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Monday, 22 September 2014

Costuming and Design in Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- Nick Fury, Black Widow, and S.H.I.E.L.D.

Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the gritty superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon. 
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.
Part 5: Worldbuilding in the MCU
Part 6: Costuming and design: Steve & Bucky.

People love to namecheck spandex when talking about superhero costumes, but as far as I recall there's no spandex to be seen anywhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Cap's costume toned down to a subtle navy blue for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the most comicbook-looking character we see is Nick Fury.

With each new appearance, I've grown to love Nick Fury's costumes more and more. Not just because they look cool, but because of the internal logic of why he dresses like that. To understand what I'm getting at here, take a moment to think about S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, and Fury's role within the organization.



In The Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and other Marvel movies, S.H.I.E.L.D. is portrayed as a quasi-governmental Men in Black organization. It's populated by military types, agents like Coulson, jumpsuit-wearing Helicarrier personnel, and a smattering of individuals like Black Widow and Hawkeye. Fury is in charge, with Maria Hill as the deputy director and Alexander Pierce as his immediate superior, a kind of liaison between S.H.I.E.L.D. and various world governments.

Up until now Fury was the authority figure, a character who swoops in and solves problems or tells the heroes what to do. He was basically a trigger-happy, morally ambiguous Gandalf figure.

CATWS brought in a much-needed new dimension of fallibility to Nick Fury, as well as showing him inside S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters for the first time. Alexander Pierce, in his old-fashioned but stylish three-piece suits, both fits in with those surroundings and represents the political establishment. Meanwhile Fury, with his ostentatious black leather outfits, does not exactly seem like he belongs in a grey office building.


There's a certain internal consistency to the costumes at S.H.I.E.L.D., with Maria Hill and most of the Helicarrier personnel wearing navy blue uniforms (the same shade as Cap's new uniform and his nylon biker jacket in this movie, incidentally), and characters like Coulson and Agent 13 wearing subdued businesswear.

Nick Fury does not fall into either category. He's sure as hell not wearing normal clothes that could blend into his surroundings, and I highly doubt that his outfits adhere to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s official uniform. Instead, I can only describe his favourite costume as some kind of supervillain-themed black leather cosplay outfit.

Yes, Nick Fury is a goth.


GIF by harlequinnade
Black leather trenchcoats have a long and storied history in the sci-fi/action movie genre, and it's one that I'll go into in more detail if I ever write about The Matrix. Suffice it to say that there's no practical reason why Nick Fury, a man in his sixties, would choose to wear an ankle-length leather coat every day.

This decision was surely based on style and style alone. And since we've definitely seen him wearing several different coats, I can only imagine what the inside of his wardrobe might look like.

In The Avengers
Fury has two basic costumes throughout the Marvel franchise: a black turtleneck/black trousers outfit, usually coupled with a long black leather coat, and the black "uniform" suit we see in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Aside from being totally goth, Fury's outfits have one major thing in common: they're menacing. The softest, most casual thing we ever see him wear is a dark grey cardigan when he's hospitalized after faking his death, and even then he's wearing it with some sort of bespoke leather sling that looks like a holster.

His black body armour/leather coat outfits are a blatant visual signal for badassery, while the high-collared, uniform-inspired suit he wears in CATWS is particularly interesting in that it has a lot in common with classic villain costumes. That "uniform" jacket is reminiscent of the officer's uniforms on the Death Star. Fury has the potential to "look evil," whereas Alexander Pierce looks perfectly neutral at all times. Rich and neutral, much like Guy Pearce's supervillain character in Iron Man 3, in fact.


Nick Fury's badass black outfits make him into a visually iconic figure, even within the movie itself. This has the effect of a kind of reverse disguise because as soon as Nick Fury takes off his signature costume, it's very easy for him to disappear. When people are expecting a big, imposing figure in a sweeping black coat and eyepatch, they're not going to be looking for an elderly man in a hoodie and sunglasses. I absolutely loved this costume changeover at the end, not just because of the way it utilizes Samuel L. Jackson's age but because of the link it provides with Black Widow.


