Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Monica Geraffo. I have wanted her to write for The Middle Spaces since I met her at CSS 2019, where she attended the workshop on public scholarship I co-facilitated with Adrienne Resha. Monica’s interest in superhero comics and TV, fashion history, and her personal and professional experience in costume design give her a perspective not common to comics and other pop culture studies but that is a sorely needed lens. Let’s hope this is just the first of several essays she will write for us.
Perhaps fitting for a story about the fastest man alive, the first iteration of the television series The Flash (1990–91) was over rather quickly. It lasted only one 22-episode season before being cancelled over production costs. Currently, the actors of the 90s Flash make not infrequent cameo appearances in its contemporary counterpart, The Flash (2014 to present), which may be a surprising element of fan service given that the majority of viewers are probably not old enough to have seen the original. And yet in its short time on air, The Flash managed to redefine aesthetic conceptions of the modern, televised superhero…one blousy fitting button-up at a time.
The modern television superhero doesn’t own spandex or stretch knit. In fact, there are a multitude of narrative, economic, and functional motivations behind why the contemporary superhero television genre purposefully works towards as little screen time for their heroes in their super-suits as possible, all of which I will break down—albeit briefly—over the course of this essay. My goal in this exploration, however, is an analysis of the plethora of paisley shirts and workout tank tops and yes, even the khaki chinos, present in the original The Flash TV show. Existing superhero costume analysis largely ignores the contribution to characterization provided by clothing worn by the heroes when out of costume, which feels like a gross oversight when considering these are the garments that are on screen the majority of a show’s runtime. Understanding how these seemingly ubiquitous civilian clothes made their way on camera and how these same costume design choices appear across future superhero television properties allows The Flash’s contribution to the genre to be seen as less of a blip and more of a pivotal development.
While I am a trained fashion historian, I also hope to incorporate the insight of a practitioner to this study of costume design. Prior to the COVID-19 film industry shutdown, I worked in television costuming at the Warner Brothers wardrobe department on the Burbank studio lot. Much of my supplemental knowledge comes from my own experiences as a designer, as an assistant to a more experienced mentor, or through oral interviews with colleagues. It is my hope that introducing firsthand, industry-based context offers an additional lens with which to analyze the text.
To talk about the legacy of TV’s The Flash, one has to begin with Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), a landmark catalyst in modern superhero film franchises. In “Transmediating Tim Burton’s Gotham City: Brand Convergence, Child Audiences, and Batman: The Animated Series,” media scholar Matthew Freeman illustrates the potential of transmedia character portrayals through Burton’s Batman’s visual, tonal, and aural influence on Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995). In development at the same time as Batman and predating both the sequel Batman Returns (1992) and The Animated Series (henceforth, BTAS), CBS’s The Flash series holds strong commonalities with Batman properties: like Batman, The Flash was also filmed on the Warner Brothers studio lot, repurposing the recognizable courthouse steps, movie theatre, and many of the same building facades found in Gotham to represent Central City. Danny Elfman composed the theme music for Batman, The Flash, and BTAS, while Shirley Walker composed the music for each individual episode of both The Flash and BTAS. The Flash television series utilized the same cutting-edge technology as the film and spent the same astronomic price tag producing molded muscular super-suits to rival Batman. Considering that Freeman’s definition of the transmedia Batman universe cites not just the commonality of character but emphasizes the necessity of a cohesive visual and aural tone as even more important than a narrative one—I’d like to extend that sharing the same physical set, suit construction, and orchestra should stand as evidence that The Flash constitutes the creation of an early DC Extended Universe (DCEU) or Arrowverse that predates the not uncommon claim that 2013’s Man of Steel or Arrow (2012-2020) was the first.
So—what exactly was the visual continuity that synchronized these productions? Freeman cites descriptions by film critics that refer to both the narrative tone and visual aesthetic behind Batman and The Animated Series as “1940s noir.” A 2020 Den of Geek 30th anniversary interview with Flash showrunner Danny Bilson and a 1990 Los Angeles Times article on the show describe the utilization of 1940s styles as contributing to an overall sense of “timelessness” within the series. Formally, the “noir” aesthetic being referred to includes a chiaroscuro lighting scheme, canted camera angles, and Art Deco inspired production design, but the term also includes costuming.
