n.b. Once again, we here at The Middle Spaces are fortunate enough to present an essay by Monica Geraffo on fashion in superhero comics and other related franchises, as with her examination of the costuming choices in the original 90s The Flash TV show, she uses choices about clothing (and in this case the person who designed them) to consider the cultural context of that moment and potential meaning in terms of the progressive stance of such Big Two cape comics.
The 25th anniversary of the creation of Spider-Man was marked by an unprecedented Marvel public relations event, Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s 1987 wedding in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21. The storyline synchronized across both the comic book and newspaper strip, with behind-the-scenes coverage in Marvel Age #54 and Marvel Saga #22. A bachelor party was held for the press and a televised live reenactment of the wedding occurred at Shea Stadium prior to a New York Mets game, officiated by Stan Lee himself in front of a 50,000-person audience, and was both preceded and followed by special coverage on Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight . Mary Jane’s wedding dress—for both the comic illustrations and the live recreation— was created by Willi Smith, one of the most successful African-American fashion designers of the time. MJ’s dress was also his very last design, unveiled at the event two months after his death from AIDS-related complications.
Willi Smith was a progressive designer who thought about the vast applications of garments as an artistic medium throughout his career, designing not just fashionable clothes for the mass market, but many costumes for modern dance and performance art pieces, plays, and experimental and blockbuster films. In 1985, two years prior to his death, Willi Smith produced and provided the garments for the experimental short film Expedition, in which a white man travels to a fictitious African country and watches brightly dressed models, wearing Smith’s design label WilliWear, escape from his suitcase at border patrol. The joke is that the models from his suitcase go completely unnoticed, while the white man is excessively questioned. According to contemporary Canadian artist Brendan Fernandes, “Smith’s work suggests that while mere visibility can be humiliating, even dangerous, hypervisibility can be an effective strategy for both subversion and survival.” This notion represents not just the historical context of the way dress has been utilized to suppress, challenge, or articulate identities for the queer community and/or persons of color, but from a thematic similarity behind the way a superhero costume functions—that the hypervisiblity of a disguise made to look like a big red and blue spider exists to ensure the survival of Peter Parker’s true identity and the safety of his family.
At the same time, while Marvel’s PR campaign gave a hypervisibility to Mary Jane’s dress, ensuring that Smith’s name would survive at the forefront of the public record for the largest comic book wedding of all time, attention to just his work as a fashion designer has the potential to obscure the visibility of the life of Willi Smith, the man. The problem with the word “survival” is that it is not really a triumph, but rather a state of being that implies the bare minimum. His legacy doesn’t deserve to just survive. Smith deserves infinitely more than the acknowledgement of his existence, but rather the long-overdue recognition of the life and mind of a revolutionary creative whose ideas changed the entire landscape of fashion. The context of what it once meant to include Willi Smith in a Spider-Man comic has slipped away over time. Let’s fix that.
According to Marvel Age #54, Marvel’s promotional director Steve Saffel came up with the idea to commission a real-world fashion designer to create Mary Jane’s wedding dress, and designer Willi Smith was ultimately chosen because he had recently designed the tuxedos for another high-profile wedding—the 1986 nuptials between Edwin Schlossberg and Caroline Kennedy. In comics, celebrity appearances are relatively common, such as an appearance by President Ronald Regan in Uncanny X-Men #199 (1985). In addition, many fashion designers held longstanding contributions to comic book civilian style, especially for model-type comics characters like Mary Jane. For example, Gladys Parker, the creator of the Mopsy comic strip and accompanying Mopsy Modes paper dolls (1937-1966), was a successful fashion illustrator and clothing designer independent of her comics. Underground comix and Wonder Woman artist Trina Robbins owned an East Village fashion boutique named Broccoli, trading her sewing skills for comic strip space in the East Village Other. in Comic Book Resources (2020) and the New York Times (1979), both fashion designer Betsey Johnson and Willi Smith himself spoke to SoHo Weekly News regarding the influence of Archie Comics’ Katy Keene as a pin-up fashion comic on their own work. Katy Keene encouraged readers to mail in their own sketches, giving credit to any published designs, which were utilized either within the main story, or within the accompanying paper-doll section. Willi Smith even concluded his 1978 Spring line fashion show with a Katy Keene homage. In Smith’s own words:
For me, it was definitely Katy [Keene]. She was my Vogue, total fantasy. She was white Diana Ross. She was always going to a party, even during the day. I always wondered, ‘Where and how did she get those fabulous clothes?’ I figured she owned her day clothes and borrowed for the evening. She was supposedly the working girl in the ’50s, but I mean furs in California? I was 11 years old when I was reading Katy Keene. I used to send 100-200 sketches a month and even won a birthday fashion contest.
