Portrayal of Wonder Woman’s Body and Costume During the Golden Age of Comics

Figure 1. Wonder Woman’s first appearance in the titular comic book series, Wonder Woman, by Sensation Comics (January 1942).

Wonder Woman, also known as Diana Prince, is a superhero and contemporary feminist icon created by Dr. William Moulton Marston. The character first appeared in Sensation Comics during 1941, with the first self-titled comic dated as January 1942.[1] The Golden Age of Wonder Woman is largely considered to be the period of time that Marston had creative control of the character from 1941-1947.[2] The superheroine was influenced by a combination of Marston’s personal life and values, his background in psychosexual research, as well as the Women’s Rights Movement and other feminist ideologies. As stated in Signe Bergstrom’s Wonder Woman: Ambassador of Truth, Marston “believed that Wonder Woman was meant to be psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, he believed, should rule the world.”[3] Wonder Woman is ultimately the culmination of Marston’s convictions as well as social issues surrounding post-World War I America that can be seen in both the character’s body and the costumes she wears. Furthermore, with psychiatrist Laurette Bender deeming comic books “the folklore of our time” in 1941, it is worthwhile to explore the symbolism that lies within the Wonder Woman comics.[4]

Contents

 

1. Physical Appearance

1.1 Ethnicity, Hair, and Physique

1.2 Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway Marston

2. Costuming

2.1 Women’s Rights Movement and Rosie the Riveter

2.2 Superhero Costume and Accessories

2.3 Alter Ego

3. Other Resources

 

 

Figure 2. Original illustration of Wonder Woman by Henry G. Peters (1941). Image provided by Heritage Auctions.

  1. Physical Appearance

Because Wonder Woman was created in the 1940s, she mirrors many of the physical qualities that can be applied to prototypical essentialist femininity. This is not to say that Wonder Woman is solely based on what would be considered an essentialist vision of womanhood, as her creator also incorporated elements that were considered quite radical in post-World-War I America.

2.1 Ethnicity and Physique

Wonder Woman’s ethnicity and overall physique are symbolic. Even though Wonder Woman is known as an Amazonian monarch, she is also an American immigrant that is coded within the comics as Anglo-American with long, flowing hair.[5] Her connections to Greek and Roman mythology and culture are not reminiscent of an ethnic or religious identity, but tied to the American notion of democracy. Wonder Woman’s Golden Age incarnation has a relatively acquirable body type, despite the illustrator substituting realistic musculature for a more feminine physique.[6] Her costume is meant to be utilitarian while also showing off her figure.[7]

2.2 Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway Marston

Many of Wonder Woman’s attributes were motivated by Marston’s wife and mistress, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne. Both women informed Marston’s own feminism.[8] While attributes like Wonder Woman’s dark hair are associated with Elizabeth, she is also credited as having highlighted the need for a female superhero, inspiring Wonder Woman’s conception.[9] Olive Byrne is referred to as the reason behind Wonder Woman’s wrist accessories, as she “was fond of large, metallic bracelets, and Marston co-opted the look for his new heroine.”[10] Wonder Woman’s philosophy that “love is stronger than force” can also be associated with Olive Byrne. Her aunt, Margaret Sanger, a feminist birth control advocate, wrote Women and the New Race, a manifesto read by Marston and Elizabeth Holloway during their time studying psychology together.[11]

  1. Costuming

While Marston had creative control of all things Wonder Woman during the Golden Age, the person that actually drew the character was a cartoonist named Harry G. Peter.[12] Using notes provided by Marston at a time just before America’s involvement in World War II, Peter “gave the heroine an America-centric red-white-and-blue costume with a golden eagle on her chest.”[13] Wonder Woman’s hyper-patriotic outfit is arguably one of the most recognizable elements people have with the character due to its consistency over the years.[14]

Figure 3. Lou Roger’s 1912 drawing, Tearing Off the Bonds (left). Harry G. Peter’s drawing featured in Marston’s 1944 article, “Why 100,000 Americans Read Comics.”