By leading with establishing, exterior, wide shots of the same studio lot, Batman and The Flash heavily utilize Art Deco style building facades and fonts for signage. But while Batman’s Wayne Manor, with its wrought iron gate and museum-worthy collection of artifacts hold strong comparisons to Xanadu, the mythic estate of seminal noir film Citizen Kane (1941), the furthest these stylistic motifs make their way into Central City’s interiors on The Flash are in the distinctively deco patterned ties worn by its police chief. The way the exteriors create common aesthetic access points between the two “noir” coded superhero properties while the interiors diverge into distinctly separate visuals creates an overarching theme for the differences between superhero television and superhero film.
At this point, however, a brief, but relevant digression on the differences between the superhero film and television medium’s influence on the live-action superhero genre feels necessary to help contextualize why the costumes of the two properties within the same franchise would differ for reasons other than the creative choices of different designers or directors. While visual cohesion creates an overall expanded storyworld, the nuanced differences between the mediums have created a lasting impact on superhero television costuming. In my opinion, the most batshit part of Burton’s Batman is the series of scenes where canonically private and emotionally repressed Bruce Wayne attempts to woo Vicki Vale by serving her bland, unsalted soup at the long dining table in his manor and having his butler Alfred act as a third wheel with lighthearted tales of young Bruce. Somehow this works, because Vale decides having nice grandfathers in common means she understands the real man behind the money, and they get it on. Portraying Batman as isolated and socially awkward allows his sexual desires to overcome his need to maintain a secret identity. He chooses a potential mate with a proven journalistic propensity for snooping and invites her over to his house of secrets, rather than say, literally any restaurant. Yet the real reason these scenes seem to stand out so starkly from the rest of the film is because they’re rather like a soapy young adult drama. Having seen every episode of the CW Arrowverse shows for “research,” it is no coincidence they share the same home network as a show like Gossip Girl (2007-2012).
I use the term “soapy” because like the soap opera genre, they make the home and interpersonal relationships central to the narrative. These melodramatic scenes turn exceedingly gorgeous and rich characters into relatable human figures precisely because they place emphasis on universal relationship issues and share physical space and time in the viewer’s everyday life—whether primetime or daytime, the soap opera’s emphasis on the domestic sphere is reinforced by being literally projected into a domestic space. The Flash series, as the more domestic medium, depicts more casually decorated interior domestic spaces than Batman. The costume designs of both present similar looks for exterior scenes but diverge in interior spaces by creating nearly identical public facing muscular molded silicone super-suits but allowing the two titular heroes to differentiate in the formality of the clothes they wear as their civilian identities and in their domestic and private spaces. For example, we know Bruce Wayne has let his guard down with Vicki Vale because he’s loosened his tie for once, but Barry Allen only wears ties when he has to go to court.
Where Batman’s soapy components feel like outliers, in The Flash they are integral to the story. Showrunner Danny Bilson described his conception of television’s Barry Allen as a traditional American hero, with “a certain amount of modesty, in over his head…” Where Batman invited the audience to investigate the mysterious vigilante alongside Vicki Vale, The Flash created a protagonist that emphasized the humanity of the hero instead. Barry Allen is frequently yelled at for being behind on his work at the crime lab, set up on multiple bad blind dates by his coworker Julio, and even spends an episode on the phone trying to convince a debt collection agency that they’ve sent him the bills of a different Barry Allen. He’s relatable to the point of near mundanity. Visually, the everyman who just happens to be a superhero is better reinforced by an unfussy button-up or a novelty print shirt than an expensive suit. Everyday clothes help create the sense of a character who fits in better with viewership than his own storyworld, increasing the ability for audiences to picture themselves as “Barry Allens” who struggle to fit in in their own workplaces but enjoy the escapist fantasy of coming home from work to moonlight as someone else. The Flash doubly reinforces this viewer fantasy to become someone else in the evenings by airing during primetime and primarily only showing its own titular hero in his red suit during nighttime scenes.
Civilian clothes may logically fit the less-super aspects of the narratives better, but frankly, network television scripts are written to accommodate the realities of film production—coming up with reasons not to dress actors in super-suits is simply a hell of a lot easier and cheaper for projects working with a fraction of the budget usually afforded to a feature film, while expected to produce twenty-two additional hours of episodic content. When George Bluestone wrote his seminal work on adaptation theory Novels into Film in 1957, he stated that “changes are inevitable when abandoning the linguistic for the visual medium,” without considering the possibility that some adaptations would already be visual works. Comics artists found inspiration from magazines, catalogs, newspaper advertisements, and people on the street. The source materials began as real garments, but as theorist Roland Barthes in his 1967 work The Fashion System would assert, photos of clothing capture the idea of an outfit without ever having to consider the realities of wearing it. Artistic license by comics artists morphed these photographs and fashion illustrations into comics illustrations that—and this is important—were only ever intended to be drawn, never worn. Comics themselves acknowledge the impossibility of creating real world superhero suits, considering that within Marvel comics the super-suits worn by the Fantastic Four, Ant Man and the Wasp, the X-Men, and others are all created of a fictitious fabric made of “unstable molecules.”
