A Purrfect Fit: 80 Years of Catwoman Costumes
This year marks not just Robin’s 80th anniversary but also Catwoman’s, and you all know what that means: time to roast some costumes!
On a more serious note, one of the things I love about looking at characters who have been around for a long time is looking at how they’ve changed over the decades, and what those changes tell us about cultural, fashion, and comics history. Catwoman is a character with a rich back catalog, and her role as a long-running femme fatale in particular means that her costumes illuminate not just fashion trends (filtered through the weird, dated lens of comic books) but shifting ideas about what it means for a woman to be desirable, independent, or “bad”—and how those three identities do or do not intersect.
But also: one time she wore a furry cat head and I want to laugh at it. So let’s go!
(As usual, I will be skipping video games because I know nothing about them. Sorry, gamers!)
Selina first appeared as “the Cat” in Batman #1. Though she is established as a master of disguise, she doesn’t wear an actual supervillain costume, just this absolutely sublime green dress:
Like, that is perfect. I would wear that today. So vintage! So chic! Selina serving looks right off the bat! (Zing!)
But a timelessly stylish dress isn’t enough in the fast-paced world of themed bank robberies, and for her third appearance, Selina stepped it up with…this…
You know, I said I wanted to make fun of it, but now that I’m looking at it it’s making me very upset. That cat face is too knowing. It sees into my soul and I don’t like it.
EXTREMELY NO THANK YOU. Although this is the first time we see Selina in her distinctive purple. This look had a few color variants, which I’m mostly chalking up to the slapdash coloring of Golden Age comics.
This Peter Pan collar is extremely charming but conveys more of a “good girl” vibe to my modern eyes than I typically associate with Catwoman. I do love that you can see her overall silhouette changing here from the narrow shoulders of the late ’30s to the boxier ones of the mid-’40s.
Meow! Check out that bare midriff! In 1946! Potentially more scandalously, those extremely high thigh slits, which mark the first time Catwoman’s wardrobe crosses over from “glam” to “aggressively sexy.” Technically, this isn’t Selina but a random seamstress in a costume contest, which means this might be the earliest example of someone wearing a sexy non-canonical version of a superhero costume to a party. All those Party City Batgirl costumes with the little skirts trace their lineage to this! I guess.
Either way, the real Selina soon adopted a toned down version of this look that would become her first truly consistent costume:
What I find most interesting about this look is that it’s remarkably sedate, especially considering the time. There are very few Golden Age supervillains to compare her to, but certainly the Thorn (introduced in 1947) sported a much skimpier look, and even heroines like Wonder Woman were showing more skin, while over at Fox Comics, Phantom Lady was pushing the envelope in a way that’s startling even now. This latter was in part because as the U.S. entered the post-war era, superhero comic sales started to flag, and a number of publishers started to put sexier art on the covers in order to entice readers back. DC wasn’t one of the leaders of this, uh, movement, but it’s still a little surprising to me that we didn’t get more covers with Catwoman’s cleavage spilling out while Batman handcuffed her or whatever. (Seriously. Look at some late ’40s Blue Beetle and Phantom Lady covers sometime.)
Was Selina’s look relatively tame because DC was still going for a glamorous aesthetic for her rather than a sexy one? Could the heroines get away with being more daring in their wardrobe choices because they were still essentially “good,” while Selina’s villainous behavior combined with a little more gam would have been just too shocking? (Even Thorn was only the evil personality of the sweetly innocent Rose Canton.) Or were the Batman artists just too lazy or not pervy enough to innovate beyond “secondary colors, cat ears, let’s hit the links”?
Either way, Selina’s (sometimes) modestly covered knees didn’t save her from the Comics Code Authority. By the early ’50s, parental concerns about the effect of comics on their children had reached a fever pitch, spurred on by the lurid horror and crime comics on the stands as well as…well, take another look at that Phantom Lady cover. Rather than be condemned out of existence or subjected to government censorship, the industry created the Comics Code Authority, a series of guidelines about what subject matter was and wasn’t acceptable in comics.
The CCA had prohibitions against obscenity, nudity, and “suggestive and salacious illustration,” but what doomed Selina probably had more to do with their rules about depicting crime: criminals could never be sympathetic or glamorous, and crime had to be depicted as “a sordid and unpleasant activity.” Catwoman, as a glamorous and immensely likable criminal having a grand old time and flirting her way out of trouble with Batman, had to go, and so she disappeared from the pages of comics for a decade.