While fashion designers often begin with a sketch before drafting a pattern, the drawings for the Katy Keene comics were not created with the intention of being published for any separate purpose. Comic illustrators or fashion designers create either drawings of imaginary garments, or clothing based off of reference images, but very, very few participate in both mediums simultaneously, especially as now working adults in the late 1980s—but Willi Smith did. By not just looking to his childhood muse for inspiration, but by continuing to place his designs inside the pages of comics, an ultimate mass-medium, Smith’s continued interaction with comic book fashion exemplified his commitments to accessibility and collapsing the stratification between “high” and “low” art present throughout all facets of his career. WilliWear was an intentionally designed at an affordable price point, especially compared to his designer counterparts. As Smith was famous for saying “I don’t design clothes for the Queen; but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.” Mary Jane’s wedding wardrobe was given the full paper doll treatment in Marvel Age #54, along with the inclusion of Willi’s original sketches. While Willi could not produce a custom wedding dress at the same price as his usual ready-to-wear line, paper dolls did ensure the accessibility of his designs for any fashion fan or any future young designer who could afford the fifty-cent cover price.
The rarity that makes Mary Jane’s wedding dress so different from other comic fashion illustrations is that a real version was also created for the live Shea Stadium performance. According to actor Stephen Vrattos, who dressed as both the Green Goblin and Spider-Man for publicity events related to the wedding, the other live-action superheroes invited were simply the only other costumes Marvel HQ actually owned. Other than Mary Jane’s dress and Spider-Man’s suit jacket, which was also tailored by Willi Smith, no other new garments were made for the occasion, not even Spider-Man’s own super suit. The concept of “comic book accurate” live-action costuming likely draws associations primarily to superhero costumes rather than civilian dress, making it notable that emphasis was placed on accurately replicating Mary Jane’s comic book wedding dress for the live-action event. Beyond the unorthodox treatment of a fashionable garment as equally significant as the superhero costume, MJ’s dress is arguably placed above Spider-Man’s suit considering that the financial investment and construction time required to produce a custom designer wedding dress far exceeded that of any Marvel-owned superhero costume at the time (a custom couture dress costs thousands). It is unclear if Marvel actually paid this amount or if Willi Smith provided the services in exchange for brand exposure but constructing the comic illustration as an actual garment was positioned as an integral component of “faithful” recreation and an illustration of the event’s grand scale. Spider-Man only wears a tuxedo jacket over his usual suit and all of the other heroes present only wear their superhero costumes, making Mary Jane’s dress the largest visual signifier that we are witnessing a wedding, and thereby positioning Willi Smith’s design as central to the event. While Marvel’s internal press materials mention that Spidey’s tuxedo jacket was also created by Smith, this fact did not circulate widely, overshadowed significantly by Mary Jane’s gown.
Even more significant than the unprecedented degree to which Marvel included and emphasized the work of a fashion designer is the decision to utilize Willi Smith. Weddings were an overwhelming minority of Willi Smith’s design business—he primarily only created wedding attire for friends or special collaborations and used these opportunities to experiment with silhouettes and materials outside of his usual design aesthetic. Where WilliWear was purposefully utilitarian and gender-fluid, Mary Jane’s dress was traditional and feminine, made of white lace and silk organza. Specifically, her combined plunging neckline and sheer turtleneck, as well as her mermaid hem were of particular trend in 1987, especially compared to images of other socialite and celebrity weddings of the same year. Mary Jane’s dress was desirable not just for Smith’s brand-name, but because it was the height of wedding fashion. However, very few photographs of Smith’s other wedding dresses survive. One does bear special similarity to Mary Jane’s, including a similar mermaid silhouette and a sheer organza high neck, though the two dresses differ enough to rule out being repurposed or altered for the Marvel event. But, attributing Smith’s involvement to his previous work on a high-profile wedding is a gross understatement of his legacy, and possibly not even a major reason why Marvel executives chose Willi as a designer with name-brand recognition.
