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The First Avenger: A Love Letter to Emma Peel, Superhero Style Pioneer

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

Remember when G4 Queen Geek Olivia Munn threw X-Men Apocalypse (2016) director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg under the bus during an official GQ (read: highly public) interview for not knowing that Psylocke had a twin brother? A fact that clearly only bothered true Marvel fans and not anyone over at 20th Century Fox, because post-ousting of Singer, they let Kinberg write and direct Dark Phoenix (2019), despite the fact that he had already butchered a version of The Dark Phoenix Saga storyline via 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand.


Ah postmodernism— the idea that nothing is ever too soon


While I’m all for artistic liberty, especially considering that comic book IP even before it makes its way to screen adaptation is notoriously inconsistent, let’s put it this way; If you’re assigned a 400 page novel, and you skim the three page Sparknotes plot summary, and then try and write an hour and a half long book report, you’re gonna get a D-.


Yes, we’re all well past needing to argue if the Dark Phoenix Saga adaptations were misogynist trash that overshadowed Jean’s internal conflict with the need for a male savior’s love to restore her humanity. The important thing here is emphasizing the storyline these men missed by not bothering to read the source material.


DARK PHOENIX SAGA IS ABOUT SEX.


Sure, it’s kinda also about power. I get how these men might get that one confused, considering the longstanding patriarchal belief that power drives sex. But they left out a lot of sex. And if I had to guess why, maybe it’s because reading the Wikipedia article on the Dark Phoenix Saga doesn’t include any pictures. Comics are also a visual medium.


Just look at what they’re wearing!

Uncanny X-Men #130

We’re in a goddamn sex den.


Jean Grey is brainwashed by Mastermind and the Hellfire Club into believing that she is the Black Queen, which if we’re oversimplifying (hey, Kinberg was allowed to simplify and he was paid a fuckton of money) is the catalyst for the Dark Phoenix Saga. Her appearance, as well as that of White Queen Emma Frost, were modeled after a 1966 episode of British cult television espionage series The Avengers “A Touch of Brimstone” in which actress Diana Riggs’ character Emma Peel is forced to go undercover as a member of the also named Hellfire Club, a secret villainous organization which dresses in a mashup of historic clothing and lingerie, participates in BDSM sex acts, and attempts to scheme political and economic power through targeted murders of world leaders.

So yes, what I’m saying is that writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne changed BASICALLY NOTHING when adapting the storyline for the comics in 1976.


The Avengers series, despite being lauded as quintessentially British, was also overtly full of sex. In an ACTUAL QUOTE from one of the show’s producers in 1966, he brags “We’re constantly kinky. If there’s a choice between Emma Peel fighting in a wet dress or a dry one, we choose wet.” The episode “A Touch of Brimstone,” however, was a cut above. ABC networks deemed the costume, designed by Diana Riggs herself, as too risqué, pulling the episode from American airtime. Naturally, it became the most watched episode of the series in Britain.


It brings me great enjoyment to conceptually grasp that this means at some point Claremont and Byrne watched a bootlegged copy of this episode. Because is this not the same damn outfit???


As a historian, it’s usually rare that source material and end product line up so completely. But the more I learned about Emma Peel, the more convinced I am that most of Marvel was taking style notes from The Avengers for, well…the other Avengers. Important to note: the portions of this post that highlight the widespread cultural significance of Mrs Peel’s style are indebted to the work previously published by Prudence Black and Catherine Driscoll, “Strapped to the Drainpipe: Emma Peel and the Vinyl Catsuit,” and are credited where applicable, but the work connecting Mrs Peel’s influence on comic book costuming is entirely my own.


Alternatively, if it sounds like I’m explaining why super suits are actually an amalgamation of kinky space fetish fashion, that one’s alllllll me. Did I mention I’m looking for teaching jobs?


The Avengers originally ran from 1961-1969, and Diana Rigg co-starred (lets be real, starred) as Emma Peel from 1964-1968. In the promotional materials for her first season, Rigg wore one of the earliest examples of the leather catsuit, predated only by The Avenger's other best feminist, Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale.

As Black and Driscoll emphasize, Rigg’s outfit actually predates even Catwoman’s catsuit, which was introduced in the Batman television series in 1966 before being adapted into the comics. However, this next piece of research I want to make very clear to my parents was entirely me; Rigg’s catsuit was based off of a John Sutcliffe design and produced in his workshop, who along with his designs also published this AtomAge magazine from 1972 to 1980, which featured fetish gear made of leather, rubber, and vinyl.

And while we don’t really need more than one image to illustrate the resemblance between fetish gear and superhero costumes, it’d be a disservice NOT to.

The specialized market for fetish gear and couture fashion share a need for unique materials, small batch production and hand construction, and customized tailoring to a specific individual, but most of Mrs Peel’s costumes originated with a much more mainstream inspiration. It would take until the early 1980s for fetish gear to have its own runway moment, at which point Jean Paul Gautier, Karl Lagerfeld, Betsey Johnson, Azzadine Alaia, Gianni Versace, and Marc Jacobs, all released collections full of corsetry aimed at young women. But in 1964, The Avengers’ costume designer John Bates admits that he was as in awe of Andre Courreges’ Space Age Collection as the rest of the world. In fact, Black and Driscoll note that Courreges had become so mainstream, that by 1965 his designs were so widely copied that he took up a self-imposed 700 days of retirement.

