Everyone knows Superman at a glance. The blue suit, the red boots and trunks, the big cape, the famous S-shield. Alter any of these elements and even non-comic book readers will quickly notice.
But when it comes to Superman’s birth place, the planet Krypton, this isn’t the case. In comics, TV and film, Kryptonians have been shown in a variety of ways for many different reasons, operating under sometimes drastically different philosophies. Some designs have worked. Some worked for the story but were limited in appeal. And some were simply lazy and uninspired. The world of Krypton is gone as we know it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t critique it!
So let’s jump into things, shall we? Let’s look at the world of Krypton and how its society’s fashion sense has altered over the years and how this has affected Kal-El, the man called Superman.
The people of Krypton made their first appearance in 1939, not in the comic books but in the Superman newspaper comic strip. The only Kryptonians we saw were Superman’s parents Jor-El and Lara (originally called “Jor-L” and “Lora”) and there was no color in the strip, but we could still get some idea of their fashion sense.
Superman’s mother is wearing a simple gown which is no different than than what any pretty girl might wear on Earth. Jor is wearing a loose, comfortable-looking outfit. It could be a uniform, but this doesn’t seem too likely with the lack of decoration or symbols on it. The cut of the pants and the boots indicate these are general purpose work clothes. He seems ready to go on a nature hike as soon as he finishes in the lab.
These clothes imply that the people of Krypton are actually very much like us, save for the obvious biological differences of super-powers. Whether intentional or not, the design serves the story very well. Alien heroes were not as common in the late 1930s as they are today and several publishers had rejected the Superman strip because they didn’t think readers could identify with or root for a man from the stars with impossible power. Showing that Krypton is a lot like Earth, or perhaps what Earth might be like in the future, almost tricks the audience into seeing Clark as an actual human being who just happens to come from outer space. It mirrors the original explanation that Superman’s powers were due to Kryptonians being more evolved than human beings, implying we might become like them in several thousand years. This justifies why one of Clark’s nicknames is “the Man of Tomorrow” rather than “the Alien of Tomorrow.”
Eventually, Krypton was at last depicted in the pages of the Superman comic books and in full color. The 1945 version of Jor-El seen here clearly lives on a planet where everyone woke up one day and decided “fashion is hard, let’s all just dress the same and wear skull-caps.”
In a lot of science fiction, there seems to be this idea that one day in the future everyone will basically dress in the same outfits and jumpsuits. This is no exception. These flashy, colorful jumpsuits still tell us that Krypton is more like a future version of Earth rather than a culture completely removed from our own. At the time same, it’s too generic. Is that Jor-El or a friend of Flash Gordon’s or a colleague of Buck Rogers? There’s nothing in this outfit to give Kryptonians their own sense of style and identity.
By 1949, we were given a new version of Jor-El, one whose wardrobe was clearly not of any known Earth culture. An Earth native MIGHT wear a shirt with a ringed planet on it, along with boots and wrist bands. But the cape, the shorts fitted over tight-fitting pants, and the headband all tell us this guy is from somewhere else. This still implies “future” more than “alien.” The basic design here is very similar to ones seen in strips featuring futuristic adventurers, but at least now it has its own style.
And something else is happening now. With this new design, we are now getting a visual justification for Superman’s outlandish costume. You think it’s a coincidence that Jor-El and his colleagues are dressed in bright colors like Superman? You think it’s simple synchronicity that many Kryptonians here also enjoy wearing shorts over their pants? And notice many of them have shirts decorated with large symbols or geometric shapes such as diamonds and triangles?
Superman’s debut in 1938 set the standard of how superhero costumes should look. And now, years later, readers were shown that his design actually emulates how the people of his home world dressed. And all of a sudden, Superman’s uniform is no longer just a suit loosely based on a circus strongman outfit. Now it’s something that advertises and recognizes his alien heritage. This idea would not only stay with Superman for some time to come, it would be taken to new levels in later years.
