Sequential Sartorial: Why Does Fashion Matter In Comics?

teen titans, donna troy, thong, DC, 2009

Costuming is important in art. Clothing is more immediately communicative than body language, and art communicates. For example, Lana Del Rey’s video for her 2012 release “National Anthem.” It’s all Jackie & JFK pastiche. Towards the very end, there’s that last ride recreated, and Jackie/Lana has on the pink suit. WRONG. She wears goldenrod. Her hat doesn’t even match. This, reader, is brilliant.

It’s brilliant because when Quantum Leap season five opens with an episode about the Kennedy assassination, and time-travelling protagonist Sam approaches Mrs. Kennedy in the hospital after having guaranteed her survival, I laughed. Because she looks ridiculous. It’s like seeing a clown. That pink suit is too damn recognisable, too mythic, too satirised, too pop! If you approached Don Draper, and his suit was designed to emulate the appearance of Batman on a normal work day, you’d laugh, too.

I see The Jackie O. Pink Suit, and I think “It’s an okay Dr. Girlfriend cosplay. Fabric’s a bit dodgy.” Del Rey sidesteps that and loses nothing because the “National Anthem” video uses sky-rise dioramas from modern mythology to give life to a nuanced and personal emotional story; it’s not about being Jackie Onassis. It’s about dying in your heart because your imperfect but deep relationship was cut off before you were ready. If the suit had been pink, the allusion would have been lost. Replaced with illusion.

That’s how costuming can benefit storytelling. On the other side of the scales, skimping on costuming can actively revoke engagement with a property. Case in point: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Character Quiet is a mute, bikini sniper, you know the score.

bikini sniper montage, cannibalsaracenian tumblr
Image composite thanks to

Except you don’t — something’s missing from that description. The era. This game is set in the 1980s. 1984. Can you tell?

Quiet, metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, Kojima
Give her a fucking perm.

I didn’t begin to care about Quiet until I learnt that she was an 80s babe. Metal Gear burnt its bridges with me a while back, and truthfully I should have listened to the tendrils of unease that began snaking (hurrr) through my heart when the player was given the option to stare at Meryl until she blushed. I don’t have the fortitude to let myself care consciously about sexist character design in three-dimensional video games. But I lost my shit, basically, and I’ve still got my resentment on simmer: I should be able to tell that she’s from 1984. I should be able to tell that she’s from 1984.

I don’t know what the crossover is, regarding my experience of life as a person who derives joy and intellectual stimulation from the consideration of changing fashions and clothing technology, and my life as a girl, then a woman. But I am a woman, and I do dig clothes. And I know that this combination of facts about a female person is expected and encouraged and belittled.

I don’t attempt to argue that it’s impossible that this character design might appear within 1984. I’m sure it was reasonably possible to buy and wear seamed tights, even low-rise ones. Doubtless, black bikinis were available in a variety of cuts. The individual, of course, could choose to apply kohl with no other make-up, and at any point in history, it is possible to find a woman who does not care to do much with her hair. But this amounts to a de-emphasising of fashion. A removal, or avoidance of, recognisable 1984 signifiers. A purposefully designed timelessness.

Pattern Recognition‘s Cayce Pollard, written by William Gibson:

She is, literally, allergic to fashion. She can only tolerate things that could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000. She’s a design-free zone, a one-woman school of anti whose very austerity periodically threatens to spawn its own cult.

Convincing there, sure. But that’s not what it’s all about for Quiet. Recall EVA from Snake Eater. A woman of the sixties, right? Can you tell just from looking?

Eva, metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater

No! Timeless. Dead. Fashion-negative. A fine look, wearable, but absolutely unanchored.

Okay, as discussed, it’s a personal thing. I like looking at era-specific costuming. I like being given an atmosphere through aesthetics. And that’s part of why I enjoyed Metal Gear to start with; it’s a very stylish franchise. It cares about looks and looking — it cares about the audience’s gaze. It does not care about what I want to look at, and what I want to look at is something that women, as a demographic, are expected to want. Metal Gear repeatedly disregards this desire whilst honouring equivalent masculine visual requirements: Metal Gear disrespects women as a demographic. I look at Quiet, and I can’t even be bothered to open myself to the attacks that will follow public affront re: bikini babes in everyfuckingthing, but I hear that she’s supposed to be a period piece? That’s too much. It’s too much. You’ve hit me twice. Fool me no more, patriarch. Game disk ejected.

