My Love-Hate Relationship with Action Flick Costuming

Posted on 25 March 2011 by ChloeG

I haven’t posted anything to the site for a while because Aaron Sorkin is an evil genius. That’s all I have to say on the topic.

I saw part of a preview for Sucker Punch the other day, and something struck me, as it has many times before. I have a complete love-hate relationship with action heroine costuming. I mean, there’s a reason that classic hand-to-hand combat traditionally utilizes loose-fitting clothing that strongly resembles pajamas. It’s evident (obvious) that practicality is approximately last on the list of things to consider when these femmes are being fitted, and it generally bothers me the whole movie, but at the same time these costumes play an intentional role in the movie. They play on the same images that fantasy novel cover-art has pushed into a new universe of unlikeliness, and they call upon older archetypes that weren’t that under-sexualized to begin with. The nymph, the elf, the amazon, the goddess to name a few were the fore-runners of the new action heroine, but presumably they were at least slightly more realistically costumed at some point in their varied histories.

So here we go, highlighting a few of the cringe-worthy costumes that we overlook in the interest of girl power.

1 The leather body suit. This one has a long list of culprits that are also high on my list of favorites. The Matrix, Underworld, and X-Men come to mind. These things are just silly. They have to have various versions of them depending on the range of motion that’s going to be required in the scene, and I saw an interview at one point about the inconvenience of even basic motion in full-body leather clothing while they were shooting X-Men. In the first movie, walking up the beach onto the island where the UN conference was being held, the cast had to hop over a two-foot-tall cement retaining wall. Keep in mind that this crew has been doing fight scenes all movie that are nothing short of extravagant in nature. The retaining wall beat them. The first take, they were basically crawling over it, because no one could get a leg up high enough to clear it. They had to develop a special method for clearing a two foot hurdle because your limbs don’t bend in fitted leather. They just don’t. (You’ll notice in the final take that they’re putting a hand down on the wall and hopping both legs over simultaneously. Even that was hard.) This is a gender-neutral infraction, but it hits the heroines with particular absurdness, because the hero’s suit generally doesn’t have to fit quite that tightly. Silly, but I give this one a pass. It’s iconic and hot and I can accept it.

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2 Running stilettos. These are the worst. Sure, women can run in a shoe with one-sixteenth-of-one-square-inch under their heels, but it’s the same thing as running on your toes. You’re never going to catch anyone. I’ve got a handful of TV shoes that I would tag with this issue, but movies are hardly immune to the idea that tiny, skinny heels are a great accessory for the heroine on the movie. This is Angelina Jolie in Wanted; this is Halle Berry as Catwoman; this is Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux. Women may be astoundingly capable on these things, sure, but just imagine what these ladies could do in sensible flats. (Kathleen Turner wears Keds in Undercover Blues. Ha!) This form-over-function faux pas crosses the line for me. Pointy heels only serve to impress other people. There is a compromise solution in…

3 Knee-high stompin’ boots. These are not to be generally confused with flat-soled combat boots like what Dakota Fanning wears in Push or River Tam* wears in Firefly on occasion. These are the I-wish-I-were-six-inches-taller, thick-soled, solid-heeled beasts of footwear. Selene from Underworld epitomizes these, and she wears them well. They enhance the illusion of solidness and stability in some movies, even if shoes like this do little to improve stability and rather add weight (a lot) and usually a lack of ankle flexibility. And no one wants to be at a handicap fighting werewolves. Trinity has a lite version of them, but in her defense, she could defy gravity, anyway. Sienna Guillory and Milla Jovovich have matching knee-high boots in Resident Evil, and I’ve been told by someone who actually likes that franchise that the costumes for the pair of them was the whole point of the movie. Who am I to disagree with that? The truth is that I like the flavor that giant black boots give a character. Sure, no real live heroine would choose to wear them for anything other than their intimidation factor, if it exists, but between the reasons they’re cool and the reasons that most actresses and costume departments have for wanting to put heels on most every female character, I can live with it.

4 The ‘I’m going to fall out of this if I move my arms too much’ top. I saw an interview with Kate Beckinsale about Van Helsing, and this was apparently a problem on set. There was a special spatula for fixing it. Someone would announce that they had a ‘puppy’s nose’ and a woman would come running up to Kate and stuff her back into her corset. I get trying to make the most of what you’ve got, but this is silly. See also, Kiera Knightley in King Arthur, Milla Jovovich from The Fifth Element, Rachel Weisz in The Mummy, and all three actresses of Charlie’s Angels. The actresses may be perfectly comfortable attired as they are, because they’re certainly going to be wearing less and riskier clothing at an award show in the near future, but their characters might beg to differ. I thought about adding mini-skirts to this list, but they’re basically fighting in their underwear, anyway, so the skirt is only for show in between fight scenes. I would make a point about ‘putting modesty aside’, but the fact of the matter is that the little clothing these characters retain is precisely for modesty’s sake. My cultural narrative says that Xena started this, but this ever-increasing demand on diminishing clothing undoubtedly started well before the warrior princess, and would have continued without her. Corsets are fine for period pieces and low necklines and bikini tops are appropriate for drama and comedy, but our action heroines deserve a little more support.

All of this leads me to an odd conclusion. At least by this metric, Lara Croft is a perfectly reasonable heroine. And on that bombshell…

*Parallel structure demands that River Tam be replaced Summer Glau, but I decline. She simply is River Tam and that’s all there is to it.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. Quaid Says:

    Ha…awesome article. It’s funny ’cause it’s true.

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