But then came the Swingin’ Sixties, the sexual revolution, the weakening of the CCA-like Hayes Code in Hollywood…and Adam West. Or more importantly, Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and Lee Meriwether:
The 1966 Batman show featured Julie Newmar as Catwoman for the first two seasons, with Eartha Kitt taking over in Season 3 and Lee Meriwether appearing in the movie. It also marked the first time Catwoman wore a catsuit.
This ensemble might be the best Catwoman has ever looked. It might be the best anyone has ever looked. The necklace! The hip-slung belt! The gold claws! It’s wildly impractical (sparkly fabric and kitten heels for sneaking into museums after hours? okay) but this show features Bat-Shark Repellant so who cares? Such glamour! So mod! I die!
Selina’s star turn on the small screen meant she quickly returned to comics, with some of her new style in tow:
O…kay. I mean, I get it. It’s a pretty straightforward combination of her previous comics look and the Batman ‘66 catsuit, but here’s the thing about combining an evening gown and a catsuit: don’t. The tiresomely sexist hair pulling…ugh, I don’t want to say this…catfight here doesn’t help.
Then things got weird.
It’s green and scaly! Like a cat! Note: it’s entirely possible the Batman artists of the late ’60s had never seen a cat. Not gonna lie, though, I’m extremely in love with that, um, “mask.”
Selina’s next wardrobe change was courtesy of the animated Batman/Superman Hour, and she seems to have lost the thread entirely:
A turtlenecked green jumpsuit? Selina, girl, what are you doing? She’s still got the cat eye glasses and the trademark whip, but this look is less “glamorous cat burglar” and more “secretary to a Bond villain with a base on the moon.” Which don’t get me wrong, is also awesome. But it’s not Selina Kyle.
What!!! What is happening here! This is like a charmingly tame burlesque adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance. Probably also on the moon. (Look, that Bond villain has to provide some kind of entertainment for his staff in between shooting ray guns at the Earth or whatever. Also, I’ve never seen a Bond movie.) At least it’s more catlike: it’s not visible here, but this costume marks the first appearance of a tail as part of Selina’s ensemble. Plus there’s that mask, which is so awful it circles back around to amazing and I wish I was wearing one just like it right now. (Please also note the extremely typical-to-comics equating of second wave feminism with “vaguely kinky crazy bitches.” Sigh.)
We finally got a return to form in 1975:
The re-adoption of a nearly 30-year-old costume here is fascinating to me. As an outfit, it’s not at all on-trend for 1975, even in the always-dated world of comics…except for how in a weird way, it kind of is. The mid-’70s were a time of intense nostalgia for the Golden Age, at least at DC. They were publishing a ton of stories about Earth-2, the alternate universe that was home to the older, WWII-era versions of their characters, from reviving the old Justice Society in All-Star Comics #58 (1976) to the ongoing “Mr. and Mrs. Superman” storyline in Superman Family that began in 1974, which focused on the Clark and Lois of Earth-2. Someone at DC—or maybe everyone at DC—really loved the Golden Age, and so given that context it makes total sense to me that Selina would be going old school with her look. Either way, it brings back that glam element we’ve been missing.
…not that the 1977 cartoon The New Adventures of Batman got the memo! At least this Garanimals-inspired look is both cat-themed and cat-colored, but that orange (and the auburn hair) are so unlike Selina that if you had shown me a picture of her out of context and asked me to name the character, I would have said “Uh, Cheetah without the commitment?” (Speaking of lack of commitment, check out poor Clayface over there! Oh, Basil, no.)
Frank Miller reimagined Selina Kyle as a prostitute in 1987’s Batman: Year One, because of course he did. She’s also a dominatrix, which at least makes textual the kink implied by her decades-long use of a whip as her weapon of choice. Batman: Year One is known for helping to usher in the “grim ‘n’ gritty” era of comics which we’re arguably still choking on, and Selina’s non-costumed appearance in her leather bustier and buzzcut has become much more iconic than her costumed look, so I kind of love that artist David Mazzucchelli’s design for the Catwoman costume is, well, pretty goofy? Those oversized ears! That tail! Those whiskers! Sure, the text says she’s a femme fatale, but the art just makes me think of Amanda Seyfried pointing to her head in Mean Girls and saying “A mouse, duh.”
Anyway, Tim Burton read Batman: Year One (just kidding, Tim Burton is on the record as disdaining the very notion of reading a comic book) and was like “You think that’s kinky? You are like a little baby.”