Mary-Jane Watson-Parker statuette, Sideshow Collectables, 2007

This reflexive counter-rejection is the vein I was tapping (but failing to conceptualise) back when I read Marvel on the regular, when I was a teenager, when I was incandescent with — something: rage? injustice? a general feeling of “too proud to cry”? — about how Marvel’s artists just could not get over the idea that all women younger than “hag” wore cropped, tight t-shirts, and bootcut mid-rise jeans. That was the era of the empire-waisted tunic top! Do you own a window? Look out of it! God, I hated that. I hated that so much, and I wasn’t alone; many of us also felt this way, and none of us knew how to say what we were feeling: disrespected. Your version of women’s fashion is inauthentic, and you’re selling it to us.

I started thinking about a feature like Sequential Sartorial back in June when I read Juliet Kahn on Bee & Puppycat and girliness in comics for adults. It almost made me cry tears of joy, that piece, for what it was about. It matters, fashion matters, because girls matter and communication should be truthful.

It would be boring, see, to spend month after month talking about bad character design. I don’t want to explain why x makes me feel unwelcome and y makes me want to spit. Strength based approaches are all the rage for 2015, did you hear? Yeah, they are. And I’m a dedicated follower of fashion. Sequential Sartorial is pro-good costuming, probably generally pro-good street fashion in comics. I hope you’ll be joining me.

All the best-dressed people are.


It occurs to me that some in the audience doubting the communicative nature of clothing choices might benefit from this pre-emptive strike re: anti-fashion, that I’ll recycle from a few years back — Hank Green, for example, distances himself from “fashion” and “style,” but favours the nerdy tee. He prefers to write whatever reference he approves of straight-up on his shirt with bald text and pictures or sly and enigma-like upon his shirt with symbolically constructed in-jokes. That’s quite obviously, quite literally, far less poetically, communication via clothing (fashion).

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Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at and give me lots of money

13 thoughts on “Sequential Sartorial: Why Does Fashion Matter In Comics?

  1. I think the artists who are very popular right now speak to the importance of this. You mentioned a few but I think additional the meteoric rise of Kevin Wada speaks to not just women but men finally understanding how much it can matter, especially since it’s an extension of character.

    Speaking of which, OMG DONNA TROY WOULD NOT WEAR A THONG THAT POPS OUT OF HER JEANS. Starfire? Maybe…she might do that. But it’s more plausible Starfire would very likely go commando. Ugh. UGH.

  2. When Randy Green took over Witchblade long ago, he admitted that one of his biggest fears about drawing Sara Pezzini was dressing her. I was so thrilled by his comment and ended up actually designing some outfits for him to use.

  3. I still can’t believe I even found that much material for “bikini sniper” to make that composite. Its still a terrible character design to look at.

    But this article isn’t! Learned something I never consciously thought about before, and I am grateful for that

  4. “Your version of women’s fashion is inauthentic, and you’re selling it to us.”

    Ugh, exactly. They think, “women care about clothes!!!” but they…fundamentally disrespect and don’t understand the importance of fashion because it’s ~dumb girly stuff~ and you end with, as was mentioned upthread, weird inbetween products like Marvel Divas, Gotham City Sirens, etc.

    Long live Sequential Sartorial. \o/

    1. Take Models Inc! I liked it as a story about women who had the same job, but I was not reading a pictographic story about modern models.

      So glad to have your blessing! ^^

  5. Dear Claire,
    Wonderful piece.
    Also, thank you for introducing me to that Lana Del Rey music video.
    That Girl.

  6. this is something that really takes me out of so many comics. i also feel like – i feel like this is how the women are drawn in the marvel comics that you’d think would be aimed at women, from only a few years ago – comics with names like “girl comics” and “marvel divas”. except. except, they’re not actually for women. and noticeably, in most of the comics with female leads at marvel that are ongoing right now (i can’t speak about DC at any great length), more care has been taken with the clothing and character design, and they’re starring in comics that aren’t just called… ‘marvel girls lol’.

    i wonder if the men who are in charge of commissioning these comics know that women can tell by a glance whether something has actually been created with any thought given to women as people or not, just by what they’re wearing?

    1. Yessss. It’s coded lies, innit?

      Putting McKelvie on Young Avengers was one of the smartest things Marvel ever did (the Bryan Lee O’Malley cover was the icing on the cake, right?).

      Your last question: an excellent one. “Girls like clothes”, it’s a joke we all know, but not enough of us see that there’s something useful about creative output we can glean from it.

  7. This makes every bit of sense. It’s why comics like Hawkeye and Batgirl and Lumberjanes are doing great so well. even Runaways when it was coming out. It makes a difference when characters wear clothes you wear. It shows PERSONALITY.

    1. Exactly!

      Speaking of Lumberjanes, Noelle Stevenson is rising so well and started her trajectory with… street fashion redesigns of popular characters. We LOVED them. Because they spoke our language. And everybody loved them! People who don’t think about fashion, people who’d roll their eyes at street snappers and highstreet bloggers, they all loved them, because they spoke ABOUT THE CHARACTERS and about how we think about them.

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