Likely the employees of Marvel’s New York City office would have been much more familiar with Willi Smith as the pioneer of streetwear. Under his design house WilliWear, Smith was the first fashion designer to present men’s and women’s clothing under the same label, positioning many of his garments as gender neutral. His commitment to accessible style extended to the production of his own McCall’s and Butterick sewing patterns, many of which were copies of the clothing presented in his catalogs for ready-made purchase at Bloomingdales or Macy’s. In 1986, WilliWear grossed over $25 million dollars in sales. Because Willi Smith’s clothes were meant for everyone, they were everywhere.
But Willi Smith was more than a streetwear designer. As previously mentioned, he created for experimental films, and designed costumes with Ruth Carter for Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze. He collaborated with pop artists to create limited edition graphic tees. He commissioned experimental artists and architects to design his storefronts. He was the youngest person ever nominated for a Coty award (fashion’s equivalent to the Oscars), which happened five times, winning once. Willi Smith was a revolutionary designer for democratizing fashion. His philosophy was rooted in creating comfortable, easy, versatile separates that appealed to every customer at every price point, making him both the perfect designer to create both the tuxedos for a Kennedy wedding and a wedding dress for the cover of a $1.25 comic book whose readers and creators were much more likely to own an article from his WilliWear line. Willi Smith was well-respected within the fashion industry and had experience drawing and re-creating comic book fashions, but Smith was also chosen over other New York City designers like Geoffrey Beene or Carolina Herrera. While neither of them were ever reported to be in the running, they were American designers well known for creating wedding gowns as part of their usual design repertoire as well as also regularly designing for First Ladies and their offspring. Choosing to work with a “designer for the people” over another designer with name-brand recognition ultimately emphasizes attainability—Willi Smith clothes can be worn by anyone the same way that Stan Lee would assert that anyone can become a hero.
While Smith’s clothes purposefully had no target demographic, there is still an important distinction to be made when it comes to Marvel’s awareness of the designer versus a public awareness. Smith was not necessarily chosen because of his popularity as a favorite designer of Spider-Man readers, because not every child was like the young Willi Smith, excavating comics for designer fashion inspiration. In 1987, Spider-Man’s adventures could be read in The Amazing Spider Man comic series, the newspaper strip of the same name, the comic series Web of Spider-Man and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, and in numerous guest-star appearances, one-off issues, or miniseries. Fans might have remembered the live-action TV series The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-81) or the animated television program Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends (1981-1983) from a few years prior, or even the “Spidey Super Stories” segments from The Electric Company (1974-1977) of their childhood. Each of these iterations existed precisely because they catered to different ages, making Spider-Man one of Marvel’s most visible properties. By publishing Spider-Man’s wedding in multiple comic strips and books and televising the event on both daytime and primetime television, the intention was that the marketing campaign would reach all of these demographics. The decision to include a famous fashion designer for a wedding would have appealed to older fans but would have also needed to appeal to an entirely new consumer base who would be introduced to Willi Smith for the very first time.
For anyone who had not heard of Willi Smith before the wedding and envied Mary Jane’s incredibly on-trend wedding dress, they may have chosen to look him up to purchase their own WilliWear— which absolutely would have been the brand’s intention in participating: driving sales. But what potential consumers would have found would have been Willi Smith’s 1987 obituaries, including those from the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, all of which specifically mention that he had died of AIDS-related complications, in contrast to designer Perry Ellis, who specifically requested that his own death announcements in 1986 not include any mention of his AIDS diagnosis. I explicitly mean to emphasize that Marvel chose to hinge the success of their biggest marketing stunt ever not just on a popular designer, because there were lots of those to choose from, but on a gay black man in 1987 after his death from AIDS.