Surprising literally no one, Burton’s Catwoman is both the most fetishistic and the most sexily unhinged of them all. God bless Michelle Pfeiffer for grounding her Selina with some humanity and yeah, okay, also being just outrageously hot in Batman Returns. This is one of those cases where a character in an adaptation bears zero resemblance to her counterpart in the source material but no one cares because it works so well.
Costume-wise, Batman Returns left a legacy that’s still very evident in Catwoman’s costumes 28 years later. The jagged contrast stitching, a visual manifestation of Selina’s fractured psyche, is unique to the movie, since Selina is generally not portrayed as this mentally ill in other media (and also because neither comic book artists nor animators want to draw all those little stitches everywhere). But the external corsetry and the overall look of the fabric—vinyl here, but usually depicted as something implausibly leather-adjacent in the comics—keep coming back. Less obviously, the particular shape of the cowl and eyeholes has become a distinctive silhouette for Selina, with only occasional departures.
Batman: The Animated Series premiered the same year as Batman Returns and Warner Brothers wanted Selina’s look to mimic the movie. Bruce Timm was like “Uh, no thanks”—see above re: animating dozens of tiny stitches—but he threw some black on there as a peace offering and made the character blonde to match Michelle Pfieffer. The belt is pure Batman ‘66, and the overall look harkens back to a glam mid-century pinup aesthetic more than anything else, which meshes perfectly, if anachronistically, with the Art Deco setting of the animated series. It’s sleek, it’s tasteful, it’s elegant.
Meanwhile, the comics were…not that.
Welcome to the ’90s! Time for some thigh-high boots and boob socks! This is clearly just a naked woman colored purple, but honestly? Given the decade, this feels relatively restrained. I mean, it’s awful, but she’s also not wearing a bustier and a thong, so in terms of ’90s costumes for female characters, this is basically a church outfit.
Back on TV, things got weirder:
This is just a little too sleek and inhuman for me. Selina is a very real, personable, human character—the alienating blue-white face doesn’t quite work. But her change to a dark pixie cut under the cowl was so good that it’s still with us today, so much so that when I see Selina with long hair now it seems out of character to me.
There’s that leather bustier again! I blame this “realistic” look entirely on the first X-Men movie, which came out the same year and forced a bunch of comic book characters into boring and sweaty leather for years under the guise that it was somehow more practical. Look, Jim Balent’s purple Catwoman was desperately in need of a bra, but I’d still rather backflip into a bank vault wearing a leotard rather than something that’s going to stab me in the belly with steel boning every time I bend over and smell like something died in it before I even disable the alarm system. Get this girl a protective underlayer immediately.
Thankfully, two years later Selina got one of the best redesigns in all of comic book history:
Let’s just take a minute to bask in it, shall we? Ahhh. So good.
Darwyn Cooke’s Catwoman redesign synthesizes the best of Selina’s history while creating something entirely new. The retro cut of the catsuit and the boots evoke Batman ‘66; the leather harkens back to Batman Returns; the pixie cut is from the animated series. Even the cat eye goggles are a nod to those weird late ’60s outfits. It’s glamorous in that mid-century way, which is largely due to Cooke’s skill and personal style, but the bones of the costume are good enough that it still looked fabulous when drawn by other artists, as long as they didn’t decide to be total creeps about that zipper. (A lot of them decided to be total creeps.)
Also, check out those solid boot heels! I’m in love.
Sadly, the Catwoman movie took no cues from this:
Hey, remember after X-Men and before Iron Man, when studios had realized that superhero movies could make big bucks but Marvel hadn’t ironed out their relentless world-conquering formula yet, and so sometimes things got REAL WEIRD? (To be fair, DC still largely has no idea what they’re doing.) Honestly it’s kind of good that this movie was as bad as it was, because comics like to adopt elements of successful films, and if Catwoman had made a dime we’d probably still have Selina in a bra and shredded pants in the comics. Poor Halle Berry.
That same year we got this look on The Batman, which is basically the BTAS look filtered through The Batman’s overall anime-influenced aesthetic. There’s nothing wrong with it, but the huge ears and cowl always make this design read very childlike to me, which seems off—Selina Kyle is a grown woman very much in charge of her business.
Four years later, Batman: The Brave and the Bold went vintage and classic, putting Selina in a costume she hadn’t worn since 1993. Again, it’s a perfect match for the show’s aesthetic, but also the beginning of a pattern of adaptations steering hard into a nostalgic curve for their Catwoman designs, regardless of whether their overall look is nostalgic.