THE POWER OF MYTH
In 1948, we got our first live-action look at Krypton and man, was it disappointing. The Kryptonians here seemed to be wearing a mishmash of costumes cobbled together from an old Arabian Nights film. Jor-El and Lara were played by Nelson Leigh and Nuala Walters, respectively. Nuala looks quite pretty and stylish in her outfit, but there is nothing interesting or memorable about Jor-El’s look other than a cape that’s really just a beach towel that happens to fit him. And what is with his pants?
And as David Pepose pointed out to me, why does Krypton’s Council of Science seem to have the Super Mario Bros. among its members? Notice Mario looking very troubled at the head of the table? Perhaps that 8-bit chair he stole from the Mushroom Kingdom is not as comfortable as he’d first imagined. And Luigi seems like he’s either admiring the back of Jor-El’s snuggie or is just laughing at the man’s ridiculous pants. Can you blame him? And now, it’s no wonder no one believed Jor-El’s warnings about Krypton blowing up. Would you believe a man with pants like those? Seriously!
When the TV series starring George Reeves as Superman first hit the airwaves in 1952, we finally got a live-action version of Krypton that did not completely suck and gave us a new take on things. The alien wardrobe seen here is not like the comic book version nor is it really futuristic. The star on the shirt says “alien,” yes, but the belt, collar, wrist guards and stitching all resemble a style you’d see in films of the time depicting Ancient Rome or Greece.
This new take on Kryptonian fashion isn’t that far out of left field. Superman’s story as the “Last Son of Krypton” is fairly mythic. Think about it. A great and powerful civilization is marked to die and only a single child survives, sent to live among more primitive people whom he can inspire and help with his god-like abilities. This new clothing definitely reflects this story, implying that Kal-El is akin to a demi-god sent down from Olympus.
On the flip-side, this wardrobe kills the sense that Krypton is what Earth could be like in the future. And we also lose the visual explanation of why the adult Clark Kent will design his Superman outfit the way it looks. I find it very interesting the TV show wouldn’t copy this idea, since live-action media is often very concerned with justifying why superheroes dress in the flashy outfits they wear, since there’s usually a fear that the wider TV audience won’t just accept certain things that readers almost take for granted. Especially since costumes appear even more outlandish when presented in live-action than when they appear on the colorful, cartoony page of a comic.
SILVER AGE KRYPTON
Jor-El got his look tweaked during the Silver Age of comics. The ringed planet on his shirt was replaced with the symbol of a yellow sun. When you consider that Krypton’s sun Eldirao is red in color, this is pretty strange. Is the symbol simply meant to be a star, indicating Jor-El’s interest in outer space? Or is it meant to foreshadow that his son will one day derive great power from Earth’s yellow sun? Either way, the idea works, though perhaps the image is a bit too large. It runs the risk of looking more like a T-shirt or a billboard rather than a tunic.
Notice the added sleeves and how Jor-El now has a skirtlet since he’s wearing a long tunic rather than just a tucked-in shirt. These elements give us a combination of the old version of Jor-El and his TV Romanesque counterpart. So we get the mythical implication of Superman’s origin while keeping the justifications for our hero’s costume.
During the Silver Age and beyond, we got more and more into Krypton’s history and culture. We saw that many of its people wore capes, cool boots and shorts over their pants (or just wore shorts instead of pants). Bright colors were present everywhere and adult men wore headbands that symbolized their status as free citizens. Years later, Supergirl would also wear a headband, despite not being a man. A progressive lady, that Supergirl.
DC did try to give the headbands a purpose besides just being decorations advertising citizenship. In a couple of stories, they were said to absorb data from the wearer, allowing someone who wore the headband later to see the previous owner’s experiences. Superman used this to discover more about his ancestors.
We also saw that many Kryptonians wore geometric shapes on their shirts. This furthered the justification for why Superman would feel the need for a diamond-shaped symbol on his chest (beyond just wanting people to know who he was when they saw the big cool “S” on him).
