Raised to be a fighter and assassin almost since birth, Natalia “Natasha” Romanova had several teachers, the mysterious Logan AKA Wolverine and later the man called the Winter Soldier. While still a young girl, she was recruited into Russia’s Black Widow program, where she and other young women were trained at the “Red Room” facility to be covert operatives. Because she was given special chemicals treatments that increased her vitality, Natalia looks to be in her 30s today despite being born a few years before World War II began.
Natasha was the first to graduate from the program and took “Black Widow” as her official codename. A combination of brainwashing and false memory implants were used to keep her loyal and obedient even if she would’ve normally disagreed with a mission or refused to kill someone. Her superiors later faked the death of her husband, a government agent called Red Guardian, in order to further manipulate her emotions to this end. Eventually, she became an enemy of Tony Stark AKA Iron Man, trying to steal the secrets of his technology. To help her with this, she recruited the masked archer Hawkeye in some of these missions, initially manipulating him but later growing genuine feelings for the man.
Natasha started fighting against her mental programming and left Russia, joining the intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and working alongside the Avengers, now using wrist-mounted weapons that fired a “Widow’s Bite.” In her travels, she became romantically involved with Daredevil for a time and briefly led the California-based superhero team known as the Champions. She was leader of the Avengers for several months and has worked alongside many different superheroes across the globe. A few times, she also crossed swords with Yelena Belova, another women who claimed the name of Black Widow after she was trained by some of Natasha’s old teachers.
Recently, Natasha learned the full truth of her past and has adjusted her view of the world and herself. While she currently operates as a member of the Secret Avengers, she also regularly goes off on her own to handle threats and missions that the average hero couldn’t without crossing several moral lines and breaking many laws. With her appearances in the new Avengers cartoon and the film “Iron Man 2”, more and more people are learning about her and this week she stars in a new mini-series alongside Mockingbird and her old lover Hawkeye. So let’s examine the many looks this deadly Russian has sported over the years.
BEFORE NATASHA, THE FIRST BLACK WIDOW
Although Natalia Romanova is the most famous comic book female to sport the name, she was not the first Black Widow. In August of 1940, the first Black Widow appeared in “Mystic Comics” #4 (published by Marvel back when it was called Timely Comics), created by George Kapitan and Harry Sahle. This female adventurer was really a woman named Claire Voyant, so you know her parents were jerks who didn’t care about their kid’s embarrassment in school.
Claire showed up in about five stories and was introduced as “a human tool of Satan whose very touch means death.” She was a person who’d died and gone to Hell and then was sent back to Earth with magic powers, including a death touch that left people with a Black Widow mark. Basically, Satan wasn’t patient to wait around for evil men to die on their own anymore, so Claire was tasked with expediting their trips to Hell. Her outfit was a purple dress with a green cape and those colors are often associated with villains or sinister forces in comics, so it definitely fits with her dark nature.
On the other hand, this could just be an outfit one wore to a fancy Halloween party. There’s nothing to indicate that she may be magical or anything more than a girl with a cape and tight outfit. It’s not even that flattering an outfit. But we can’t judge it too harshly since costumes tended to be more simplistic in the days of the Golden Age of comics.
A SPY WITHOUT A COSTUME
We first met Natasha in Tales of Suspense #52 in 1964. In her first few stories as an enemy to Iron Man, there were no skintight catsuits or wrist-mounted weapons. She simply wore classy dresses (usually green) and had a web pattern either decorating the neck or as a veil over her eyes. The veil is a clever touch since it emphasizes the second half of the Black Widow name. But then again, we don’t want Natasha to be identified by the fact that she lost a husband (or thought she’d lost him at the time). We want her to stand out because, like the spider she’s named after, she is fast, focused and deadly. This wardrobe could work for a few Bond girls, but you can’t really picture her in straight-on fight.
After a few adventures, Natasha started getting more physical, showing she could handle herself and didn’t have to rely on agents such as Hawkeye and the Crimson Dynamo to do all the legwork. Her superiors gave her a new costume with boots that allowed her to cling to surfaces, bracelets that acted as weapons, and a mask that emulated Hawkeye’s so that she could further convince the archer of her romantic devotion. This suit first appeared in Tales of Suspense #64 in 1965 and it is, frankly, bordering between “weird” and “lame.”
This is still evening wear rather than something a person can fight in, even in the world of superheroes where cloth seems to be more versatile, resilient and form-fitting than science should allow.