2.1 Women’s Rights and Rosie the Riveter

Images of Wonder Woman have been connected to both the Women’s Rights Movement and Rosie the Riveter. In The Secret History of Wonder Woman, author Jill Lepore states that Wonder Woman was basically “the suffragist as pin-up.”[15] This would be because Wonder Woman is noted as being a blend of the wholesome Gibson girl from the 1890’s with the sensual pin-up Vargas girl images popular in the 1940’s.[16] In a 1944 article Marston wrote defending the Wonder Woman comics as scholarship and the Wonder Woman character as a product of his own feminism, the article featured a reproduction of a pro-suffrage illustration by Lou Rogers with Wonder Woman standing in as the new woman battling for equality (Figure 3).[17]

Figure 4. Wonder Woman in 2015 DC Bombshell variant cover artwork (left). J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” image commonly referred to as Rosie the Riveter, 1942 (right).

Much like other comics written during World War II, Wonder Woman also helped support the war effort abroad. Author Tim Hanley calls her a “superpowered Rosie the Riveter, constantly encouraging women to join the auxiliary forces or to get a wartime job,” and also recognizes that the generation of girls raised with these Golden Age images of Wonder Woman and Rosie the Riveter was the same generation that began the Women’s Liberation Movement a few decades later.[18] Wonder Woman’s similarity to Rosie the Riveter is not limited to their collective war efforts, but also applies to their nationalist costuming.[19] Both wore red, white, and blue attire, had dark hair, wore red lipstick and embody female agency. The association between Rosie the Riveter and Diana was so common that in 2014, Wonder Woman was featured in DC Comic’s Bombshells, a series centered on the U.S. home front during World War II. Her Bombshells incarnation (Figure 4) can be interpreted as an homage to Rosie and the war effort.

2.2 Superhero Costume and Accessories

As stated previously, Wonder Woman is marked by her overtly patriotic uniform (Figure 5). Unfortunately, this patriotism did not excuse her clothing, as Wonder Woman was deemed “not sufficiently dressed” by the National Organization for Decent Literature in 1942. [20] She wears a corset-like sleeveless top, red boots, and outside of skirts sported on her cover pages, Wonder Woman always wears star spangled shorts.[21] Interestingly, the bustier Wonder Woman wears was alluded to in the 2017 biopic, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, when Olive Byrne is preparing to engage in bondage and role-play with Marston and his wife for the first time.[22]

Figure 5. Panel in which Wonder Woman receives her costume for the first time from her mother, Queen Hyppolyte. From All-Star Comics #8 (Dec. 1941- Jan. 1942) by Marston and Peter.

Wonder Woman has a number of accessories that were created during the Golden Age. These include Wonder Woman’s tiara, Lasso of Truth and Bracelets of Submission. Her lasso allows Wonder Woman to control those bound in it while her bracelets are bullet-proof. These represent her voluntary submission Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and act as physical reminders of “the folly of men.”[23] Wonder Woman’s tiara is representative of her position as an Amazonian princess and can also be utilized as a boomerang.[24] In what can be interpreted as an extension of Marston’s own beliefs regarding the power of women, Wonder Woman’s accessories also protect her, rendering them feminist and feminine at the same time.

Figure 6. Panel featuring Diana transforming from her alter ego into the eponymous Wonder Woman. From Wonder Woman #19 (1946).

2.3 Alter Ego

Wonder Woman’s alter ego, Diana Prince, dresses as a typical American woman in the World War II era. Similar to Superman’s Clark Kent, Diana wears regular middle-class attire and glasses in order to mask her true identity (Figure 6). She is described by Tim Hanley as the opposite of Wonder Woman, “reserved and bespectacled, with her hair tied neatly in a bun.”[25] During the Golden Age, Diana was employed in many roles traditionally filled by white women at the time such as a nurse and a secretary.[26] If Wonder Woman represented women’s potential, Diana represented their position in 1940’s American society.[27]

  1. Other Resources

 

[1] Thomas, Roy. Wonder Woman: The War Year (1941-1945). Chartwell Books, 2015. p. 11.