To further the idea of Krypton as being part of a fairy tale myth, we got glimpses into its past. In ancient Krypton, when the first House of El was formed, we can see the outfits clearly emulating idealized depiction of Ancient Rome. This gives a sense of enlightenment, a place where a great civilization is born, because many of us associate those things with Ancient Rome.
But some futuristic and alien touches are added even to the wardrobe of Krypton’s early history, causing some of its inhabitants to resemble characters from high adventure fantasy novels and Tolkien-inspired sagas. Thanks to this, ancient Krypton becomes not just the world of tomorrow but also a place where wizards and dragons may exist.
Small wonder then that during the Silver Age and the years following, we discovered that Krypton was a planet of incredible wonders such as the glass forest, the jeweled mountains, the scarlet forest and the famous firefalls. Not to mention the strange creatures that lived in the wild, such as thought-beasts who could project images of your fears at you.
Fast forward to some centuries later, we can see that Superman’s ancestor Sul-El and the people of his time dressed in outfits that foreshadow the fashion of Jor-El’s day but are less complex, less colorful, and far looser around the body.
This looks a little bit similar to styles seen in the Italian renaissance, which is no coincidence since we’re told that these scenes take place during a time when Kryptonians began truly exploring, seeking new lands and new ways of looking at the universe. Sul-El himself is shown to be a very Galileo-like person. Again, this emphasizes that Krypton is not terribly different from Earth itself.
One thing about Krypton though was there seemed to be no standard look or uniform to anyone. Sometimes Jor-El wore loose pants, sometimes he wore shorts over tight leggings. Sometimes he had a cape, sometimes not. This would be fine except we didn’t have any reason for these alterations when they happened. Was the cape just for official meetings or was it up to Jor-El’s whim? Were capes and shorts considered formal? Is that why General Zod’s military uniform had both a pants look and a short-shorts look?
Since the books never really dug into the matter, it seemed like the outfits were just at the whim of each artist. Which is okay, but a few notes of dialogue to indicate what was seen as casual wear and what clothing had purpose could’ve added greater depth to the sense that Krypton had a real culture.
A WORLD OF CRYSTAL
In 1978, the world got its first true superhero feature film. Director Richard Donner gave us “Superman: The Movie” which set the standard for years and introduced us to the magic of Christopher Reeve, whose physical acting ability actually allowed people to buy into the idea that Clark Kent and Superman could seem like two different people. It also surprised audiences with star talent such as Gene Hackman playing Lex Luthor and Marlon Brando playing Jor-El.
This film depicted a startlingly different vision of Krypton. The colorful world that mixed both fantasy and science fiction was now gone, replaced by a sterile and cold environment. The people lived and worked in places that were seemingly carved into the walls of canyons and ravines. The white coloring everywhere gave the impression of ice and snow even when there wasn’t any. Enforcing this was the fact that these Kryptonians used technology based on crystals.
The Kryptonian wardrobe here matches this sense of sterility. Colorful, tight-fitting clothing with capes and headbands are replaced by simple robes and loose-fitting shirts. Some of the clothing seems to produce its own light. All of this gives a very stark impression of this planet. It may be the future of Earth, but it’s not necessarily a future we want. It seems harsh and cold-hearted, which fits well since two of the film’s major scene that take place on Krypton revolve around terrorists on trial followed by Jor-El’s warnings of planetary destruction falling on deaf ears. If this world has any art, religion or wonders, they are hidden from us.
Yet this also returns us to a mythical feeling. As Jor-El and Lara stand before us in glowing, white clothing, looking down on their baby Kal, we can see a definite religious take on the origin. Jor-El is now like God sending an angel or a son/savior down to Earth. Kal-El’s name means “star-child” in old Kryptonese and in this film his ship literally looks like a star that falls to Earth.
