Fashion Disasters: Power Girl

Some comic book characters who have been around for decades have iconic costumes that have stood the test of time. Some have progressed through a series of stylish ensembles to reflect their ever-changing time periods.

And some, apparently, get dressed in the dark.

Here on Fashion Disasters, we’ll showcase those poor slobs who just can’t seem to get it right. Today: Power Girl! (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?)

Power Girl has long had a controversial costume, with her iconic look shrouded in rumor and apocrypha (if not shrouded in much else). The sad truth is that that costume? The one you’re thinking of? That’s probably the best look she’s ever had. But let’s take it from the top!

Power Girl debuted in All Star Comics #58 (February 1976), as a new member of the Justice Society of America, which at the time was operating on Earth-2, a parallel world to the more familiar Earth-1. Power Girl—also known as Kara Zor-L, or Karen Starr—was Earth-2’s answer to Supergirl. Like Supergirl, she was Superman’s cousin and a Kryptonian refugee. Unlike Supergirl, she debuted not in the demure ‘50s but the swingin’ ‘70s, and so came complete with a more adult costume, a kicky short haircut, and a proud Women’s Lib attitude.

Also, that costume.

The apocryphal story about the costume is that Wally Wood, the artist who designed Power Girl, kept making her breasts—and the hole in her costume, commonly known as a “boob window”—bigger with every issue, waiting to see if his editor would stop him. Supposedly, the story goes, no one ever did, and Peej quickly became known as one of the most stacked heroines in comics. I’ve read Power Girl’s time in the JSA and haven’t been able to trace any kind of steady increase in cup size, but that story is a great example of the kind of slobbery “hur hur” humor that Power Girl is almost constantly subjected to. The fact that she was introduced as an outspoken feminist probably didn’t help; in fact, it seems to have increased the glee male creators and critics take in mocking her body.

And actually, Peej rotated through three slight variations on that original costume in the late ’70s. One covered up the boob window; the other traded it for a simpler scoop neck.

In fact, for all the boob window’s infamy, the scoop neck probably had more appearances in the Bronze Age than any other version.

In 1985, however, DC eradicated Earth-2—and all Kryptonians but Superman—with Crisis on Infinite Earths. By rights, Power Girl would have been doubly gone. But someone up there liked her, and so she stuck around, with a revamped origin. Instead of being an alternate universe Superman’s cousin, she was the granddaughter of an ancient Atlantean sorcerer who had been kept in magical stasis for millennia to protect her from his enemies. Also, she was vulnerable to “natural objects,” so you couldn’t shoot her with a gun, but you could hit her with a tree branch. Comics!

This new origin required a new look, and so we got…this

I mean, it’s…different. And the cowl neck is…cozy? Honestly, this costume is a great example of how more fabric doesn’t necessarily mean less objectification, considering how hard it works to make it look like her boobs and butt are hanging out even though she’s fully clothed.

But it’s not her fault. It was the ’90s. Everyone in comics looked like that, even Batman. (Especially Batman.)

(No, I don’t know why she’s on fire. That’s not an Atlantean power. They’re too damp.)

A couple years later, she returned to her typical color pattern—and to inexplicable combat cleavage—with this:

Is it easier to look at this if I promise you this is as bad as it gets? I mean. The boots. The piping. The diamond boob window. The epaulets. The HEADBAND.

Hmm, what does this remind me of?

via GIPHY

When even Olivia Newton-John is judging you, you know it’s bad.

(Terribleness of the costume aside, this cover is legit amazing. More superheroes should fight living statues while their teammates are like “Uh…?”)