Therefore, for costume designers, the task of adapting these comic illustrations into physical garments is a terrible game of telephone that attempts to render the twice immaterial garment—the original source image and the resulting comic illustration— into a costume that is, at best, marginally functional. For example, in a 2015 Variety interview, costume designer Colleen Atwood discussed that she designed two pairs of boots for Grant Gustin’s CW Flash because ironically, one pair looks more impressive in standing shots, but he cannot run in them. While super-suit designers attempt to harness the latest material science innovations—in a 2017 Vice interview, director Joel Schumacher explains that Clooney’s Batsuit had nipples simply because suit sculptor Jose Fernandez wanted to showcase the level of detail available in rubber molding technology—the result of contorting unconventional synthetic materials to resemble fictitious fabrics means many do not hold the tensile strength to withstand actually being used in (staged) superhero combat, frequently breaking not just from stunt fights on camera but from common actions, like trying to sit down.
The eight super-suits created for The Flash (1990), including four just for the pilot, cost between $25,000 and $100,000 each to manufacture, not adjusted for inflation. For context, Ben Affleck’s Batsuit cost $100,000 in 2014. Prior to the era of utilizing 3D body-scans to create super-suits, as in the contemporary series, in 1990 the bespoke measuring process utilized to create an individualized superhero costume took on an altogether different meaning. As John Wesley Shipp recalls in that anniversary interview, his initial fittings for the super-suit involved being greased with Vaseline and wrapped in cellophane, which protected his body from the extreme heat involved in gluing pieces of latex molded musculature directly to the spandex base suit while he wore it. The latex was then specially treated to make the rubber resemble a more malleable textile. The benefit of building distinct anatomy into the exoskeleton was the ability to hide anything underneath, like, a whole bunch of water, which with the help of a spray sealant was used to attempt to keep Shipp cool enough to prevent loss of consciousness. (Yes, I am telling you that the original Flash suit was essentially a super waterbed.) The idea was quickly abandoned, not because of its impracticality for things like being able to use the bathroom but because the water couldn’t be kept cool enough. The rest of the season utilized a water-cooling vest usually worn by race car drivers instead.
Emphasizing that no matter the project, the production’s budget remains paramount provides the necessary context to understand how The Flash could simultaneously spend the unprecedented sum associated with building and constantly repairing the titular character’s super-suit, while also choosing to dress the villain-of-the-week in, say, considerably more thrifty neon painted motocross pads or a navy winter jacket. By spending so much money on super-suits, The Flash needed to creatively pinch pennies at every other opportunity. Decreasing the amount of screen time in costume decreases the opportunities for it to break. A superhero struggling with relationship drama costs much less than an action sequence with an exploding car. And off the rack khakis or sweatpants cost less than tailored suits. Along with existing on a smaller budget, in general, television is also constrained by a faster shooting timeline and less prep time than feature films. John Wesley Shipp remembered the shooting schedule as “…the third week in August until the second week in May with four days off for Christmas and that was it,” working 55 to 80-hour workweeks. An aggressively fast timeline also means the wardrobe department is less able to offer custom costumes and/or tailoring, relying more on store-bought ready-to-wear garments or the Warner Brothers wardrobe department.