[2]Rhoades, Shirrel. A Complete History of American Comic Books. Peter Lang Publishing Group, 2008. p. 4.

[3] Bergstrom, Signe. Wonder Woman: Ambassador of Truth. Harper Design, 2017. p. 87.

[4] Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Penguin Random House, 2015. p. 208.

[5] DiPaolo, Marc Edward. “Wonder Woman as WWII Veteran, Feminist Icon, and Male Sex Fantasy,” The Amazing Transforming Superhero!: Essays on the Revision of Characters in Comic Books, Film and Television. McFarland & Co, 2007. p. 152-153.

[6] Avery-Natale, Edward. “An Analysis of Embodiment among Six Superheroes in DC Comics,” Social Thought & Research, vol. 32. Social Thought and Research, 2013. p. 90.

[7] Brownie, Barbara and Danny Graydon. “Fashion Outsiders,” The Superhero Costume: Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015. Kindle edition.

[8] Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Penguin Random House, 2015. p. 220.

[9] Matsuuchi, Ann. “Wonder Woman Wears Pants: Wonder Woman, Feminism and the 1972 ‘Women’s Lib’ Issue,” Colloquy Text Theory Critique, vol.24. Colloquy, 2012. p.124.

[10] Hanley, Tim. “The Utopian Alternative,” Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine. Chicago Review Press, 2015. p. 18.

[11] Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Penguin Random House, 2015. p. 103.

[12] Lepore, 198.

[13] Thomas, Roy. Wonder Woman: The War Year (1941-1945). Chartwell Books, 2015. p.11.

[14] Brownie, Barbara and Danny Graydon. “Fashion Outsiders,” The Superhero Costume: Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015. Kindle edition.

[15] Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Penguin Random House, 2015. p. 198.

[16] Lepore, 194.

[17] Lepore, 85, 251.

[18] Hanley, Tim. “Damsels in Distress,” Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine. Chicago Review Press, 2015. p. 28, 41.

[19] DiPaolo, Marc Edward. “Wonder Woman as WWII Veteran, Feminist Icon, and Male Sex Fantasy,” The Amazing Transforming Superhero!: Essays on the Revision of Characters in Comic Books, Film and Television. McFarland & Co, 2007. p. 155.

[20] Bergstrom, Signe. Wonder Woman: Ambassador of Truth. Harper Design, 2017. p. 87.

[21] Robinson, Ashley Victoria and Jason Inman. “GHL 164 – Wonder Woman (The Golden Age). Geek History Lesson. May 29, 2017. Podcast. Accessed February 19, 2016, https://www.geekhistorylesson.com/?tag=Wonder+Woman.

[22] Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Directed by Angela Robinson. Boxspring Entertainment, Stage 6 Films, and Topple Productions. 2017.

[23] Bunn, Geoffrey C. “The Lie Detector, Wonder Woman, and Liberty: The Life and Work of William Moulton Marston,” History of Human Sciences. 1997 p. 107.

[24] Bergstrom, Signe. Wonder Woman: Ambassador of Truth. Harper Design, 2017. p. 80.

[25] Hanley, Tim. “Damsels in Distress,” Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine. Chicago Review Press, 2015. p. 31.

[26] Thomas, Roy. Wonder Woman: The War Year (1941-1945). Chartwell Books, 2015. p. 12.

[27] Delaney, Angelica E. “Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon of the 1940s,” The Kennesaw Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 3, no. 1. The Kennesaw Journal of Undergraduate Research, 2014. p. 5


Meghan Morris is a graduate student at Old Dominion University’s Institute for the Humanities. She has a Bachelor’s of Arts with a concentration in English Literature and Women’s Studies from Old Dominion University. She is a novice scholar interested in topics related to gender, sex and sexuality, media and pop culture, and American Studies. She enjoys coffee and (good) memes.