You’re Wearing That? — An Examination on Female Body Armour in Fantasy and Superhero Genres.

final piece
Illustration by Zahrah Ahmad

Somewhere on a fantastical battlefield, a woman has just fallen in combat. In life, she was a powerful force: fighting valiantly, leading her troops, denouncing the enemy, and outdoing competitors ten-to-one. It had seemed, for the longest time, that she could not be defeated. Alas, she had a single, fatal flaw.

Before entering battle, the woman had donned form-fitting fantasy armour; form-fitting to the extent that the metal plates covering her chest had been molded to fit the shape of her breasts. When she fell—most likely tripping on the stiletto heels she also, for some reason, chose to wear—the line separating each breast took the pressure of the impact. Ordinarily, this could have led to a few broken ribs, but in her case the pressure was exacerbated to the center of her chest. The impact fractures her sternum, damages vital organs, and kills her almost immediately. In the throes of epic battle, she forgot the ruthless nature of her greatest nemesis: the infamous Wardrobe Malfunction.

See, breast-plated armour is dangerous in more ways than one. Beyond focusing impacts, the enhanced shape of the breasts actually encourages being stabbed in the chest. Blows that would normally be deflected to either side of the body instead use the V-shape to slide inwards, helpfully directing sword blades directly to the heart and lungs. The basic purpose of armour—to protect the wearer—is fundamentally undermined by making it noticeably feminine in shape.

“But wait,” you say, “isn’t that better than when fantasy women wear no armour at all?”

Official Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes Art
Official Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes Art

Well, yes. But pitting boob-plate armour against a metal bikini isn’t really a fair fight. The great fault of truly skimpy body armour—be it in fantasy or in superhero genres—is that the need to flagrantly display a woman’s breasts is apparently greater than pragmatically keeping her alive. The cardinal rule of character design is that outfits should reflect the environment, functionality, and personality of the wearer; all of which, excluding perhaps the last, is being entirely disregarded by armour that amounts to a steel G-string.

Fantasy armour can be feminized and remain functional at the same time. For some artists this seems a tall order, but it is entirely possible to achieve. One of the most difficult challenges comes simply from the use of metal. Generally, if the woman is a hunter or scout, you can use many types of leather pieces that still fit the shape of the body quite naturally. On the other hand, the metallic battle outfits used by warriors sit on top of the body, and so have less variety if you do them properly. But this is actually where an artist’s creativity can really shine: so long as the piece is not meant to be historically accurate, fantasy genres provide the perfect opportunity to deviate from the norm, adding strong design elements and accessories for personality.

Concept art for Thor’s Lady Sif
Concept art for Thor’s Lady Sif

This stands just as true for the superhero genre. Sadly, over the years, Marvel and DC have collectively created an inundation of terrible costumes for women. I’ll stick only to the more recent versions, or we’ll be here all day.

The general rule of thumb is that if a superheroine does not have unbreakable skin and bones, or possesses impossible strength and resistance, she should at least wear pants. Oh, and a shirt too. A whole shirt, if at all possible.

To this day, it baffles me that the arch-nemeses of these women do not go for another common weak-spot: the femoral artery. A large blood vessel running the length of the thigh, a single deep, angular cut is enough for an adult male to lose conscious after 30 seconds, and die in 3-5 minutes should the bleeding be left unrestricted. Needless to say, this is very bad news for our resident pants-less superheroines, Huntress, Psylocke, and Black Canary (no, fishnets don’t count). While these three are all more than capable combatants, they have no special powers to make up for their total lack of leg protection.

And then there are the supers: those women whose physical resistance is inhuman, and who—technically—can survive even ridiculously negligent outfits. Their wardrobe downfalls lie elsewhere. Mainly their failure is simple impracticality. Yes, their outfits won’t get them killed, but they remain needless liabilities justified only by sexual impact.

DC’s Power Girl (left), Starfire (middle), and Supergirl(s) (right)
DC’s Power Girl (left), Starfire (middle), and Supergirl(s) (right)

Of course, Power Girl’s cleavage window, Supergirl’s short skirt, and everything Starfire since her New 52 reboot is going to get brought up here. Disregarding the unfathomable mechanics of Starfire’s new uniform (we’ll chalk it up to alien technology), her backstory involves landing on earth in a warship. Her costume may hold up against average humans, but against her own people or other super-powered aliens, it’s suddenly reverted back to being flimsy. And then there are the impracticalities of Power Girl and Supergirl’s outfits. For women capable of flight, there are a couple of key issues here. Giant hole over your chest? Why isn’t it inflating whenever she flies at breakneck speeds? Super short skirt? The problem here is so evident it’s not even worth describing.

At the end of the day, I don’t mind if a fictional woman’s outfit is attractive or not. If creators choose to build an outfit where the main goal is to be as sexy as possible, go for it. Just be reasonable as well. What truly matters to me is that the woman in question will be able to do her job as effectively as possible, without worrying about a wardrobe malfunction. That is what demonstrates respect for a character.

And that is what I care about.

-Contributed by Lorna Antoniazzi

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2 thoughts on “You’re Wearing That? — An Examination on Female Body Armour in Fantasy and Superhero Genres.

  1. Good article. Why must women be babes without battle worthy armor? It’s time to get smart. Let’s hit two birds with one stone: make them well protected AND distracting on the battlefield. Now that’s a reckonable force.

  2. These are exactly my thoughts. I appreciate sexy costumes for women but I’ve always wondered about their practicality in battles. I fully agree with Patricia’s armor suggestion — sexy and safe.

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