After her parents were gone and she was separated from her sister, Selina Kyle found herself abused by the woman who ran the orphanage she was staying in. After surviving an attempt on her life that involved her being trapped in a bag and thrown into a river, the young girl got victory over her “warden,” leaving her to the police after first forcing the women to wipe out all of Selina’s records.
Selina learned how to survive on her own, picking up thievery and karate. Living in Gotham’s East End, different circumstances led to her being trained by the martial artist known as the Armless Master, as well as the retired superhero Ted Grant AKA Wildcat (who had also trained a young Bruce Wayne). When Selina heard stories about the new vigilante Batman and then personally saw the Dark Knight evade and embarrass the police who tried to capture him, she was inspired to follow to his example… but in her own style, of course. Donning a feline costume, Selina Kyle became Catwoman, expert thief of Gotham City, often robbing corrupt people and well-known gangsters. The fact that she never endangered innocents or targeted people gave Batman reason to go easy on her and the two quickly realized an attraction to each other.
With her new money, Selina began a new life for herself, leaving the streets and entering the social circles of high society, even dating Bruce Wayne for a while. After several years of operating secretly as a thief and occasionally operating alongside more violent super-villains, Catwoman eventually shifted gears and tried to become a protector of the women of Gotham’s East End. Her new focus brought new trust from Batman and the hero revealed his identity to her.
At one point, Selina had a child and contemplated leaving her wild life behind, turning the costume of Catwoman over to her young friend Holly Robinson. But when enemies kept entering her personal life, she decided her child needed a better mother. The baby Helena was sent away to be adopted by others and Selena, now convinced she had been lying to herself by playing the role of a hero, returned to a life of crime for the most part. Since then, she has been operating largely alongside the criminals Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn.
She’s captured many fans over the years and even people who’ve never touched a comic book have heard the name “Catwoman.” And now that folks are talking about the new casting of Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle for the upcoming film The Dark Knight Rises, it seems like a good time to discuss the woman’s ever-changing wardrobe over the years. Let’s take a look, eh?
INTRODUCING: THE CAT!
When she first appeared in Batman #1, Selina Kyle was a thief and a mistress of disguise but she didn’t wear a costume. She utilized incredibly realistic masks and wigs in order to pull of burglaries. When Batman unmasked her, she sported a green evening gown and called herself “The Cat.”
People have spoken of the “gentleman thief” as someone who steals with style and puts on the air of a member of high society. Selina definitely fit this mold. She seemed to thieve not out of a desperate need for money but for the challenge of it and the fame that accompanied the act. Almost immediately, Batman displayed an attraction towards the thief, deliberately allowing her a chance to escape later. After a couple of encounters with the Dark Knight, the Cat realized she felt the same way.
Pretty quickly, Selina decided to follow in the footsteps of her bat-winged enemy and donned an animal-themed mask. She also got herself a cape. But beyond that, this isn’t really a costume. She’s still wearing an evening dress like the ones we’d seen her in before, only now it has a high collar and a cloak that complements it. She was still a thief, but now got a bit more physical in her operations, running across rooftops to escape the Darknight Detective.
THE CLASSIC LOOK
In 1947, we finally got into the habit of dropping the hyphen from the name “Catwoman” and the character got her first truly “classic” costume. We still have her in a fancy dress, as was her usual style. But with the cat-ear cowl, cape and cat-claw gloves, it turns from evening wear into a costume.
Purple and green are a natural pick. These colors are often associated with villains and arch-enemies to superheroes. This outfit isn’t very practical, but Catwoman didn’t engage in acrobatics during the 1940s and early 50s the way she does today. She sometimes had to engage in hand-to-hand combat, but during this time she usually relied on henchmen to handle her dirty work. And while she occasionally swung on cables from rooftops, she also often traveled around in her personalized Kitty Car.
Yes, that’s right, the Kitty Car. Think of the Batmobile, but more feline, with mechanical claws, an unnecessary tail, and the ability to jump over small distances. This Catwoman was not just a cat-burglar who focused on stealth. She was a loud criminal who announced her presence and power to everyone. She saw herself as the highest class of criminal and this brings us back to the colors. Purple is the color of royalty and that fits in with Catwoman’s opinion of her place in the world. Decades later, an issue of Catwoman’s own comic series confirmed that a desire to paint herself as royalty was exactly why she adopted the color purple.