From the start of the United States AIDS epidemic in 1981 until 1987 over 40,000 people had died from the disease. It was the third largest cause of death in New York City, yet Ronald Reagan only publicly acknowledged the health crisis for the first time in 1985. Smith died just one month after the creation of ACT UP and the FDA approval of AZT. At the time of his death, the public acknowledgement of Willi Smith’s AIDS diagnosis was both rare and exceptionally stigmatized. In 1987, Willi Smith’s celebrity status was such that a reference to his name in a comic could not be divorced from the facts of his recent death or his identity as a gay man. Marvel had two months between Smith’s death and the comic issue’s publication, conceivably enough time to redraw Mary Jane’s wedding dress and/or rent another gown had they wanted to. They did neither. There is no public record regarding Marvel’s opinions on the involvement of Willi Smith in Spider-Man’s wedding after public announcements of his death included references to AIDS, but in many ways the choice to still follow through with his cameo is either silently revolutionary or openly political in the conservative era of its publication—especially since Smith himself appears in the comic. Within the story, Willi Smith going out of his way to design a custom dress and receiving an invitation to Mary-Jane’s wedding indicates an emotional closeness between the model and the designer during a year in which Princess Diana’s decision to just shake hands with an HIV-positive patient was seen as a controversial act.
For a brief moment, Willi Smith transcended the paranoia surrounding the AIDS epidemic. His Marvel comics cameo made him immortal, depicted as vibrant and generous and talented and actively still designing because within the comics his death is never mentioned. Conceivably, somewhere just off the page Mary Jane could still run to another fitting with her designer friend. As a researcher whose body of work is dedicated to the significance of civilian fashion in superhero comics, I’d like to push a little further than the PR stunt to think about what it really means within the fictitious fashion industry depicted in Amazing Spider-Man for Willi Smith to design a wedding dress for Mary Jane Watson. Many fashion designers work regularly with the same models as muses. For example, Halston had his Halstonettes, and Azzadine Alaia had Naomi Campbell, who lived in his apartment and looked to him as an adoptive father figure. These design relationships were such that the models would stand for hours as fabric was literally pinned and draped around them, the garments designed specifically for their unique bodies. Despite being crafted literally for them, these clothes were part of the designer’s collection, intended for the runway, not as gifts. These models did sometimes receive garments, but the creation of a custom dress that was never intended to be sold to a ready-to-wear market or worn on a couture runway, like a wedding gown, is the type of labor that was reserved for a designer’s closest friends or their biggest clients and patrons. This places Mary Jane not just as a top model, but as part of Willi Smith’s inner circle, someone who would have spent significant time with the designer.
Willi’s real-world models describe working in his runway shows as livelier than the other designers’ and how they were encouraged to undertake their work as more performative, spirited, and approachable—the type of show a buyer might find themselves dancing at. Mary Jane’s signature spunk would have fit right in but also depicting Mary Jane, a white woman, as one of Willi’s main muses actively erases the fact that models of European ethnicity were always in the minority in his runway presentations, and his main fit model was Bethann Hardison, an African American woman. Where Willi Smith is depicted as one of two African American attendees of Spider-Man’s wedding, there are some conceivably undrawn panels of Mary Jane as the minority inside Willi Smith’s design atelier. Their depiction as close colleagues and friends still manages to align Mary Jane’s character with Smith’s democratizing, inclusive, radical philosophies regarding the rejection of class or racial stratification. At the same time, this kind of nuanced insight isn’t the sort of context likely to be picked up by the average reader, exemplifying the ways Marvel’s treatment of Smith, while slightly progressive for the era, are also incredibly problematic. Choosing never to address Smith’s death within the comic book story purposefully avoids facilitating public awareness of the AIDS health crisis. And Marvel’s official press statements simultaneously acknowledged Smith’s “untimely passing” while touting the appearance of Smith’s last design like a rare collectible.