Well, okay, maybe not in this next example:
The DC Nation “Bat Man of Shanghai” cartoons were set in Shanghai in 1930 so it’s not a shock that their Catwoman was, visually speaking, a huge departure from anything we’d ever seen before, with the exception of the whip. It’s quite a cute look, though I could have done without her entire back being exposed for no reason.
But those vintage vibes were absolutely in play for 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises:
This is not a movie franchise that has any interest in nostalgia as a whole, but Selina’s costume was absolutely designed to evoke Batman ‘66, from the lines of the mask to the low-riding belt. I appreciate that it’s more playful than basically anything in this extremely dour trilogy and Anne Hathaway wears it well, but I could do without those ridiculous high heels.
Meanwhile, on the grubby end of the scale:
I have nothing bad to say about this. I’ve never watched even a second of Gotham but this li’l kitten is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life and she should have an Emmy about it. Someone give her a ball of yarn to play with!
And speaking of precious kittens:
The first iteration of DC Super Hero Girls gave us a fairly straightforward adaptation of Selina’s comics look, made a little more streetwear-esque via the boots and with the addition of a kicky little bolero I’m assuming she stole from Black Canary. There’s something of reminiscent of Anne Hathaway’s look around the ears and goggles, and the touches of purple and green are a nice callback to her vintage colors. Nicely done!
The rebooted DCSHG franchise, though, went hard on the nostalgia:
I mean, this is just Eartha Kitt in the BTAS costume, which was itself already calling back to the Batman ‘66 costume, so we’re essentially caught in a multilevel ouroboros of Catwoman nostalgia at this point. But also no one cares because this is perfection and I only wish I was cool enough to be friends with her.
Meanwhile, the DC Universe streaming service’s Harley Quinn brought us pure Darwyn Cooke:
A little more unzipped than I would like, but this is still a great costume. I also love that Selina’s very clearly a woman of color here; the comics have occasionally suggested that she is Latina among her many constantly changing backstories and ethnic backgrounds, but aside from Eartha Kitt’s performance she’s always been portrayed as white in other media. Between the new DC Super Hero Girls look, Harley Quinn, and the casting of Zoe Kravitz for the upcoming The Batman movie, we’re seeing a much wider range of what Catwoman—master thief, reluctant hero, more than a match for Batman—can look like, and that’s wonderful.
Finally, the current Catwoman comic brought us the first major change to Selina’s look since 2002, designed by Joelle Jones:
The silhouette is still essentially Cooke, but it’s definitely no longer a zip-up catsuit—it seems to have a zip-down…shrug? That is detachable? The corset is back in a major way, and I’m not gonna lie—I don’t love the armpit cutouts, which seem like a good place to get stabbed, or the fact that the gloves only go halfway up her hands, which seems like a good way to lose a glove. Jones’s art is beautiful but this costume confuses me.
The thing that strikes me when I look at Catwoman’s sartorial history laid out like this is that it’s 80 years of artists saying the same thing but disagreeing profoundly about how to say it: namely, that Selina Kyle is a sexy, desirable woman. Yes, I know on the face of it that seems obvious—breaking news, a comic book lady is supposed to be hot!—but what fascinates me is the huge variation on what “sexy” and “desirable” means. Is she sexy because she’s glamorous and elegant, or because she’s kinky and taboo? Because she’s current and relevant, or retro chic? Because she’s aloof and capable with a zipper all the way up, or on display and available with a zipper all the way down? Or is she too sexy for comics entirely? (Looking at you, late 1950s!)
I certainly have my own opinions on the subject (see, uh, the several thousand words I just wrote about it) and I’m sure you do too. And that’s the thing I find so cool about a long-running, iconic character like Catwoman: how a seemingly simple question about what this character’s costumes say about her has such a complex and multifaceted answer that tells us as much about ourselves as it does about 80 years of history. And we’re still only talking about how she dresses; there’s so much more to Selina Kyle than kitten ears and a whip, and we could be here all day talking about her moral ambiguity, her past, her relationships with Batman and with other women. (Or you could just read Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale by Tim Hanley for a truly comprehensive analysis.)
For the past 80 years, no matter what she’s worn, Catwoman’s been stealing our hearts along with, you know, the weirdly specific cat-themed valuables that Gotham is full of for some reason. She’s made some fashion missteps, to be sure, and lord knows some artists have not drawn her with the respect I think she deserves. But a cat always lands on her feet, and I look forward to another 80 years of Selina Kyle doing—and wearing—exactly what she wants.
So there, Batman.