A couple of times, Selina wore a version of this outfit that was more of a bodysuit. Switching a dress or skirt for trousers is definitely more practical for someone in Selina’s line of work. Now though, it seems to be a black suit with purple highlights meant to give it texture.
It keeps the same presence as the dress, however. You can see Selina wearing this and declaring herself the high princess of thieves and queen of all cats. I’d just alter the belt to match the green of her cape.
THE ALTERNATE CAT-WOMAN
For several years, Selina vanished from comics entirely, not appearing again until after the live action TV show of the 1960s had begun airing. But none the less, there was a Cat-Woman story during her absence.
You know about Batwoman, right? These days, she’s Kate Kane, a woman who became a hero for her own reasons and was partially inspired by Batman’s example. In the old days, she was Kathy Kane, a circus performer who decided to attract Batman’s romantic attention by becoming a costumed vigilante as well. In one story though, the villain Cat-Man tricked Batwoman into becoming his new Cat-Woman.
And what a horrific costume. Seriously, orange and bright green? Awful colors. And while claws on the gloves work, non-functional claws on the boots are just odd. And while Selina looked like royalty, the purse here really kills any chance of that happening with this outfit. Nope, this look is just not well thought out.
THE TV COSTUMES
In the 1960s, TV audiences became much more familiar with Batman and his world thanks to the live-action series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. One major player in the series was Catwoman, who was played by not one but three actresses: Lee Meriweather, Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar.
Rather than wearing a purple dress and cowl with a green cape (which would not have been the most outlandish outfit on that TV show), Catwoman sported a sleek, black outfit with claw gloves, a simple mask with separate ears, a gold belt and gold necklace. This definitely added an air of stealth to the cat-burglar.
In 1967, Selina showed up again in this new costume that was meant to more closely resemble her live-action counterpart(s). Okay, this isn’t a bad outfit but… it isn’t really Catwoman. First of all, green? I understand that her first appearance had her in a green dress, but that was before she began adopting an actual cat-themed costume. And even if that is the classic color of many 1960s villains, who has seen a green cat (outside of Isaac Asimov stories and Teen Titans issues, I mean)? The color might be acceptable if she at least had a cat like cowl or a suit with a texture that didn’t resemble scales. She looks like a reptilian character instead of a feline one.
A couple years later, Selina got this new suit that likewise isn’t bad but also doesn’t really say “Catwoman.” Aside from the cat-claw gloves, she looks more like a demon or witch-themed villain. That mask resembles a pair of horns rather than cat ears. The swashbuckling boots with large buckles definitely enhances the witch look.
The one thing that made sense about these new costumes was that they were more practical for Selina’s increasing focus on being an acrobat and a hand-to-hand combatant. She was mixing it up with Batman and Batgirl. She even took on Wonder Woman during this time. With all that, a tight, form-fitting suit is a lot more sensible.
A NEW TAKE ON A CLASSIC
In the 1980s, Selina went back to the purple dress but soon altered it. This purple gown had a lower neckline and showed more of her legs. The boots were exchanged for longer, tighter ones. And the gloves have been changed to allow the fingers to be free. These changes, along with the collar, definitely up the sex factor of the look. The little cat clasps even invite our eyes up her legs.
Yet Selina’s look is sexier without being vulgar. She may be showing more skin, but she’s still in charge, still looks like a queen of crime rather than anyone’s lackey. And the cut of the fabric wrapping around each leg ensures that she won’t be flashing anyone.
It’s a pretty great look, but again, Selina was an acrobatic character now. She didn’t become a gang leader who only got physical when it was required, she still mixed it up with whoever she came across. And later still, she actually joined Batman on his adventures, meaning she was regularly swinging through Gotham in this outfit. And for those reasons, it looks good but doesn’t seem to make sense. I keep expecting her to trip.
A while back, I discussed this particular outfit with Tim Gunn, Creative Officer at Liz Claiborne, Inc. and known for his work on the TV shows Project Runway and Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style.
TIM GUNN: “This looks so Broadway. I mean, I picture Anne Miller tap-dancing around the stage. I would find, especially in her night time prowling activities, that to have this much volume of fabric behind you… I would think it’d be dangerous. Can’t you see it getting caught on an antenna?”