Spider-Man and Mary Jane’s wedding allows Willi Smith to exist frozen for a moment in time, remembered as a creative whose first exposure to fashion came in the democratizing pages of comics’ design contests—before his legacy would be actively erased by a public unwilling to discuss the deaths of thousands of queer persons of color, and before the incredibly ephemeral Eurocentric fashion industry attempted to push not just Smith, but any future black designers he inspired to the margins of history through micro aggressions that attempted to delineate “fashion” and “streetwear” akin to “high” and “low” art forms. Ironically, comics themselves are often categorized as “low” art for their disposable-by-design low quality paper (especially before the 1990s), but images of Mary Jane’s wedding dress are one of Willi Smith’s best surviving designs. When curator Alexandra Cunningham Cameron reached out for donations of Willi Smith designs for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum 2020 exhibition Willi Smith: Street Couture, she found surprising few surviving examples, largely because Willi’s clothes were so versatile and beloved that they were worn to death rather than preserved. Marvel’s PR campaign may have thought to utilize Willi Smith’s design to emphasize the grandeur of their event, but Willi Smith’s decision to collaborate was likely rooted in his lifelong commitment to accessibility.
Willi Smith wanted to help people through clothing. He viewed garments as tools to help marginalized communities navigate traditionally white, heteronormative spaces, but the most important thing about Smith’s designs is that he created egalitarian, versatile, fluid clothing that actively encouraged the wearer to articulate their own identity rather than being asked to masquerade as a social norm. Willi Smith was determinedly inclusive, though not openly transgressive. His sexuality was largely separate from his public persona before his death from AIDS, further highlighting the ways his work spoke to his desire to help create a world that wouldn’t require identities to be expressed in code. By influencing the ways people dress every day, perhaps the world may look more inclusive, and thus begin to think more inclusively.
It is significant that Peter Parker marries Mary Jane dressed as Spider-Man because it marks a pointed convergence of the two personas into an intersectional one, rather than an alter-ego and/or a disguise. The conservative tendencies of comics have historically left disenfranchised readers to hunt for alternative readings between the panels of stories that reflect real-world hopes without real-world resolutions; Willi Smith’s presence within the comic gives visibility to a role model for black and queer readers, but only Parker, a straight, white man is able to find public acceptance for his public and private facing selves, all of which adhere to masculine social norms as a “hero,” “scientist,” “newspaper photographer,” or “husband” within the narrative. There remains a rather large disconnect between a singularly progressive action (the inclusion of Smith) and the absence of any narrative resolution or detailed PR statement that would have honored Smith’s legacy for more than the work he provided in his incredibly sick final months.
We’ve had to actively look beyond MJ’s wedding dress—the only representation of Smith’s work found in the pages of Spider-Man—to find Smith’s commitment to “fashion for all” in undrawn panels of Mary Jane running to work in Smith’s diverse runway presentations, in the minds of Marvel higher-ups who see the designer’s popularity on the streets of their New York City commute, and in the minds of future designers who are more likely to own comic book paper dolls and McCall’s patterns than off-the-rack WilliWear. While the influence of Smith has been quite literally marginalized in Spider-Man, the fact is that his democratizing approach to fashion uniquely resonates with the accessibility of the comic book superhero. Smith’s involvement is still incredibly important because it remains far and beyond that of any other real-world fashion designer in Marvel comics. In the years following, there have been many other celebrity cameos and many other comic book weddings, but none have matched the PR campaign created for Spider-Man and Mary Jane. Smith is depicted by Marvel as doing either Mary Jane or the comics company a favor, but the hyper-visibility of his dress, the PR framing of his name and likeness, and the revolutionary influence of his design philosophy on the fashion industry seem much more inclined to suggest that without his participation “The Wedding” would not have ultimately become as memorable an event in Marvel’s history.
Monica Geraffo is a professional fashion historian and costume designer for film and television. Her research focuses on the representations of fabric and fashion trends within popular culture mediums, especially superhero comics and their film and television adaptations. 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. Most recently, her work has appeared in the Film, Fashion & Consumption Journal. More of her musings on pop-culture can be found at https://voxpopcast.com.