John Bates himself was equally guilty. In 1965 he released his own very Courreges inspired “Jean Varon Avengers Collection,” which continued the longstanding practice of creating film costumes that could also be mass produced as retail tie-ins. Most of these pieces also found their way onto Riggs onscreen, and as Black and Driscoll emphasize, were accompanied by publicity for the series that often claimed that Riggs wore her Peel costumes “in public and in private,” which, my emphasis, both connects to the idea that the blending of actress and character notes that these clothes should be viewed as fashion garments rather than fantasy costumes, and that private kink is now as acceptable on television as it is in the real world. Further reinforcement, the collection did include stockings and lingerie, including as Black and Driscoll cheekily note, a neglige labeled ‘Mystery and Imagination.’

Ah, handcuffs. Subtle.
Everybody pay attention to the coat, thanks.

Central to Black and Driscoll’s argument is a 1967 essay by literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes, “The Contest Between Chanel and Courreges” who describes “Courreges fashion seems to have assigned itself only one function: that of making clothing into a very clear sign for the whole body.”


Central to my argument, Barthes essay on Courreges aligns with his seminal work The Fashion System, published the same year, in which he equates fashion magazines and comics to be similar ‘social facts’ based on their prevalence of consumption as forms of media. Barthes states that “Even if the garment remains imaginary, it constitutes mass culture.” Comics are not unlike fashion magazines, because they both create separate visual and written language systems unique to their medium to represent clothing. The illustrations of superhero fashion resemble real clothes, yet even when based on real world source material, they are not real garments. Where real clothing is burdened with practical considerations, like protection or modesty, these limitations disappear from represented clothing. At most they only need to signify protection or modesty.


Barthes describing Courrege’s clothing as representational of the body echoes existent scholarship on the superhero costume’s emphasis on the archetypal bodysuit as intended to function as a second skin, like “Corrages, as designing women’s clothing with that elusive expression which makes the body appear close without ever exhibiting it.” It would seem that Courreges had actually solved Barthes own inquiry in translating representational clothing into real world garments.


John Bates left The Avengers after the fourth season, having felt that the tie-in collection boosted his visibility enough to focus solely on his career as a fashion designer. The effects of the collection’s success, along with the transition to color film, placed continued emphasis on the series’ costume designs. Riggs, who disliked wearing leather, took the opportunity of Bates’ departure to suggest that Alun Hughes, who had designed clothing for Rigg's personal wardrobe step in and create a new fabric crime fighting suit instead. Hughes took inspiration from Bates, and continued to create bold geometric and form fitting garments for Mrs. Peele. By this point in time, publicity had dubbed it the “Emmapeeler” which beyond marketing needing a quick association with the character and this being the best they could come up with, sounds an awful lot like it’s meant to be sensually “peeled” off of the body, associating it closely with the idea of a “second skin.”

Described as “ideal for work or leisure,” the Emmapeeler becomes simultaneously suitable for kink and workwear. Produced in multiple colors, and often paired with matching jackets cut in the same silhouette, it infers that Peel’s wardrobe functions more like a uniform than a fashion statement. Which according to Barbara Brownie and Danny Graydon, due to its largely static depiction, the archetypal superhero costume functions most closely to that of a work uniform.


Finally, the Emmapeeler, is made of Crimpelene! Which, sorry, is just another name for polyester. Black and Driscoll provide important historical context, noting that Courreges is part of a school of futurist designers, including Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne, who were known for their use of unconventional synthetic materials, some of which, like nylon and lurex, have become integral fabrics in contemporary fashion. Their words: “It matters that the signature Emma Peel’s look depended on images of elasticity and strength made possible by modern fabrications.” Barthes seems likely to agree that “In her catsuit, Mrs. Peel is the modern technological body.”



You know who else loves repurposing unconventional materials into clothing until they become mainstream?


I showed you an entire magazine of vinyl suits.


“Elasticity and strength” are more than representational semiotic markers of modernity, but also the literal physical properties of everyone’s favorite super suit joke: spandex. Spandex itself was invented by DuPont in 1959, but in 1962, Marvel comics introduced “unstable molecule fabric” as the primary material used to clothe the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Wasp, and just about anyone else in need of resilient stretchy garments. While Marvel clearly utilized the ability to create “representational” clothing in this instance, their basis remained grounded in the current dialogue surrounding technological innovation in material sciences.


Mrs. Peel’s technologically advanced clothing, its benefits to her job, and her irreverence for its sexuality despite its origins in fetish gear, are defined as both modern and responsible, similar to the sexuality represented but unemphasized by the archetypal superhero costume. Black and Driscoll make the comparison that “For a Bond girl, sex is about Bond, but for Mrs. Peel, while the absence of sex is professional, the presence of sex is also something like a skill.” Diana Riggs herself left The Avengers to star in Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), notably, the only film where permanent bachelor James Bond actually gets married.


Her space fetish influence remains integral piece to our conceptions of superhero costume.


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