Tips To Create Better-Looking Superhero & Supervillain Costumes
Designing good superhero costumes can be tricky. On the one hand, they usually need to be visually interesting, but on the other hand it's easy to go overboard in some way and end up with a costume that's just plain awful. So here's some advice to help you improve your costume designs.
Table of Contents
- Start from the perspective of the costume's creator.
- Don't tie yourself down to stereotypical superhero/supervillain costume elements.
- Be careful of both extreme or excessive design elements, and of extremely plain designs.
- A few other things to do...
- A few things to be cautious about...
- So, in summary...
Start from the perspective of the costume's creator.
Putting yourself into shoes of the whoever made the costume is a great place to start - it can help you come up with ideas that you'd have never thought of otherwise, help you avoid more questionable design elements, and make it more likely you'll end up with a costume that says something about your character's history or mythos.
Did the hero or villain create the costume? If so, what materials and equipment would the character have access to and be able to afford? What would your character actually have the time and skill to create and repair? Would your character, who presumably wants to avoid injury, really want to leave an exposed spot there? What kind of equipment might your character need to carry around? (And don't just think of extra weapons/ammo here, either - what about first aid equipment, emergency lighting, etc?)
If someone else created the costume, what kinds of materials would its creator be able to get? What kind of scenarios did the creator intend the costume to be worn in? Could the creator have really justified certain design elements? How would the character you intend to wear it come to have it? Who's going to be doing the repairs and paying for them, if they're necessary?
Depending on the history of the costume, the questions you need to ask yourself might change a little, but two should apply universally: what could the creator/creators have done with the resources on hand, and why would they have done it that way?
Don't tie yourself down to stereotypical superhero/supervillain costume elements.
When we think of superheroes and supervillains, we often imagine figures clad in skin-tight outfits, capes, masks, and perhaps even chest emblems - elements which go back to the Golden Age of Comics. But there's absolutely no rule that superhero and supervillain costumes must include these elements - and many published characters wear only a few of these elements, and sometimes even none of them.
Kamala Khan's Ms. Marvel costume is a pretty good example of one way to freshen things up with new elements. While her costume might look pretty typical at first glance, the shape of the burkini she wears gives her a sort of tunic-over-fitted-clothes look that isn't often seen. What's more, her scarf suggests a cape while looking distinct from one. Quicksilver in Age of Ultron does quite well wearing no traditional superhero garb at all - instead, he wears athletic wear. While it doesn't scream "superhero" just to look at it, it's still a good fit for a character whose ability is running really fast.
So with your own designs, don't be afraid to shake it up a little - mix classic superhero elements with something new, or maybe even eschew the "superhero" look altogether now and then, lest they end up looking like seventy-year-old leftovers.
Be careful of both extreme or excessive design elements, and of extremely plain designs.
Design elements that are excessively large, wide, tall, bulky, pointy, skimpy, etc are best used with caution, if not avoided outright. Examples include shoulder guards with points that stick up over one's head or extend out far enough beyond the shoulders to get caught in standard doorframes, megahuge belts and/or ginormous buckles, six inch spikes, necklines that plunge down to the waist, or "bikini armor." When it comes to costume elements that take flack for being ridiculous, it's often the extreme ones.
Similarly, any accessories or tools that you character won't actually serve any purpose should be left out of the outfit. If your character isn't actually going to be seen pulling something out of the nifty utility belt or wear the funky goggles, don't bother adding them - there's just no point to having them. If you are going to add them, take care that they're actually used somehow.
And on the other end of the spectrum, it's definitely possible to go too plain. Solid-color catsuits/unitards, for example, tend to make for boring-looking costumes, especially if there's no detailing on them. If you're really set on using this kind of thing, make sure you add some some extra elements (EG, seams and/or different textures) to break up the monotony.
Similarly, a costume that comprises of, say, plain pants with a solid-colored top is going to make a pretty boring visual. For a character who wears these kinds of clothes, consider spicing it up with a little complexity in design. Quicksilver's Age of Ultron outfit is a good example of this - both the top and pants have some styling done to them.
So there's definitely a balance to be struck - a good costume will usually have enough detailing that it will be interesting to look at, without it being so extreme or overdone in some way that it's laughably absurd.
A few other things to do...
Some other assorted tips for creating good superhero and supervillain costumes:
Match the costumes to their settings. For example, high-sat costumes look perfectly fine in comic book universes where everything it high-sat, but if you put those colors into a real-world setting, they'll look garish and weird. Likewise, while fairly simplistic costume designs can work in cartoonish-looking worlds, they'll often look jarring in a real-world setting where clothes are usually more complex.
Make sure your designs are distinct from other famous characters. Because, for example, if you put your character into a dark gray and black full-body suit with a cowl, cape, boots, gloves, and chest emblem, a lot of people are going to look at it and think, "Batman wannabe." (There are exceptions to this, such as if it's intentional - IE, you're making an alternate version of Batman.)
Make sure your characters look distinct from each other. Especially if you're using them in a visual medium, because otherwise it can be difficult to tell your characters apart. Even if your story requires that your characters wear near-identical uniforms, you can make your characters visually distinct by variating their height, weight, hair color and style, and skin color.
Consider looking at tactical gear for inspiration. If you're trying to make an outfit that looks like it was designed to fight in by someone competent at designing fighting gear, this is a very good place to start.
A few things to be cautious about...
The following are some design elements that often lend to some pretty questionable-looking costumes, so you may want to think very carefully before using them - or even avoid them altogether.
Costumes so tight they look painted on. Because the only thing that adheres and conforms to the body as if it's been painted on is stuff that's been painted on. So unless you have a really good reason for this (EG, your character's costume is actually made of some sort of skin-adhering goo or something), avoid it. If you need a reference for how a tight costume might realistically fit over the body, diving suits are a good place to start.
Stuff that looks like muscle that has no reason to. For example, armor - outside of a costume being inspired by a muscle cuirass, there's no real reason for someone to make armor look like actual muscle outside of vanity.
Costumes that look inappropriate for what their wearers usually do in them. Pretty dresses and heels can be great for a supervillain who operates by giving orders from a cushy penthouse, but not so much for someone who's supposed to be out kicking ass on the field. Anything that looks like bedroom or bondage wear should probably stay in the bedroom, stuff that looks like clubwear should probably stay in the club, and so on.
Basing a design around a scene or fad. Such costumes run the risk of looking gimmicky or dated before too long (if not from the moment of their debut!), so think carefully before doing this one.
- When you start designing, put yourself in the shoes of whoever made the costume and ask yourself what the creator/creators could and would have done.
- Don't limit yourself to stereotypical superhero costume elements. There's nothing wrong with them, but if you only use them, you'll end up with a trite, outdated-looking outfit.
- Be wary of using extreme design elements (which can look ridiculous and tacky) or solid-color outfits with minimal detailing (which can look boring).
- Make sure your costumes match the look of the universe/universes they're worn in.
- Make sure your characters end up looking distinct from each other in some way, and that your characters' costumes look distinct from other popular superheroes/supervillains.
- Depending on what kind of costume you're going for, tactical gear (such as if you want something that looks military-like) or diving suits (if you want the tight costume look) can make good references to draw inspiration from.
- Armor that's designed to look like muscle is a pretty questionable element most of the time.
- Avoid adding "functional" tools and accessories that don't actually serve any purpose - EG, a pair of goggles that will never, ever actually be worn for eye protection.
- Try to make the costume look appropriate for what the character wearing it will be doing in it - EG, if it looks like clubwear, keep it in the club and off the field.
- Designs based on scenes or fads run the risk of looking dated or gimmicky.
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