To recap: utilizing a 1940s noir aesthetic connects the two series within the same transmedia universe, but the differences between feature films and soapy television— both from the perspective of narrative tone and production constraints— offer insight into the ways an emphasis on domestic storylines and a wardrobe budget would result in a more casually dressed cast on The Flash. But frankly, the truth is that upon first viewing I struggled to find places where The Flash’s costumes resembled “1940s noir” at all. Despite numerous references by both critics and creative teams, the direct contrast of informality/formality between 90s casual khakis and blousy fits versus noir’s smart suiting and defined silhouettes of the 1940s seems to belie that. For example, a 1990 Los Angeles Times article on the costume design for The Flash series describes Barry Allen’s main confidant, scientist Tina McGee as “an aggressive career woman, but she wears decidedly unaggressive clothing, especially retro ‘30s and ‘40s long tapered skirts, pleated slacks and vests.” The overall silhouette of the 1940s woman in a noir film usually included an accentuated waistline, while traditional menswear like trousers or vests were reserved on screen for women who were portrayed as rebellious or independent. In other words, slacks themselves are by noir classifications the very definition of “aggressive,” despite costume designer Bob Miller’s intentions to dress McGee as the opposite. Further, McGee does wear many white blouses consistent with 1940s styles, but her waistline is almost always absent. Considering that the comic book iteration of Tina McGee is originally a 31-year-old nutritionist who shows up in a t-shirt that says “Spoiled Rotten” on it, it is clear that Miller did not depart from utilizing 1940s styles in order to keep McGee’s costuming consistent with her illustrated counterpart. These contradictions directly illustrate my frustrations in attempting to cleanly classify elements of The Flash’s costuming as “noir-inspired,” especially when the articles of clothing being cited are the pieces that specifically break the established costuming tropes.
Examining the visual “rules” of the series through the traditions of costume design, reveals strategic work to uphold and/or break traditions of noir costuming. Barry Allen, Tina McGee, and Julio Mendez’s perpetual “Casual Fridays” purposefully set them apart from the rest of the characters in the story world. These are also the clothes that were most likely purchased from outside boutiques rather than from the supply stock and therefore the most consciously chosen garments by the designer, emphasizing that these are the clothes intended to create feelings of “relatability” with the audience. Significantly, these divergent principal costumes were precisely the reason The Flash’s costumes originally appeared not to resemble conceptions of noir. The smaller recurring roles, guest-stars, villains-of-the-week, and the background extras actually bear greater resemblance to the aesthetic expectations of the genre. Criminals wore full suits, and law enforcement wore suspenders, long trench coats, and hats. Considering both budget and time constraints, these smaller roles are also those most likely to have been dressed using the costume stock of the wardrobe department, which includes a large selection of suiting from previous films, including Batman, but also potentially from productions as far back as the actual 1940s. While the origins of this disparate costuming may be budgetary limitations, that same divergence also serves a thematic function and should not be dismissed as solely a question of resources.
Because The Flash created largely stand-alone episodes rather than contributing to a long-form story arc, dressing the series’ villains presented a budgetary constraint that had to find ways to differentiate the deviant characters from the background costume stock of Central City’s law abiding citizens without also spending too much on garments for actors who would only appear once. While CBS network executives originally asked the showrunners not to include supervillains in the first six episodes of the series, by the end of the season comic book characters Captain Cold, Mirror Master, and The Trickster had all made appearances. Mark Hamill’s the Trickster is the only villain to appear twice within the series and also the only comic book character other than The Flash to appear in a costume that resembles his original illustration. The Trickster’s costumes are notably less expensive than The Flash’s, being made of spandex and plastic and hand painted in mixed geometric prints and primary colors. However, his patterned tights are aesthetically both a relatively faithful adaptation of his comic book counterpart introduced in The Flash #118 (June-July 1960), as well as a trend easily found in 60s fashion magazines. The Trickster’s second appearance came with a full redesign, consisting of a neon bodysuit and external padding. Fashion magazines of the early 1990s also saw a resurgence of the 60s patterned tights trend, but the inclusion of neon fabrics placed the Trickster’s second costume in a definitive moment of fashion history. Surprisingly, it is precisely this peak 90s fashionable connection that highlights the storytelling techniques utilized by noir costuming.
