Couturier to Champions: An Appreciation of Edna Mode

It may sound bizarre to some of you, but whenever I visit an exhibition celebrating movie costumes, I always expect to see something by Edna Mode. Yes, I understand that she is a figment of Brad Bird’s imagination, I know she has been rendered on a computer, and I realize that we have only seen a very tiny portion of her work, but to me, she is so real. Indulge me for a moment, but I think her services to superheroes and couture need to be celebrated and respected—just IMAGINE wandering into a gallery or museum and coming face-to-face with her portfolios, sketches, swatches, and prototypes? Ok, so that may be a little far-fetched, but what about a Pixar short where Edna takes us through her body of work? That would satiate me.

I always love to see superheroes creating their costumes on screen. To give a couple of television examples, in the Supergirl Pilot, we see Kara and Winn modifying and adapting her superhero costume—adding a cape to make her more aerodynamic, for example—to comply with her abilities and ensure she can withstand any attack. Before then, in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman an entire scene is dedicated to Dean Cain’s Clark experimenting with different costumes, aided by a seamstress Martha, until he finds ‘the one.’

Melissa Benoist as Kara Danvers / Kara Zor-El / Supergirl in the Supergirl pilot (Warner Bros. Television, Pilot: Season 1, Episode 1, Dir: Greg Winter, 2015)

In the movies, one of my favourite scenes (both superhero and movie related) occurs in Batman Returns, when Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, resurrected by alley cats and re-animated as Catwoman, creates her iconic suit before our eyes. It’s an incredible scene, brief but powerful: she takes a PVC trench coat from her closet, cuts it apart, and stitches it together by both hand and electric sewing machine, becoming the Cat before our eyes. It is one of my favourite movie scenes of all time, as is her performance.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle / Catwoman in Batman Returns (Warner Bros, Dir: Tim Burton, 1992)

Then, there is the other end of the spectrum. It was thrilling to see Tony Stark build his first Iron Man suit to escape captivity, and I always enjoyed seeing him tinkering with all of his subsequent suits in their various marks of experimentation in his imitable ‘genius playboy billionaire philanthropist’ slash ‘mechanic’ style. We know Peter Parker made his Spidey suit either through old pajamas or tracksuit depending on which movie version we watch or comic book we read, but Spidey’s costumes have altered in the movies over the years. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Toby Maguire informs a fellow elevator taker that the suit “rides up in the crotch a little bit,” while in The Amazing Spider-Man, there is a scene dedicated to Andrew Garfield screen making his Spidey costume.

Returning to Iron Man, there is the legacy of Tony’s actions, which have rippled throughout the MCU, and sometimes costumes scenes serve as a reminder of the past and trigger our emotional responses. More recently, it was incredibly emotional to see Peter designing and rendering a new suit in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Not only did the inclusion of Stark Tech heighten the loss of Tony, but the way Peter crafted his suit, Tom Holland’s every action, was identical to Robert Downey Jr.’s in Iron Man. The entire scene, even down to “Back in Black” playing on the soundtrack and Happy Hogan struck by the similarities, was a poignant dedication to Tony and the movie that would ignite the franchise.

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man (Marvel Studios, 2008)
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark / Iron Man in Iron Man (Marvel Studios, Dir: Jon Favreau, 2008)

There are other, multiple, costume occurrences throughout the MCU. In The First Avenger, we learn that Captain America’s suit was supplied by the government when he volunteered for the super-soldier serum procedure during the 1940s. A costume of propaganda adopted as a symbol of hope for the country when Steve Rogers decided to take matters into his own hands. In Avengers: Assemble, Phil Coulson talked about making a few modifications to Cap’s iconic suit, updating the iconic red, white, and blue for the present day because “some people just might need a little old fashioned.”

The beauty of the MCU is how everything comes full-circle, and Avengers: Endgame was the culmination of so many earlier moment. In the 2012 time-heist scene, Tony teases Steve about that very uniform: “Cap, that suit did nothing for your ass.” Scott Lang’s “America’s Ass” defence comment would go on to spawn a thousand memes of Chris Evan’s peachlike posterior as both an (inter)national moment and piece of art as if carved from marble by Michaelangelo himself. In real life, Chris Evans would say how much the Stealth Suit of Winter Soldier was his personal favourite, while Tom Holland said he loved the functionality of his recent, all-black ‘Night Monkey’ uniform, provided by SHIELD in a bid to go undercover.

