asset tags as Flying or Walking, with printed serial numbers supported by handwritten details in marker or ballpoint pen. Typical characteristics of a Flying costume would be reinforced slits on each side of the tunic at the waist to accommodate the metal links for the leather harness for cables could be hooked on for wire work, and/or dyed a shade of teal for the Chroma-Key process –
Special ‘Gimbal Costumes’ were made for process photography with break-away velcro closures so the actors could be dressed whist lay in the fibreglass bodymoulds. The costume would slide over the rig to conceal the pan and could be detached one component at a time. The separate overshorts ensured the bodysuit beneath could stretch without restriction and pulling on the belt loops during flying scenes. None of these innovations to make the costume effects-friendly would be noticeable on screen. Early promotional images for marketing reveal the overshorts by virtue of the waistband being exposed above the beltline. Revisions were later made to the tunic to incorporate the briefs, fusing them with the tunic as one unit. The belt-loops would also be re-attached above the waistline so even at a stretch, the line of the shorts would never be exposed above the belt. These reworked versions were designated Walking costumes and became standard for the remainder of filming –
“We needed so many because they were so tight they could only be worn for about 20 minutes before becoming drenched with sweat.
Some of them also had to be specially strengthened so they could take the huge hooks from the cranes which made him look as though he was flying…”
– Noel Howard
Redesigned and newly representative of the family crest, the focal point of the tunic would be the chest shield. A decision was made to make the motif integral with the costume as opposed to the traditional sewn-on patch, making its construction a complex and intricate process –
A stencil would be applied to mark out the border of the shield on the tunic on front, the motif outline in red, and again for the ‘negative shapes’ in yellow. The pieces would then all be trimmed, leaving seam allowance so the segments could be pinned together. On the rear, the larger yellow portions were married up with the stencilled outlines in red and raw edges secured with an overlocking stitch. The remaing outer yellow segments, too small to insert, would be secured from the outward side with a visible cover stitch. The five-point outline was then cut from the tunic and the shield inset using the same process.
Though the cape & chest shields were borne of the same template, with such complex construction ultimately none of the shields for the Superman tunics would be a precise match to each other. Indeed, with each costume finished by hand the inconsistencies in size & shape between shields became more pronounced when conforming to the contours of the body –
The gaudy yellow band served to break up the lines and colours of the midsection, supposedly connected front & centre by an ornamental oval clasp. To maintain the flawless appearance, the functionality would be relocated to the rear, the less refined practical closure obscured beneath the cape.
The panel itself would be marked out using a template of a form-fitting curve, cut from sheet leather and then coated with a patent yellow vinyl. Hook & Eye closures would be added at both ends to be bound together by a length of white elastic and tied shoelace-style for comfort and fit –
The buckle itself would be mounted as a brooch, its concentric design sculpted by hand with impressions cast in lightweight resin. A pair of brass paper fasteners were pressed into the rear of each cast before the resin cured to secure them in place and the surface spray-painted an approximate matching gloss yellow. The pins from the fasteners would then be pierced through the topside and leaves opened to fix the buckle in place. A thin piece of leather would then be glued on top of the mounting to avoid snagging as the belt was passed through the loops of the tunic for wear.
The initial concern with Superman’s tights during Wardrobe tests was what could potentially be showing through them. This was further compounded by during the first days of filming in New York, where head of continuity Elaine Shryeck had noted inconsistencies with Superman being ‘dressed’ either left or right. The issue went up the chain to the Producers, with Alexander Salkind insisting the ‘Supermanhood’ be emphasised to maintain the virility of the character, prompting a trial of codpieces of various sizes & styles. The final selection was an athletic support with integral metal protective cup, demonstrating the requisite masculinity without drawing undue attention or compromising on comfort.
“I think with the costume…You’re stuck with the fact that Superman is in tights.
Chris was so disarming…so kind of shy…That you barely noticed..”
– Tom Mankiewicz
The tights were assembled from a conventional pattern with the exception of the inside leg seam, which was further rotated behind the triangular gusset. Once the tights were drawn over the underwear followed by the tunic, the midsection was flawlessly smooth with no unsightly protrusions. For the stocking feet, the Polyamid was cut at the ankles and replaced with breathable soft fabric socks –
With their new status as a Kryptonian unisex wardrobe staple, the custom knee-boots were tailored to emulate the ‘molded’ look of the comic versions for Superman and finished in reflective Scotchlite for the inhabitants of his homeworld.