ALAN KISTLER: “You know, I look back on it and I think, man, that’s pretty. BUT she’s supposed to be a cat-burglar and engaging in combat with Batman.”
TIM GUNN: “And if the cape were to get caught, she could just unhook it from her neck. She can’t do that with the dress… Fashion wise, I get it. In terms of her role as Catwoman, no.”
Watch the whole video where we discussed Catwoman and others at this link.
In 1986, DC began seriously revising a lot of its history in order to streamline, modernize or retool many of its characters. Catwoman’s origins and early days were changed. Batman: Year One revealed that when she and Batman first met, she wore a leather corset rather than an evening gown. And when she embarked on her career as a costumed criminal, her first outfit did not involve a realistic cat mask. Instead, history/continuity now said that she wore this gray, cowled bodysuit complete with a tail and whiskers.
In a later comic, Selina said that she designed this outfit to be gray because she’d once heard “all cats are gray in the dark” and had intended it to help her with stealth. That makes sense, but it also makes her look a bit drab in the world of comics.
When different artists have portrayed Selina’s early days, they’ve each done this suit a little bit differently. Some have made it entirely gray. Some have made the outfit tight but the gloves loose with folds. Some have made the gloves tight. Some have made the boots black and reaching up to the knees.
In 1988, a story told in the pages of Action Comics Weekly had Selina wear this version of the Year One suit. It’s basically the same, but bringing in elements from the classic costume. We’ve got the purple and green back, plus the open neck and exposed hair again. This exact look didn’t make it into other stories and this adventure was later removed from continuity entirely.
FILM AND ANIMATION
Catwoman returned to live-action in the movie Batman Returns directed by Tim Burton. She was brought to life by Michelle Pfeiffer and she wore a unique take on the outfit. Like in Year One, she wore a bodysuit rather than anything resembling a dress. But there was an element of madness in her look, with stitches across her leather outfit indicating both violence and a person barely holding it together.
While this doesn’t fit the personality of the comic book Catwoman, it did fit with the film’s version of Selina Kyle. In Batman Returns, Selina entered a life of crime after inexplicably surviving what should have been a fatal fall and developing a revenge fixation on her would-be murderer, believing she now had nine lives like a cat. And like the 1980s purple dress, this was an outfit that spoke of sexual power, someone who knew her powers of attraction and owned them.
BATMAN: The Animated Series brought the character renewed interest, spurred on by the Tim Burton films. Catwoman appeared in this cartoon, this time a blond instead of a brunette, similar to how she was in the film. Her costume was very similar to the Year One suit, but with a nod to the classic Adam West series outfit with its golden, decorative belt.
In one episode, Selina was mutated into an actual cat-woman. This isn’t a costume and can’t be judged as such. If we have to criticize it, I’d say that I’d have preferred Selina with different colored fur. Here, I think she too closely resembles Wonder Woman’s feline enemy the Cheetah.
When the animated series later redesigned its characters, Catwoman got a more sprite-like appearance, with alabaster skin and a completely black costume. This suit does the job, but seems rather uninspired.
A few times, the gray suit and metal belt look of the animated series made it into the comics, though with some small alterations such as darker colors or added whiskers. This isn’t a bad look actually. But in general, I do prefer my women without whiskers. That’s just me.
IN HER OWN COMIC!
When Catwoman finally got her own series in 1993, she also got new threads. This was very similar to the Year One costume. But it was purple like her classic look, and lost the whiskers and cape. The long gloves and boots also brought back a sense of style rather than focusing entirely on practicality.
With no belt, tail or whiskers, this is as sleek a look as Selina’s ever sported. This is someone who doesn’t have to worry about getting anything caught when she’s slipping through a tight space or crawling through a ventilation shaft. At times, she would need extra equipment, but strapping it to her back or limbs didn’t take anything away from the general look. Her exposed hair also adds a sense of wildness to the character with is longs curls.
We’ve also got much more serious claws on the gloves now. These things can slice through an opponent or slice open a class display case. Either way, they aren’t just for show and they’re quite intimidating.
While Selina sported this suit, we also got to see her show off a new feature with the mask. Along with having cat ears and hiding her identity, it comes armed with night-vision lenses to help her navigate through the dark like a genuine cat.