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America in The Avengers, (Marvel Studios, Dir: Joss Whedon, 2012)

T’challa’s Black Panther costume was enhanced by Shuri in her lab. Superman’s cape was the blanket he was wrapped in when he was born and sent to earth. But what about the ones we don’t know about? Where did they get their costumes—were they part of their origin story, did they make them, did somebody make their outfit for them? This is why I love Edna Mode and everything she stands for as superhero couturier.

We first see her in The Incredibles, an accented voice booming loudly over the intercom when Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible arrives at a compound with optimum security. Small in height but with a force and presence that could quite easily intimidate even the strongest supervillain, she is uncompromising, determined and exact in her vision, something that all couturiers should be. Her name, to begin. ‘Mode,’ pertaining to clothes and/or fashion, or even à la mode—in or according to the fashion—she vibrates with the legacies of the most iconic fashion designers who made some of the most well-known and loved creations ever seen on screen. Interestingly, Brad Bird based her small height on the iconic Bette Midler, who he always assumed to be taller than she actually is and on meeting her voiced his surprise by saying “she absolutely dominates the screen. And it just struck me how much personality was in this small body.

Edna’s inspiration is an amalgamation of so many variables (including Linda Hunt and, quite naturally, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour) but her pragmatism is more like Edith Head, the iconic designer and eight-time Academy Award nominee who designed for everyone from Mae West to Elizabeth Taylor and Hedy Lamarr and Grace Kelly. Edna not only appears to have replicated Head’s blunt fringe and round-rimmed glasses, but Head’s costuming of so many of Hollywood’s golden age movies stars is a neat mirror to Edna’s costuming of her iconic superheroes.

Edna Mode in Incredibles 2 (Pixar Animation Studios, Dir: Brad Bird, 2018)

I love how technical she is, something is too often overlooked in terms of fashion design. Outfits need to be practical, durable and tailored to each superhero’s special powers. Elastigirl’s needs to be durable and exceedingly flexible—one of the most resilient materials known to mankind—and tear-resistant. That’s the last thing Helen wants or needs: her costume needs to be a second skin, as do all outfits for that matter. And Edna knows her clients like nobody else, providing the first costume for Helen since she had her third children and all but retired from the Supers game. I love her relationship with the Parrs: that familiarity that only comes from years of working with people, a friendship that has surpassed time and children and the mundanity of a non-superhero life. Only the Parrs can awaken this side of Edna from a voluntary retirement, and the reveal of all the super suits she has created for the family is a testament to her loyalty.

Her dialogue manages to combine so many fashions and superhero clichés in fresh and familiar ways. Her emphatic “No capes!” has slipped into my everyday vocabulary in such a way that I have found myself shouting it—loudly, demanding—whenever I disagree with something. Do you remember when Madonna took a tumble down the stairs after a cape/cloak incident mid-performance at the 2015 Brit Awards? You could feel the cries of NO CAPES! reverberate around the world. Her other gems include “Supermodels, ha! Nothing super about them”, “I used to design for Gods!”, “I never look back, darling, it distracts from the now,” and, of creating Bob’s new outfit, “It will be bold, heroic, dramatic.”

Edna Mode in The Incredibles (Pixar Animation Studios, Dir: Brad Bird, 2004)

Her involvement and dedication to the family are sweet and enduring, something everlasting in their precarious business. In The Incredibles 2, we see the Parr’s confronted with Jack-Jack’s powers and a clueless Bob handing him over to Edna for assistance and control. While this could have been a major disaster, Edna sees something of a kindred spirit in the youngest Incredible and is the only one able to contain and monitor his polymorphic abilities in much more successful and productive capacity than Bob. As she informs him, “He is bright and I am stimulating, we deserve each other.” That’s another factor of her brilliance—her use of technology. She is a scientist, and inventor, a tech genius who can adapt the Parr’s suits to their unique individual powers. For Jack-Jack’s fiery persona, she incorporates a fire extinguishing substance suitably designed for hungry baby: “the flame retardant is blackberry lavender, darling. Effective, edible, and delicious.”

Edna Mode and Jack-Jack in The Incredibles 2 (Pixar Animation Studios, Dir: Brad Bird, 2018)

Imagine if all superheroes had Edna Mode at their disposal, somebody non-government, loyal, dedicated and a genius? “I do not involve myself in the prosaic day-to-day,” she tells Bob, as only legends can do. She’s a brilliant genius, I adore her.

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