Still, while it’s great to emphasize the myth of Superman, I think we lose a lot now that Krypton no longer looks like a place of wonder and fantasy. Many of us wanted to visit it when it was a world of tomorrow that had fairy tale elements. But who wants to visit a world as stark and colorless as the one depicted here?
This version of Kryptonian clothing would appear often in live-action media, from the “Superboy” TV series to “Smallville” in recent years.
The movie did introduce something that struck a chord, though. That was the idea that Superman’s symbol had actually originated on Krypton. So far in the comics, it had always been clear that the S-shield was something Clark himself designed. It stood for “Superman” because that was his alias. In one story, a young Clark considered it to also stand for “saving lives, stopping crime and giving super-aid wherever it’s needed!”
But Jor-El wears the S-shield on his shirt and his colleagues in Krypton’s Council of Science all wear similar symbols, curved shapes inside geometric objects. This tells us that the shield is actually an alien glyph of some kind, perhaps a family crest. In the film, Lois comes up with the name “Superman” for our costumed champion after seeing him in action a few times and it’s implied that part of the reason she comes up with this name is because she mistakes his alien symbol for a stylized letter “S.”
The S-shield being a Kryptonian symbol and part of Superman’s heritage was apparently Marlon Brando’s idea and it was quickly accepted by the general public. In the comics, this would not be accepted for years to come. For a while, the closest equivalent meaning was in a story in 1984 where we saw that Jonathan Kent designed Clark’s S-shield based on a dream he had, a dream which showed him a sword formed during the Big Bang that had this symbol engraved on it. This gave the insignia a mythical implication, yes, but it wasn’t quite the same as connecting it to Krypton.
BYRNE’S HARSH REALITY
In the mid-1980s, a crossover called “Crisis on Infinite Earths” involved the DC Comics continuity getting destroyed and recreated. Following this, DC Comics began revamping and revising a lot of their characters and history, in some cases basically rebooting from scratch. Superman was re-imagined under the direction of writer/artist John Byrne and he had some very different ideas from what had been seen in the comics for the last several decades.
Byrne’s Post-Crisis Krypton was visually a warmer place again, with vegetation, bright buildings and colorful clothing. But the Kryptonians themselves went to the other side of the spectrum. Byrne took the idea of Krypton as a cold environment (emotionally speaking) and ran with it. These people did not look like folks that Flash Gordon might’ve run across. They wore black bodysuits that protected them from the environment, with large cloaks that, while brightly colored, hid all sense of sex and identity. These were very clearly alien beings and the intention was to advertise that Krypton was a world that had lost its connection to a vital human trait: emotion.
Krypton was not the promise of a world of tomorrow but now a harsh warning. When Jor-El sends Kal to Earth, it is partly because Earth is a place that still embraces things such as love, art and music. This child will have the life that his father never could on his own emotionally barren world.
It works for the intention Byrne has, absolutely. The problem is, I don’t personally like this intention. Again, who wants to visit this place? These Kryptonians make the Vulcans of Star Trek seem like over-emotional mystics in comparison. And by having them dress in a way that is so antithetical to Superman’s costume, it implies that Kal-El has very little (and possibly wants nothing) to do with his native planet, which kills a lot of the sense that he is a man of two worlds.
Interestingly, Bryne’s depiction of ancient Krypton was very similar to the Pre-Crisis idea of that planet’s past. If anything, Byrne made ancient Kryptonians seem more decadent and confident by having them in such loose, revealing outfits. This version of Krypton looks far more interesting to me personally. Ah, well.
AN ANIMATED TAKE
The 1990s animated Superman series brought the character a new, younger audience in a whole new way. Rather than stay close to the comics, the production team decided to give us a version of Krypton that evoked a sense of the Silver Age but had touches of Byrne’s re-imagining.
Now the cloaks and bodysuits have been given individual styles. Jor’s goes over his shoulders and forms a collar (a ridiculously high and stiff collar, but a collar none the less). Lara’s robe is thin and goes all the way down to the floor, giving the impression of evening wear, especially when we realize her black bodysuit is actually a dress. And by removing their skullcaps, we again have gender identity. Simply by having her hair out and down her back, Lara defeats any concern that this is the same emotionally sterile environment Byrne created.