Selina also showed she could alter this suit for different occasions. This was what she wore during an adventure in the desert. Seems like something Allan Quatermain might’ve worn while exploring strange caves.
And for an adventure in the snow, Selina donned this version that allowed her to camouflage and maintain her world-renowned stealth. Pretty smart of our girl to plan ahead like that.
And what would the 1990s be without a ridiculous cyborg version of the main character? See, there was this time that Selina had to fight the techno-armored, cat-themed villain known as Cyber-Cat (wait, really?). When their battle left her injured and had her costume torn to shreds, Selina had this special armor made, complete with a multitude of weapons.
Selina then confronted Cyber-Cat and had a big battle involving explosions and missiles and lots of torn circuitry. Selina won in the end, ripping Cyber-Cat’s armor apart. But after the battle, she gladly got rid of this techno-suit, saying that it simply wasn’t her style. So true, Selina. So true.
In several stories by Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale, it was revealed that during Selina’s early days she had also worn this outfit. This is very much based on the purple suit of the 1990s, except with whiskers added. Also, the looser gloves and tail give it a resemblance to the gray Year One suit. The bracelets, no doubt stolen, are a touch of flash that reminds us Catwoman doesn’t take herself too seriously and enjoys flaunting when she can.
As we entered the 21st century, Selina went to a costume that more closely resembled the Tim Sale outfit, just minus the whiskers. It’s not a bad look, but I’d grown rather fond of her usually having her hair exposed when she wore purple. And a tail always seems silly to me on the costume. She was smart enough to get rid of the cape but not smart enough to get rid of the tail? Seems like an enemy could grab onto that when you’re not looking.
During the last several issues of her first ongoing series, Selina also briefly utilized this alter ego. This is definitely not a Catwoman costume, but it’s not meant to be so we can’t judge it in that way. This is a callback to Selina’s old life and old attitude and, in that way, it fits this alter ego just fine. Still glad it didn’t last long.
SHADES OF BLACK
After faking her own death, Selina went underground for a while and then returned in a new series with a new costume. This recalls the black leather bodysuit of Michelle Pfeiffer but without the crazy stitches. In fact, this suit is probably Selina’s most practical, utilitarian outfit. The goggles indicate a cat’s eyes but also have functional night-vision lenses. The leather is for protection but allows freedom of movement.
The whip can easily wrap around like a belt, staying out of her way. The boots are heavy and good for use in a multitude of environment, far more sensible than the many heels Selina has worn.
Some may criticize this as not being as sexy as her other looks. I would argue that, but even so, there’s a simple fix. Thanks to the handy invention of the zipper, Selina can wear this costume but give herself a lower neckline at will. No doubt this could be useful in distracting certain enemies she comes across. Of course, I hope she’s sensible enough to only do this when she’s distracting people she’s talking to and would zip up again when she’s about to jump off a rooftop. Otherwise, she could end up with a serious wardrobe malfunction.
A similar costume was given to Selina in the new cartoon The Batman. Although I love that she was voiced by Gina Gershon (seriously, that is genius casting), I am not a great fan of this look. Making the whip tie into a tail? That’s great. But the hood looks like it has mouse ears rather than cat ears. The goggles are nice, but the rest of it just seems uninspired. Why do the boots have a uni-claw on each foot?
Meanwhile, a new movie came out in 2004 featuring Halle Berry as the titular character. But Catwoman did not give us a new adventure of Selina Kyle nor even the adventure of a thief with an ambiguous moral code who occasional protects people before plotting her next heist. This film gave us a character named Patience Phillips who receives cat-like powers from the Egyptian goddess Bast after a near-death experience, later discovering that there have been many women chosen to be a “Catwoman” over the years.
So, seeing that she had these cool powers and wanting to be a superhero, she got herself not a sleek body suit or even a flowing evening gown, but instead decided to don what seemed to be a cheap hooker outfit from a local Halloween shop. And again, mouse ears. This doesn’t say “cat” so much as it says “someone tore up my pants and stole half my outfit.”
And that wraps it up for us, faithful readers. With another Batman film in the works, who knows what new outfits Selena will sport in the future? Should be interesting to find out. 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.