Superman’s boots would need to be pliable, smooth and form-fitting to withstand the demands of both physical and VFX filming. Working on the principle that Superman would maintain an aerodynamic position when airborne, the boots would prioritise flexibility at the ankle to allow the wearer’s feet to be pointed out straight. The structure would be assembled from six precisely-cut pieces based around a Pointe or Ballet shoe-style vamp, merging into an elongated shaft and topped by a cuff reinforced with a thick band of black elastic –
The ‘Softest Glove Leather’ of the original sketch notes translated as thin Calf’s Leather, dyed Crimson Red and cobbled upon a block of Christopher Reeve’s US size 11 foot. The soles would also consist of the same leather and be completely smooth and flat with a slim internal heel and no outer grip.
One minor deviation from the comic design was the extended cuff, noticeably thicker than the traditional narrow rim. This afforded better balance and proportion but necessitated metal shirt-collar type stiffeners to be stitched into the peak of each ‘V’ for support –
The boot closures consisted of zinc full-length zipper down the calf to be secreted by a flap of leather secured by velcro strips. For stunt purposes and to uphold the molded appearance, pairs would be made with the zippers in the front seams, leaving the rear shafts ‘clean’ for shots where the velcro seals would crease and look cumbersome.
All pairs of footwear would be numbered by hand in marker and feature the initials ‘CR’. Other notes in marker or ballpoint would indicate specifics such as flying/walking/or waterproof.
When early tests to simulate flight on film using wind machines continually caused the cape to wrap tightly around the wearer, the Visual Effects team sought collaboration with the Wardrobe Dept. for a solution to achieve a realistic flowing motion whilst Superman was airborne.
Visual Effects artist Les Bowie devised a self-contained mechanical rig to be worn by the performer operated by remote control, generating a convincing ripple effect by sequentially rotating a set of 8 thin metal poles running the entire length of the fabric. Special ‘Mechanical’ Capes were made with eight corresponding pockets and press studs to attach the ‘Flapping Device’. Meantime, dozens of different fabrics were adapted for their billow and drape for wire-flying scenes, including lighter blends such as crepe and silk –
Just as with the Bodysuits, capes would be tagged by Bermans & Nathans as ‘Flying’ or ‘Walking’, and would often be switched out between takes to meet the requirements of a particular scene. The majority of Walking Capes were cut from a single piece of Wool Gaberdine in a triangular configuration converging with two neat reverse pleats on the shoulders. The hems were finished with a zig-zag stitch and the excess trimmed, leaving a raw sawtooth pattern along the bottom edge. As filming had commenced before Christopher Reeve had reached his target weight, extra padding was added to fill out the shoulders and decline as shooting continued. The tension from the cape straps, while rounding out the squared neckline of the tunic to a perfect graduated curve also caused the tunics to pull and occasionally fray at the edges.
The procedure to attach the Cape to the bodysuit would be undertaken by the Wardrobe Assistants, who would first mount it on one shoulder by connecting the first set of press studs and tucking in the first strap, passing it through the underarm of the performer and out through the back of the open tunic. This was repeated on the other side until both straps were hanging free from the back of the tunic to allow them to be pulled to the required tension, tied in a knot and tunic zippered up.
“I read somewhere that Chris is supposed to have twenty-five different costumes and six or seven special capes – for flying, crouching, leaping, sitting, standing, whatever.
Actually, the number’s probably higher than that. Mainly, that’s where the wardrobe expense comes in, on all the doubles and duplicates and special effects needs…”
– Yvonne Blake
The final detail of the Cape was the all-yellow shield with black outline true to the comics of the era. The basic appliqué was embroidered with black thread, mounted on white fusible backing and machined over with a zig-zag stitch. Unlike its more complex front counterpart, the Polyamid for the patch would not be subject to stretch and remain true to the outline taken from Yvonne Blake’s template.
The standard of the finish between duplicates was negligible, with dropped stitches and deviations from the stencilling making no two patches the same . There would also be irregularities with the border, cut true to the outer edge or left with visible excess before its application by tacking it below the yoke of the shoulder –
“Once he was in that suit – he was Superman and he believed he could fly.
That level of dedication and verisimilitude clearly shows on screen and helped bring Superman to life…”
– Colin Chilvers
After five years of development, 350 shooting days and a budget reportedly exceeding $55 million dollars, Superman: The Movie would finally be released on December 15th, 1978, six months past its scheduled date. The film was a critical and commercial smash, eventually nominated for 3 Academy Awards®and winning ‘Special Achievement in Visual Effects.’