And let’s quickly talk about the hair. Before, all depictions of the El family had Jor-El possess the same hair-style and s-curl that his son would later sport. Here though, it is Lara who sports the famous Superman spit-curl on her forehead. It may not seem like much, but it’s the first time we’re given visual proof that Clark takes after Lara in some way and not just his father.
And while Jor and Lara’s similar dress style may imply a uniformity of look, a gander at other Kryptonians shows us that there are different styles and colors elsewhere on the planet. Perhaps the House of El simply likes to dress alike or perhaps these two scientists are wearing the Kryptonian equivalent of lab coats.
And hey, is that a familiar gold headband on Jor-El’s head? Not only is this a nice touch, but it’s an improvement on the old design. Silver Age Kryptonians wore cloth headbands that years later would make them all look very cemented in the 1980s. By replacing the cloth with a thin metal circle of gold, we modernize it and add a touch of elegance of regality. I now find it easier to believe it’s a symbol of status or citizenship.
The animated series also depicted the S-shield as a Kryptonian symbol, though it was more vague as to what the glyph truly meant.
A very nice compromise by the animation team.
MARK WAID’S BIRTHRIGHT
Despite Byrne’s re-imagining of Krypton, many Pre-Crisis elements were still popular and more and more new audiences were being exposed to stories closer to them thanks to shows such as “Smallville” and “Superman: The Animated Series.” Because of this, DC gave writer Mark Waid (“Kingdom Come,” “Irredeemable”) the task of revising Superman’s origin yet again, giving something that was consistent with today’s continuity but would replace some of Byrne’s ideas with what general audiences were more familiar with, balancing elements from the Silver Age and the live-action media. He was told to consider the myth of Superman first and established canon second.
With artist Leinil Yu, Waid threw Byrne’s Krypton out the window. Here again is a place of drama, color and high-concept sci-fi wonders. Jor-El was given a look that was both futuristic but also somehow retro. A jumpsuit with a highly decorative cape and collar, a proud S-shield clasp on it. The headband is replaced with the face-guard that was worn by many comic book characters starting in the early 1990s. Superman’s father now looks like a superhero himself, once again justifying Clark’s later costume.
In the past, Lara had often gotten the short end of the stick when it came to design. Usually, she was just put into an evening gown or was given a dress with a cape added to it. Here though, she’s wearing something that looks like it’s straight out of “Dune” or “The Fifth Element.” She’s sexy rather than matronly, reminding us that Superman’s parents never had the chance to grow old together before their world was destroyed. And we have her sporting the s-curl again. A very nice take on her.
“Superman: Birthright” showed the ancient people of Krypton as high-flying adventurers, men and women who conquered the stars and wielded fantastic technology even in their past. Waid also finally gave the S-shield a definitive meaning. It was a design adopted by the House of El as a crest, yes, but it was also a Kryptonian symbol that meant “hope” and signified the desire to work for a better tomorrow. All of that is Superman’s philosophy in a nutshell and so we now have a deeper reason, beyond even just a recognition of heritage, for Superman to wear this shield so proudly on his chest. A wonderful idea.
A little before this story came out, DC Comics had begun depicting Superman’s people as reliant on crystalline computers and machines akin to Donner’s film. In the story “Up, Up and Away” by Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek, these crystals were finally given a name: sunstones.
Sadly, “Superman: Birthright” did not get the advertising it should have gotten at the time and so some readers were not sure if this was the new status quo or simply an alternate take on things. A few years later, the mini-series “Superman: Secret Origin” would replace it as the official story of Clark’s origin and early days. However, since we’re talking about it, I suggest you read “Birthright” if you haven’t already. It’s a fun take on Superman and Krypton and I actually consider it a companion piece to Grant Morrison’s critically acclaimed “All-Star Superman” story. Seriously, if you look at the two stories they work very nicely together and compliment each other as a look at Superman’s life from beginning to end.