Another flaw of this look is that it’s so generic. You look at someone in this outfit, her name COULD be Black Widow. Or Nightshade. Maybe she calls herself Black Canary. Or Mockingbird. Or Huntress of the Night. There’s nothing here to really give you a sense of identity, other than a tiny “B” emblem on her cape clasp that wasn’t even drawn half the time. She did get her famous wrist shooters at least, firing her famous “Widow’s bite” electric blasts and the grappling hooks that served as her “web-lines.” But they’re pretty generic looking too, so there’s no reason to see them as anything beyond decoration until she actually uses them.
In some flashbacks to Natasha’s early days, some artists have tweaked this look a bit, removing the cape and making the outfit more of a body suit rather than a corset, belt and shorts. Still, this isn’t enough to stop her from looking like a girl at a masquerade ball rather than an intelligence agent.
Natasha kept this outfit even after she became a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and wore it on several missions with them and alongside the Avengers. Some time later, she saw Spider-Man swinging through the city in his famous skin-tight outfit and found herself inspired to design a new, sleek look that would also emphasize that she was heading down a new direction in life. She got to the drawing board (literally) and figured out a suit that she thought was right for the “swingy 70s” (yeah, that’s a direct quote). Which leads us to…
THE FIRST BODYSUIT
This suit first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #86 in 1970. Now this is an outfit for someone who’s going to be fighting HYDRA terrorists, working with Captain America, sky-diving with spies like Nick Fury, and occasionally running across rooftops with Daredevil. This girl is about practicality more than anything else, which makes sense since she’s a spy-turned-adventurer rather than a straight up costumed superhero. A bodysuit that allows for free movement, wrist-weapons, and a belt with extra swing lines and power units is all she really needs.
The initial version of this outfit is black with gray/silver bracelets and belt. Occasionally, she’s gone back to this style over the years. It works and in a live action film it would probably make the most sense. But in comics, it blends together a little too well. There’s nothing to break up the color or make the weapons and belt stand out.
Later on, this Black Widow went for gold instead and man what a difference. This is a great look. Good, strong contrast. It breaks up the color and draws your attention to her weapons so you know immediately that this lady can mess you up. And speaking of color, it’s pretty clever to have Natasha dye her hair red just before she got her black jumpsuit. After all, black and red are the colors of the black widow spider.
Some artists drew the belt with a group of rods in the back rather than discs all around. While this makes sense since Widow carries different tools on her, it also disrupts the look a little and makes the belt seem more decorative rather than utilitarian.
Occasionally, the belt would be dropped entirely. This still works, but I think it also makes her look more like a dancer or a typical superhero rather than a spy who has no real superpowers and has to rely on skills and tools. And yes, I realize that for a long time the Widow’s back story was that she was originally trained as a dancer when she was a child (before a retcon stated that this was a false memory), that had really nothing to do with her later life as a spy and onward.
And let’s face it, the Widow is definitely all about utility. Just check out this scene from an old story where her bracelets were taken, leaving her stranded in a place where she needed a web-line to haul herself out and back to freedom. No problem. Beneath a layer of fake skin, hidden under her outfit, she had the pieces for a collapsible, light weight bow and arrow. Because she actually foresaw a situation where she would need it! Then she used her own outfit as a web-line and fired it up with the arrow, getting her where she needed to go while also showing off her body for any readers who look at comics for that sort of thing.
THE GRAY SUIT
In the 1980s, the Black Widow changed things up. She got a new dark gray jumpsuit and a keen 80s haircut that, in my opinion, may have been more realistic for a lady who’s constantly engaged in hand-to-hand combat, sure, but did not flatter her as much as her previous style.
This greatly resembles a dancer’s outfit rather than a jumpsuit. And without her bracelets, belt and any visible zippers or seams, she looks a little naked. Even if you have the wrist-shooters now built into the gloves, wouldn’t you like at least a belt for extra batteries, extra web-lines, and survival equipment? What if she finds some important file or vital piece of evidence to shut down a terrorist cell? Where is she going to put that file/microchip/computer disc now without a belt? I certainly don’t see any room for pockets!
And have we mentioned the disco collar? Let’s just look at it for a second…
Okay, we’ve looked enough. It’s silly. Some artists didn’t really draw the collar, fortunately, but that doesn’t fix the other flaws.
On the flipside, this outfit does have the nice touch of finally giving the Black Widow some kind of symbol. A tiny spider (sometimes drawn with an hourglass) over the heart and a large spider on the back. Simple but effective.