For Yvonne Blake, three years of sleeping with comic-books under her pillow for reference had yielded another personal triumph. Indeed, her artistic stamp was all over the picture, from Gene Hackman’s flamboyant, tasteless plaid suits for arch-villain Lex Luthor to the chic skirts & blouses worn by Margot Kidder as sassy love interest Lois Lane. The innovative Krypton costumes may have been controversial for almost outshining the stars but the one design where she was afforded least creativity would ironically be her most fulfilling. For her Superman costume, a perfect translation from inkwell to reality would be worn with such casual grace by the lead that any concerns about him being laughed off the screen were nullified by his sheer charisma in the role.
Nominated for her work at the 32nd Annual BAFTA awards, the film would win for ‘Outstanding British contribution to Cinema’ and star Christopher Reeve would be crowned as ‘Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles’ for his performance. Blake would also receive recognition form the Science-Fiction literary community with a nomination for a ‘Saturn’ Award, with the film winning in four other categories.
While the production had been challenging and fraught with problems, the film had gone on to earn $300.5 million worldwide and, with 75% of the sequel already in the can all involved were keen to get back to Pinewood Studios to resume filming on Superman II. Meantime, escalating tensions between Donner and producer Pierre Spengler fuelled by the media came to boiling point and, secure in their worldwide hit, the Salkinds took the opportunity to release Donner and the remainder of his team from their contract prior to their return to the UK.
Though she would be credited as Costume Designer for Superman II, Blake’s contribution would be limited to footage shot by Donner in tandem with Superman: The Movie and the torch passed to designer Susan Yelland. With the caveat set there would be no intervention for the key players for Superman II so Yelland would be mainly be accountable for the supporting cast. As the plot dealt with the return of the trio of villains, another of Blake’s original concepts would be highlighted, with General Zod & Co. in Maroon-trimmed Black silk jumpsuits with Patent thigh-high boots representing the Kryptonian Military.
Released in 1980 (June 1981 in the US) against stiff competition with the likes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark at the Box-Office, Superman II conquered once again much to the chagrin of the original creative team. A great deal of footage shot by Donner would be excised in order to bring the picture in on time and under-budget. Scenes with the increasingly expensive Marlon Brando were re-shot with Susannah York and a new ending was hurriedly devised having surrendered the original one to the first picture.
Originally brought in as an envoy between the Salkinds and Donner, Director Richard Lester had fulfilled his obligation to complete Part II but in doing so had changed the tone to match his more comedic sensibilities. Audiences hadn’t noticed even if fans and critics had, with some citing the heady mix of drama, humour and action better than the first.
The Salkinds had envisioned the Superman series as having the potential to emulate the Bond franchise, with their original seven-picture option escalating to ten with the success of the first two. By the time of the inevitable Superman III, however, the series was already showing signs of mismanagement and creative bankruptcy, with an extravagant script treatment by Ilya Salkind rejected in favour of a lighthearted romp to exploit the talents of stand-up comedian-turned actor Richard Pryor.
Written by David & Leslie Newman and again helmed by Richard Lester, Superman III retained production values but lacked the heart & soul of the earlier entries. With a contemporary setting and a plot involving the creation of a Super-Computer there was little Sci-Fi influence left for new designer Evangeline Harrison to explore. While the proud association with Bermans & Nathans continued, the only requisite for new Superman costumes was that they be rinsed in black dye to show stages of degradation as Superman gradually succumbed to the effects of artificial Kryptonite –
Superman III may not have made the same kind of numbers as its predecessors but had benefited greatly from the flourishing video rental market, adding another $30 million to its overall gross. While the film was considered a modest hit and was popular with a general audience, critics were scathing and the slapstick humour alienated fans of the originals. With his contract expiring and also unhappy with the direction of the series since Donner’s departure, Christopher Reeve publicly announced he was hanging up his cape, leaving the franchise up in the air. Reluctant to abandon their hugely successful empire, the ever-pragmatic Salkinds instead went back to the roll-call of characters their rights extended to, after all, adventure did run in the family.
