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Michael Wilkinson Discusses Costume Design in Man of Steel

Man of Steel recently hit cinema screens amidst a blaze of controversy, with many questioning director Zach Snyder’s dark and humourless take on the Superman legend. Conversely some have praised his approach as the breath of fresh air the character needed. If the film itself has been splitting audiences so too has the costume design. Principally this stems from Superman’s overhauled hero suit. Depending on who you ask it is either bravely innovative or missing a pair of red underpants.

We speculated that this revamped suit is actually underwear, a foundation garment worn by all Krypton men beneath their armour or robes. However, even though this was our interpretation, it is not necessarily shared by Man of Steel’s costume designers Michael Wilkinson and James Acheson. Thankfully Mr. Wilkinson got in touch with Clothes on Film to explain what we have missed. His insight, we think you will agree, is illuminating.

Man of Steel_Amy Adams, Henry Cavill suit_Image credit Warner Bros Pictures-001

Amy Adams as Lois Lane with the man himself, Henry Cavill as Superman. According to Michael Wilkinson his suit has, “roots in the past, but incorporates contemporary aesthetics and references”. Incidentally, like alter-ego Clark Kent’s spectacles? They’re Paul Smith.

Michael Wilkinson on… creating the Superman suit:

I was working on another project when Man of Steel began early pre-production, so Zack Snyder, our director, started up with some concept art and initial prototyping from the amazing James (Jim) Acheson. When I came on board, I took these ideas as a starting point and went on to develop my own design ideas. When my designs were approved, that was just the beginning of the process! There were a million design decisions for me to make every day during the complex construction period, the fittings and the shoot itself.

Jim was there at the very beginning, I was there for the rest, but concept artist Warren Manser was there all along! In total he worked on the project for a year and a half, illustrating every detail of the Superman costume. He did literally hundreds of drawings, illustrating many different ideas, and covering every square inch of Superman.

On construction:

The Superman suit is made up of separate layers. There’s an under-layer of sculpted detail mounted onto a bodysuit. Over the top of this we stretched a thin mesh over-suit that is printed with a dimensional chain-mail texture. Then, the final foam-latex elements are affixed – the ‘S’-glyph , the cuffs, the side-body details, etc.

We wanted to evoke a “man of steel” – so our metallic finish has an ambiguous quality, as though it’s an alien metal/armour unfamiliar to us on earth. We wanted our Superman to glow on screen, to create a texture that the camera loves, and make him stand apart from the human race.

Man of Steel_Henry Cavill suit full walk_Image credit Warner Bros Pictures

Superman’s suit incorporates a subtle metallic sheen, “it’s an alien metal unfamiliar to us here on earth.”

On backstory:

We all worked on ideas of explaining why the suit looks the way it does, so that it is grounded in the film’s story. The chainmail texture was suggested, and I incorporated the design elements of the suit into all the kryptonian clothing. I included the chainmail layer into their costumes, designed glyphs for all kryptonians (which they wear like heraldic family crests), and integrated the cuffs, textures, and other details of the hero suit into their clothing.

On colour:

We wanted to create our own version of the Superman legacy, one that has its roots in the past, but incorporates contemporary aesthetics and references. This approach made us favour a steely, more textural suit than previous incarnations. We wanted the film to really impact on our audience, to ground it in our world rather than a stylized “comic book” version of our world. We wanted to make people wonder ‘what would it really be like if we discovered an alien being amongst us?”, and so we created a realistic, gritty, contemporary tone for the film.

Man of Steel_Michael Shannon armour front_Image credit Warner Bros Pictures

When Michael Shannon’s General Zod strips off his armour he becomes a “dark version of Superman”. His armour follows the visual lines of Krypton.

On aliens:

The gold headdresses (worn by the Kryptonian council) are based on an initial concept by James Acheson (made by the talented Stacia Lang) – the rest of the costumes are my designs, executed in fabrics custom-made by Matt Reitsma, a phenomenally talented textile artist. We created digital patterns, based on alien biological forms and used them to etch away at velvets, and then we burnt, spattered, beaded and encrusted the fabrics to create the sense of ancient, heavy ceremonial materials that are falling apart. Then the costumes were sewn together at Bill Hargate Costumes in Los Angeles.

On removing Zod’s armour:

We wanted to create that moment where Zod’s costume mirrors Superman’s costume – for the final battle, it is as if Superman is fighting the dark version of himself. Indeed, he is destroying the last chance of the continuation of Kryptonian culture, so it is an incredibly significant moment.

Man of Steel_Amy Adams sweater mid_Image credit Warner Bros Pictures

Lois is “razor-smart and highly capable”. Amy Adams wears a combination of – among other brands – Prada, Tom Ford, Theory and for the Antarctica scenes, a Canada Goose down coat.

On Clark at The Daily Planet:

As costume designers we often enjoy planting subliminal suggestions onscreen, hoping that they might resonate with the audience. With Clark, I wanted to bring the warmth and soul of the Midwest into the Daily Planet office so I chose a shirt with a very subtle dark plaid pattern layered under a textural, canvas-y wool-silk sports coat.

On Lois Lane:

I wanted Lois to come across as razor-smart and highly capable – a modern woman who, in her own way, is a force to reckoned with. Amy Adams is the smartest woman on the block, so she made it easy for me! We researched what real-life investigative journalists wear when out in the field and in the office, and then tweaked it to create a memorable look for Lois. We combined Canada Goose down parkas with combat boots, Tom Ford vests and sharp tailoring.

With thanks to Michael Wilkinson.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.

One Comment

  • Amber

    Anyone know what coat Amy Adams is wearing when she is interviewing the waitress at the truck stop?

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