AND THEN CAME THE 90s
So there was a short time where everyone in the Avengers seemed to feel that real superheroes wore matching leather jackets at all possible times. Natasha decided she was not going to miss out on this trend and followed suit.
While this can work for some heroes, it’s just not right for Natasha. It completely counters the sleekness she’d been emphasizing for over twenty years at that point. It also looks as if it would weigh her down and interfere with her acrobatics. Never mind the fact that anyone who wears a jacket over what seems to be a gray nude-suit just looks kinda funny.
Natasha decided later that she needed to get back visible wrist weapons and a belt just in case. Since it was the 1990s still, she was required to wear this belt on her thigh rather than around her waist.
Red and black work, especially since they are the colors of a black widow spider. Sometimes she wore gold bracelets again instead. But I’d still like some kind of belt or a pants seam to break this outfit up a little bit. Just a personal preference for this style of character.
And then there’s the shape design. If those are supposed to be eight legs, why are they growing out of her stomach? And why would the lowest pair be of such greater length? This design is a little too abstract for its own good.
BACK TO BASICS
A few years later, Natasha figured, “Screw it, my 70s look was made of awesome.” Since then, she’s made a habit of wearing outfits based on that design. A lot of times, she’s added an hour glass symbol to her belt buckle, which is a great touch. It’s clear enough to make us think of a black widow spider but small and subtle enough to keep her from truly looking like a typical spandex-clad superhero.
Sometimes with gold bracelets and a black belt, sometimes with the classic gold belt, sometimes with silver bracelets and a silver belt, etc. I personally still prefer the gold coloring as a nicer contrast against the black than gray or silver.
And I think it would be great if some folks remembered that while Natasha knows how to use her sexuality to manipulate people, she’s still practical enough that she’d zip up her top when entering a fight or hanging out in chilly areas. Just saying.
Speaking of dressing for chilly areas, Natasha showed us she’s nobody’s fool when she was clever enough to wear an all-white version of her outfit for winter climates. Of course, she could have probably used a hood to help hide her hair which no doubt would’ve stood out against all the snow. And maybe a cloak to keep her from freezing since that suit doesn’t look to be padded for colder seasons.
Normally, I’m against the entire outfit and its accessories sharing the same color, but it made sense for the mission where Nat needed camouflage and it wasn’t intended to be a new standard, so I’m okay with that.
Natasha also got herself a personalized space suit for a space station adventure. The lines are interesting, but I don’t think Natasha’s bodysuit looks great in black and white. Black and red instead? Black and gray? Could be fun to experiment.
Strangely, in the first several issues of the title “Mighty Avengers”, Natasha went back to her 80s hair and uniforms more in keeping with her 80s-style. Such as this first one where we see the familiar tiny spider over her heart.
A couple of “Mighty Avengers“ issues had her in a suit that was an interesting compromise between her 70s and 80s looks. This suit has her trademark bracelets (silver) and a utility belt, but there’s now a red hour glass design over her chest and back, similar to the spider designs she sported on the gray suit.
Not a bad compromise at all. But even with this design, I think the bracelets might look better in red or gold to make them stand out more.
YELENA, THE STILL EVIL BLACK WIDOW
So here we’ve got Yelena Belova, who has no problem acting as an assassin for her superiors and has occasionally tried to kill Natasha so that she can be the official Black Widow in everyone’s mind. This lady is what Natasha could have still been if she hadn’t gotten over her brainwashing.
Sad thing is, this woman seems to have no real design of her own. I realize she’s trying to replace Nat, but she comes off looking like Black Widow Lite rather than an evil counterpart.
I mean, really, aside from occasionally adding a weapon or two to her thighs, she’s just taken Natasha’s costume and eliminated the bottom half of the shirt. Is that supposed to be threatening? I don’t know about you, but I don’t take many women seriously if their work clothes involve an exposed stomach and they are neither beach employees nor under the age of 22. This could be Baywatch Black Widow.
Later on, Yelena got a full bodysuit but still added nothing to mark herself as different from Natasha. Maybe she could add blades to the bracelets or her boots? We’ll see if anyone comes up with something interesting for the future.
And that wraps it up for now, folks. I hope you enjoyed this gander at the three women who have worn the name of Black Widow. Hopefully Natasha can get her own live-action movie and/or TV series in the future so non-comic fans can see she’s not just back-up for Iron Man and Nick Fury. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.