Supergirl was announced in customary style at Cannes and scheduled to arrive in the summer of 1984. Produced by Timothy Burill, the film would be another no-expense-spared extravaganza shot at Pinewood Studios reuniting much of the crew from the Superman series. By now a 25 year-old character, the Supergirl legend would be updated as present-day fairytale, a coming-of-age story set in the established Supermovie continuity but geared towards a younger audience.
The development of the picture would reflect the battle to bring Superman to the screen in a number of ways, with Ilya Salkind determined to cast an unknown in the lead having screened hundreds of young actresses. Brooke Shields and Demi Moore were under consideration before Lynn Stalmaster’s timely discovery of New York stage actress Helen Slater, who despite never having appeared in a feature was immediately contracted for a three-picture deal –
The first draft of the script had been submitted with a major role in the story for Superman, with the intention of promoting the movie as the first Superhero team-up in cinema history. Unfortunately, David Odell’s screenplay would be almost completely re-written as a solo adventure by an uncredited W.D. Richter when Christopher Reeve dropped out of the project only months before shooting commenced. Superman’s absence would owe to a ‘Peace-keeping mission in a distant galaxy’ while Reeve’s cameo would be reduced to his image on a poster, leaving Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen as the only bridge between the franchises.
No stranger to the fantasy genre having won a Saturn Award for her work on ‘Clash Of the Titans’, experienced Costume Designer Emma Porteus would draw equal inspiration from the movies and character’s current look in the comics. Slater had screentested in an outfit fresh from the latest DC Style Guide, sporting a candyfloss blonde wig and red headband. Porteus would export the mini-skirt, belt and boots from artist José Luis Garcia Lopez’ ‘Headband Costume’ but duplicate the Superman Movie Costume from the waist up –
Bermans and Nathans were once again entrusted with the manufacture of the costumes, with Porteus favouring a lightweight silk stretch fabric in flat Navy Blue for Slater’s Leotard over Superman’s heavyweight Polyamid. The tunic pattern would be resized and the chest motif scaled down accordingly, leaving it too minute to be assembled from separate components. Instead the red ‘S’ would simply be mounted on its yellow backing and machined around the border, then inset to the tunic using the Blake technique.
Cost-conscious as always and with inventory left over from prior adventures, the producers allowed Porteus to recycle Christopher Reeve’s expensive wool capes, ‘Remade’ with a much shorter hem but with no alteration to the liner. The yellow appliqué, noticeably larger than Slater’s chest motif, would also remain intact. The new accoutrements of the flared mini-skirt and V-shaped yellow waistband/belt would be worn over nude stain tights with attached stretch fabric boots. These would be obscured by Kryptonian-style genuine leather boots with pointed yellow trim and zipper fastening in the rear.
With returns of only $14.3 million from an estimated $35Million dollar budget, Supergirl failed to re-invigorate the franchise despite an enchanting turn from Slater, who was later nominated for a both a Saturn and Razzie Award, respectively. Director Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws 2, Somewhere In Time) had been hired to make Superman in a skirt but had instead delivered Once Upon A Time Warp, the heady mix of genre’s proving too potent for the audience taste.
Undeterred by Critics and diminishing Box-Office, The Salkind’s would keep Szwarc on board and forge ahead with their next pop-culture mythology revival with equally discouraging results. Receipts from ‘Santa Claus – The Movie’ would finally incite the Salkinds to sell their stake in the The Man of Steel to The Cannon Group, Inc. Purveyors of such low-brow fare as ‘American Ninja’ and ‘Missing In Action’, the studio craved legitimacy as a power-player in the industry and Producers Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus were banking on Superman to break them into the mainstream.
The cousins knew enough that it would be impossible for audiences to accept a new actor in the lead so the key component for their planned sequel was enticing Superman himself back to the role. Conscious of typecasting and having spent the intervening years distancing himself from the Superhero image, Christopher Reeve was understandably reluctant to to return. However, with a $1 million paycheck, an automatic greenlight for a personal project, story credit and second unit direction duties, Reeve was welcomed into the Cannon Family in 1986 with the announcement of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace –
With contracts signed, the latest installment faced adversity from the outset, forced to start from scratch having been denied use of any of the specialist equipment, props or costumes from Dovemead Productions as bankrolled by the Salkinds. To the despair of Pinewood Studios, who had hosted the series since the beginning, their plans to build a stage specifically for the production were abandoned with the relocation to EMI Elstree due to its the recent acquisition by the Cannon Group, Inc.