Thankfully, the ’90s couldn’t last forever, and in the early aughts, Power Girl returned to her classic look (as well as her classic origin story). Somewhere over the course of the ’80s and ’90s, however, comic book art became less anatomically correct and more stylized, which meant that the old look had a new…intensity:

It was reclaimed a bit when Amanda Conner started drawing the character, so much so that I think that when most people think about Power Girl, they think of Conner’s version:

And really, that’s well-deserved. There’s a personality to Conner’s Peej, a joyfulness and a solidity and a genuinely fashionable sensibility. Sure, the boob window is bigger than ever, with no visible means of support underneath it, but the seaming of the costume, the redesigned boots, and the stylish haircut (hard to tell in this windblown image, but Conner gives great hair) all contributed to make this Power Girl feel like a person and not just angry cleavage.

This was…not the case for every artist around this time:

But! As with so many other characters, Peej got a new look courtesy of the 2011 New 52 reboot. Unfortunately, again as with so many other characters, it was a really really bad look. Two looks, technically:

In the front is her new Power Girl costume, which…well, styling a P around one breast is certainly a choice. As is all the detailing. And making the whole thing very obviously footie pajamas. And the weird Farrah Fawcett hair.

In the back is…wait, does that cape have cap sleeves? Why is this costume so weird???

Anyway, yeah, in the back is the costume this version of Peej wore as Supergirl back on Earth-2 before popping over to Earth-1:

I included this in my Supergirl costume rankings where I put it at #35 (out of 49) and declared it a mess, but a charmingly specific-to-Supergirl’s-1970s-aesthetic mess. I stand by that.

After a few issues in the P-boob costume, Power Girl’s new look got…literally torn off of her in a fight with Supergirl. Yeah. I know. Supergirl’s underwater version of the Fortress of Solitude generated a new look for Karen that was awfully familiar…

Like the Amanda Conner redesign, this look (by Mahmud Asrar) is a thoughtful reexamination of Power Girl’s classic look, this time answering the question: “What would that costume look like if it was generated by a sentient underwater robot house?” (A question we’ve all asked ourselves in many contexts.) I like the collar and the belt, and the detailing on the boots and gloves and seaming on the suit is science-y without being too fiddly.

After a few years, though, Power Girl returned to Earth-2 and a more Supergirl-branded costume:

This is legitimately Very Good, sartorially speaking. It evokes her classic look while gracefully sidestepping the boob window issue; it’s clean but not boring; there’s a nice balance of blue and red; the gloves and cape are interesting without being overly busy. I genuinely love it, as a costume.

The problem is, it’s a Supergirl costume, and this is Power Girl. From her very first appearance, she declared herself to be independent of his name, his iconography, and his legacy. As much as I love Superman and the whole Superfamily, slapping an S-shield on a grown-up Karen Starr feels disrespectful.

But without the shield, what do you do with the elephant in the room? And here’s where I confess that I truly, legitimately like Power Girl’s classic look, complete with boob window. I like the crispness of the white. I like the silhouette. I like the gold epaulet, when she’s got it. When drawn by Wally Wood or Amanda Conner, the cheesecakery is secondary to the craftsmanship and character, and it’s a look that’s uniquely hers, which is difficult to find in our superhero-saturated culture.

None of that changes the fact that it’s ridiculous, or that it’s the source of so much sophomoric humor and polarizing debate that it’s become a distraction. Or that the comics themselves have twisted themselves into ever more agonized contortions to justify it. See, for example, this scene from JSA: Classified #2 by Conner and Geoff Johns, where Karen explains her wardrobe choices to Superman:

You heard it here, folks: Power Girl has a hole in her costume because she’s not as good as Superman. Looking at her weeping as her breasts attempt to annex her neck, and reading dialogue that even Shakespeare would think was leaning a little hard on the genitalia metaphor, I have to conclude that there’s no salvaging this ensemble, whether I like it or not. The costume’s got to go.

Power Girl is back in the classic look, but she’s also, as near as I can tell, trapped in some kind of realm between worlds, and has been for over a year. Still, if she survived the original Crisis, she can survive anything, so she’s sure to be back soon. For all our sakes, let’s hope it’s in a different costume.

Previously in this series:

Roy Harper
Guy Gardner
Elektra

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