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW
After a story called “Infinite Crisis”, the sequel to the 1980s Crisis tale, DC began revamping Krypton yet again. We started seeing flashbacks of a world not unlike the one seen in Richard Donner’s film. We saw Jor-El wearing a simple tunic and pants that, on the surface, were similar to Marlon Brando’s Kryptonian outfit (though simply gray and black rather than glowing).
Kryptonian criminals in the Phantom Zone were given a new uniformed look. Their outifts are gray and drab, understandable for prisoners. The goggles are said to be there because existence in the Phantom Zone can affect your vision. Flare goggles are always a bit creepy looking, so this is a nice touch.
At last, thanks to “Superman: Secret Origin” and the series “World of New Krypton,” we’ve gotten a full on view on what the new state of affairs was. Rather than simply tossing in a whole new way of looking at things, a combination of past takes has emerged. Kryptonian wardrobe no longer has one look or design but several. In the new version of things, Krypton’s society is divided into several guilds, each of which dresses differently.
To the delight of many readers, the Artist Guild and Science Guild is garbed in very familiar ways, namely the Silver Age style and Byrne style respectively. The colorful and sometimes gaudy ways of the Silver Age make sense for a culture of artists and Byrne’s designs nicely illustrate a guild that, as he intended, worships science and logic above all else.
We also got some new outfits. The Labor Guild dresses in loose jumpsuits of Earth tones, which tells us at a glance that these are people who are grounded and pretty pragmatic. There’s the Military Guild, dressed in black uniforms that have only small touches of color to indicate rank or unit. It’s practical and utilitarian.
And there’s the Religious Guild. We’re told that Krypton’s Religious Guild are fairly secretive and anti-social, wearing faceless masks. This behavior and the masks indicate that this guild’s members see themselves as instruments of providence and a higher power rather than as individuals with Earthly needs. The different masks and amulets glow different colors, presumably to indicate the different gods of Krypton’s mythology.
This paradigm of Kryptonian fashion finally gives us something that all previous takes were lacking: a multi-faceted society. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a common practice in science fiction to have all members of an alien or future society dressing in the same basic style. But now we have several different styles which all speak of that particular person’s background and philosophy.
And the members of the different guilds are not locked into that one dress style. They might wear markedly different clothing for certain occasions, such as when a trial is held and those in attendance wear robes similar to the dark ones Marlon Brando wore. And that’s not all that was taken from the Richard Donner film. We see that during special ceremonies, Kryptonians wear glowing white robes.
This all makes Krypton seem much more real, since we ourselves often dress in ways that reflect our function or how we operate in the world. You might wear a suit to the office and then a t-shirt and jeans at a barbeque, followed by a tuxedo on the weekend when you attend a wedding. People change clothes depending on what they’re doing and what impression they want to give. And now, at last, Kryptonians do too.
And hey, the headbands showed up again! And at last, women wear them just as often as guys. So I guess they’ve finally been recognized as full citizens just like men, right? I knew Krypton would get the equal rights memo eventually. Good on them!
In all seriousness, though, I really like this idea of different philosophies and functions reflected in Kryptonian clothing. Whenever they get around to doing a new live-action TV series or film franchise, I hope they can give us something just like this. When you make Krypton look like a real world with a fully realized culture and history, you give it greater pathos in Superman’s mythology and you also make its loss all the more tragic.
And that, folks, concludes our look at Kryptonian fashion. I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to toss any suggestions for other characters you might like us to take a look at in the future. This is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Kistler is an actor and writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media outlets as a comicbook historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series” and one of the hosts of “Midtown Comics TV.”He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who and vampires who don’t sparkle. His work can be found at http://KistlerUniverse.com or http://www.youtube.com/user/CrazySexyGeeksSeries.