Sidney J. Furie (‘The Ipcress File’, ‘Iron Eagle’) was hired to direct from a screenplay based on a story by Reeve concerning Superman’s intervention in the Nuclear Arms Race with a script by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. Also new to the team was notable Welsh Costume Designer John Bloomfield, arriving with an impressive resume peppered with such classics as ‘Conan The Barbarian’ and ‘The Bounty’.
To maintain continuity between pictures but granted no access to the original costumes, Bloomfield would consult Bermans & Nathans, who had thankfully saved all their original Superman related material. Spandex fabric was arguably at the peak of its popularity during the mid-80’s, with manufacturer’s struggling to cope with demand in the decade since Noel Howard’s initial discovery. While there would be little deviation from Yvonne Blake’s patterns, the bodysuit was upgraded to a stretch Polyamid of greater density and lustre. Though treated with the same combination of dyes, the new fabric would photograph a significantly lighter shade in daylight and the Flying costumes an intense turquoise green –
Unrestricted by comic-book limitations for Superman’s new adversary, Bloomfield would bestow the original character of Nuclearman with as extravagant a rehash of the classic Superhero costume as only he could devise. Former Chippendale Mark Pillow would make his acting debut in a sleeveless leotard edged in gold trim dominated by a Sunburst motif with central ‘N’ detail made up from a matrix of reflective dots. While the standard trunks were abolished, the Kryptonian boots & belt were retained in homage alongside the new additions of gold-banded black leather gauntlets and black satin cape.
Principal photography commenced in 1986 with all involved hoping of recapture the ‘magic’ starting with Superman: The Movie and kickstarting the series. Unfortunately, with over 30 projects shooting simultaneously around the globe all haemorrhaging cash, Cannon would slash the allocated $35 million budget for Superman IV to $17 million and divert the funds to complete their fledgling fantasy opus Masters Of The Universe.
The cuts would impact hardest on the VFX, with missing background mattes, wobbling sets and repeated use of process footage. The drop in standards for the vast majority of flying sequences was evident in the all the travelling mattes, the Bluescreen shots severely bleaching out Superman’s costume almost without exception. None of the matte lines or colour correction would be completed in post-production and even the wires from the live flying were still visible.
As if this were not insurmountable enough, 40 minutes of footage would be left on the cutting room floor after a calamitous test screening, leaving irreconcilable plotholes and reducing the runtime from 130mins to 90. The butchered final edit was released in July 1987 to almost universal derision, with many aghast that a once-beloved film series so renowned for its revolutionary visual effects could deliver such a sub-standard entry. Though critics would acknowledge the story had heart and certain scenes recalled the style & wit of the original, not even a tour de force performance by Christopher Reeve could avert this disaster and the film quickly disappeared from theatres with Box-Office of $36.7 million.
For his 50th birthday in 1988, TIME Magazine would proclaim that Superman was born on February 29th, making him a leap year baby. Among the celebrations to mark the event were a televised 1hr special on CBS charting the history of his exploits, through interviews with key players interspersed with clunky sketches by the Saturday Night Live crew. Ruby-Spears also premiered a flashy animated series unashamedly inspired by the movies, even adapting John Williams by now definitive theme for its 13-episode run.
Not to be outdone in the wake of renewed interest, Ilya Salkind had plucked another dormant member of the Superman family from the smallprint of his DC License deal and was busy developing Superboy for Television at Disney-MGM Studios. The Boy of Steel had already failed to take off in an ill-fated TV pilot in the ’60’s and had even been erased from comic-book continuity in the mid ’80’s, but Salkind had banked on his family reputation to convince Viacom that this new show was going to be a weekly Superman adventure in everything but name –
Set in its own continuity, the episodic format bore all the Salkind hallmarks, with Bob Harman again lending his considerable experience to the live flying sequences and Superman alumni Jackie Cooper and Colin Chilvers set to direct. With an initial order of 13 episodes and scripts from a succession of contemporary comic-book writers such as Cary Bates and Denny O’ Neil the show would shoot in and around Orlando to air in October 1988.
Casting Kal-El, Jr. was unsurprisingly entrusted to Lynn Stalmaster, who hired newcomer John Haymes Newton due to his resemblance to Christopher Reeve, even screentesting him in one of the Superman Costumes. Walt Disney World Creative Costuming would fashion Newton’s costume after the Movie suits, using the Reeve as reference and plundering the leftover wardrobe from Supergirl to recycle the movie capes. The Superboy costume would incorporate the best of both film and comic traits, introducing the ‘Corporate’ shield for the chest – but neglecting to replace the Reeve-style shield on the cape to match.