In general, characters in the noir genre meant to be seen as serious, responsible, demure, in-disguise, or modern were more likely to be dressed in clothing that bears greater resemblance to the 1940s viewer’s everyday wardrobe, and characters with more extravagant or excessively fashionable wardrobes foreshadowed their moral corruption. While the Hays Production Code dictated moral guidelines that prohibited visible cleavage or women’s belly buttons, costume designers worked to create allure and scandal through garments that could be described as “eye catching” overall. For example, sequined or shiny fabrics were frequently used in order to symbolize a character’s materialistic nature. Therefore, not only do the Trickster’s very trendy tights technically remain in line with the noir’s established patterns, but so do the costumes of many other villains in the series by utilizing fashion-forward 90s clothing. In the episode “Tina, Is That You?” Tina McGee suffers a lab accident and becomes evil, wearing a leather jacket and bustier top, and becoming the leader of the Black Rose Gang, an all-girl crime syndicate with a penchant for sequin jackets. And when masquerading as the speedster Zoom, in “Done with Mirrors” Barry Allen wears quite possibly the world’s largest pair of shoulder pads, gold designer sunglasses, and a spiked hairstyle that can only be described as “an entire bottle of gel.” His temporary ally, the thief Stasia, wears a black vinyl coat that prioritizes the look over the narrative—the coat squeaks loudly enough when she moves that some of her dialogue is actually inaudible. While the clothes may appear more contemporary than the 1940s, it is specifically the aggressive wearing of over-the-top “fashion”—choosing to wear multiple, mismatched, patterned tights all over the entire body, using the entire bottle of hair gel, etc— that is in line with the noir aesthetic through the use of costuming contrast.
The Flash adheres loosely enough to the noir genre to create a visually connected DC cinematic universe. By incorporating more casual garments, the series created a lasting legacy in superhero television costuming. In the contemporary CW Flash series, Barry Allen wears solid color t-shirts and sweaters, denim and khaki jackets, jeans, and converse sneakers. The clothes clearly echo the same unprofessional informality of workwear for a crime scene investigator and the purposeful ubiquitous lack of style which 90s Barry Allen was often teased for on-screen by Julio. Contemporary Barry’s best friend and mechanical engineer, Cisco Ramon, owns a wardrobe of “geeky” tees and printed shirts that may not be as loud as Julio’s but continue to evoke the same novelty. Women on the show, like Barry’s love interest Iris West Allen and bio engineer Caitlin Snow, are often dressed in conservative workwear, especially light blouses and jackets with drape that recalls the seriousness of Tina McGee. And villains and minor heroes continue to rely on fashion trends to supplement a production budget that cannot afford full super-suits for every character.
In the CW The Flash episode “The Elongated Night Rises” (2018) Corinne Bohrer, who played the villain Prank in the original 90s series, reprises her role. Instead of the spandex painted suit from her original appearance, Prank wears a custom leather coat and pants. But this is also the episode in which Ralph Dibney/The Elongated Man commits to becoming a superhero, which is depicted in the narrative by Dibney’s choice to abandon his makeshift super-suit and fight Prank in a custom leather tracksuit. The flimsy materiality of his initial spandex suit serves to portray Dibney as a character who considers his stint as a superhero as temporary but also as a flaky, goofy character, who finds taking on responsibility to be a silly prospect. The new suit allows others to take him (and for him to take himself) seriously. Dibney’s own alter ego is as a private investigator, a classic film noir character trope, but re-dressing both Prank and Elongated Man into leather rather than Spandex, displays an evolution in superhero television costuming which has taken notes on wearability, incorporating the casual leather jacket from the civilian wardrobe into the superhero suit.
The 90s Flash series managed to create a precedent of putting superhero suits on screen that could match their feature film counterparts but more importantly, most often dressed its heroes in casual everyday clothing that instrumentally helped to create relatable characters more suited to television soap opera narratives. In appreciation of an Arrowverse that now spans seven different live action CW network series (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning, Batwoman, Superman & Lois), the lone season of The Flash in 1990 proves that the wardrobe of a modern transmedia television superhero is worth being acknowledged as more than a fan service cameo. In his work “Adapting the X-Men: Comic Book Narratives in Film Franchises” Martin Zeller-Jacques asserts that as more films and television series are introduced to the transmedia franchise, that the first adaptation gains the potential to displace the comic as the ‘source’ material for the audience. In the same way that Batman’s art deco buildings indeed became the aesthetic source material for the exterior establishing shots found in other DC properties, the legacy of The Flash’s casual costuming decisions can be seen echoed throughout all future Arrowverse properties as a key storytelling device for developing the on-screen characterization of its heroes and that will likely influence televisual adaptations (and perhaps future film franchises) for years to come.
Monica Geraffo is a professional fashion historian and costume designer for film and television. She received her MA in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology, and her BA in Screen Arts and Cultures from the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the representations of fabric and fashion trends within popular culture mediums, especially superhero comics and their film and television adaptations. Her favorite career moments have included installing superhero costumes for museum exhibitions with FIDM Museum in Los Angeles. Most recently, her work has appeared in the Film, Fashion & Consumption Journal. More of her writing can be found at monicamarvelous.com/blog