After a shaky start, with thin plots and visual effects recalling the shoddiness of Superman IV, the series would be picked up and improve throughout its run. Production would relocate to Florida’s Universal Studios and Newton would be controversially replaced by Gerard Christopher after the first season wrapped. Christopher’s costume would completely embrace its comic-book roots, remade by Disney MGM Buena Vista with a larger ‘S’ shield and a Cape with snaps mounted at the neckline, although Reeve capes would still be utilised for various episodes. The complete Reeve costume worn by Newton for his screentest would also be re-purposed as Superboy fancy dress, worn by Ilan Mitchell-Smith for the second season two-part episode ‘Bizzaro – The Thing Of Steel’
Christopher’s bodysuit would become progressively darker in shade from season to season, the original cyan deepening to Navy Blue to reflect a paradigm-shift proportionate to the impact of Superman’s arrival a decade earlier. By 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman had redefined cape & tights as body armour, its sculpted musculature requiring no workout regime for the desired effect. Indeed, the once-chided latex muscle undersuit repurposed as a weaponized oversuit now meant anybody could be a Superhero. Such was the influence of Bob Ringwood’s real-world application that it would dominate the genre, effectively marking the end of the Spandex era. In 1991 the ‘The Flash’ TV show expanded on the concept and embellished the one-piece with red flock.
The Adventures Of Superboy had become modest ratings success, developing a loyal fanbase before its cancellation in 1992 after four seasons and 100 episodes. Lawsuits over distribution rights meant the show would never be repeated in the US, or shown at all in various parts of the world, giving it true ‘cult status’ and the potential of development for a possible feature. In fact, Superman V had been announced by Cannon as early as 1988, in ‘Pre-Production’ just before their inevitable collapse. Cannon’s demise meant the option for future Superman productions reverted back to the Salkinds, who had tentatively been developing the project as a potential Superboy spin-off. Alexander Salkind had already pre-sold the picture under the working title of Superman: The New Movie to numerous foreign territories. Norman Rice of Universal Studios had confirmed a special Superman stage (similar in scale to Pinewood’s 007 stage) was being built and crew were reportedly being hired. Meanwhile Superboy writer Cary Bates had submitted a script treatment and Ilya Salkind had already started courting Christopher Reeve, who’s only stipulation for returning one last time was that the budget and production quality match those of the originals. The project ultimately collapsed when the Salkinds latest venture, historical biopic Christopher Columbus; The Discovery starring Marlon Brando, flopped so badly it severed the father/son partnership. In 1992, both Superman: The New Movie and Superman in the DC Universe would share the same terrible fate, both being killed off to usher in a new era. The following year, Warner Bros. made an announcement that officially brought the Salkind Legacy to an end –
The remaining assets left dormant from the Dovemead/Cannon productions would distribute themselves sparingly over a 30-year period, with salvaged wardrobe items split between the studio, Bermans & Nathans and private estates. Only a finite number of complete Superman costumes would survive in pristine condition, with individual costume items and/or props liberated from the set as souvenirs residing in many a personal collection. The finest existing examples currently reside in the Warner Bros. Corporate archive, with another preserved at the Smithsonian Institute, while others tour the world as exhibits in DC Comics Exhibitions.
Today, Richard Donner’s magnum opus justifiably remains the standard by which all other comic adaptations are judged, with Superman: The Movie honoured by the National Film registry in 2017 and preserved in the Library of Congress. Conversely, Action Comics #1 is now the most valuable comic-book of all time and universally acknowledged as the birthplace of the Superhero genre.
Back in the dark days of the Great Depression, Siegel & Shuster could never have foreseen that their pioneering creation would not only endure, but would set the precedent for the legions of ‘Longjohn characters’ to come. Their basic design brief remained constant for fifty years, handed down from generations of artists and transcending other mediums. When it came to his big screen debut, however, even the skeptical young Oscar®-Winning costume designer found that its clothes that maketh the (Super)man…
Dedicated with Love & Respect to Yvonne Blake
Jim Bowers Colin Chilvers Jason DeBord Matt Derby
Andrew Hanton Kyle Hughes Chris King Tim Lawes
Brian McKernan Sam J. Rizzo Alexei Lambley-Steel
Greg Thomas Jay Towers
Costume Diagrams By