I'm not overly familiar with Black Widow comics, but my impression is that she's often portrayed as a rather vampy character. Her most famous visual characteristics are her vibrant red hair and shiny black catsuit, which is generally drawn to be sexier than the version we see in the movies. I'm happy with the MCU's interpretation of her appearance, partly because it allowed me to develop a pet theory about her hair.

The movies obviously had to keep Back Widow's red hair, but instead of going for a natural shade like Pepper Potts, they went for a bright red tone that could only come from a bottle. That's where my comparison with Nick Fury comes in. I think that Black Widow purposefully dyes her hair such a noticeable shade because it then becomes her defining feature. The result? As soon as she changes her hair colour to something else, she can easily slip under the radar. Another reverse disguise, just like Nick Fury's carefully constructed image as a leather-wearing badass.


I'm ambivalent over whether we ever see Black Widow's own "real" dress sense. Perhaps she doesn't even have one. In Iron Man 2 she wears tight, expensive businesswear while undercover as Tony Stark's new P.A., while in The Avengers we see her wearing a similar costume to the jeans and leather jacket she wears for a few scenes in CATWS. The dark leather blazer she wears in the graveyard scene looks far closer to the kind of thing we might expect from the comics (although I also think it looks about 15 years out of style, despite being a $2,400 Burberry design).

Black Widow is meant to be a very enigmatic character, and her ability to change and utilize her appearance means that her costumes are understandably difficult to pin down.

When you see Steve and Natasha together they both appear to be wearing generic, nondescript clothes, but they chose them for very different reasons. Steve probably doesn't know how to shop and may just have picked out the plainest thing possible, whereas Natasha has the capacity to put a great deal of thought and analysis into what image she wants to present to the world.


For me, the most important aspect of Black Widow's costuming in CATWS is that it's yet another volley against the idiots who think Scarlett Johansson is only onscreen to look pretty. Even in a general sense CATWS is the most sexless movie in the entire franchise, and the most sexualised Black Widow situation is perhaps a split-second shot of her butt in the catsuit in an early scene. (Incidentally, Guardians of the Galaxy was pretty awful in this regard.)

When she's wearing what we assume are her own clothes, she wears skinny jeans and casual jackets, and when she's in disguise she wears a baggy grey hoodie and sneakers. Her t-shirts for each outfit are so similar that they might as well have come from a multipack. In other words, a selection of incredibly normal, neutral-coloured outfits designed to blend in with thousands of other women in their twenties. Perfect for an accomplished spy, and perfect for the realistic tone of the movie as a whole.



PreviouslyThe costumes and characters of The Avengers, Part 1: SHIELD and Part 4: Black Widow & Hawkeye.

Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the gritty superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon. 
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.
Part 5: Worldbuilding in the MCU
Part 6: Costuming and design: Steve & Bucky.

9 comments:

  1. "in The Avengers we only see her wearing one casual outfit"

    What about the outfit she wore in India? Do you consider that another disguise - to make her look non-threatening to Dr. Banner?

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, I'd describe that as a disguise, or at least something she wore to ~blend in to a certain extent.

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  2. I hadn't thought of it at the time, but that black leather jacket Nat wears is also a thematic tie to Fury's iconic coats--she's now the face and voice of SHIELD, and she's the one in black leather, although much less...ostentatious.

    (And I haven't watched a second time to pin it down, but I was also struck on first viewing by one other gratuitously sexual "Black Widow" shot--one set in a helicopter towards the end and featuring a jumpsuit zipped down enough to show rather more cleavage than practical for, oh, going into battle--but it was still mostly remarkable for the fact that *usually* they weren't *doing* that.)

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    Replies
    1. That moment struck me as odd given the circumstances as well. She shouldn't have had time for any wardrobe changes.

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  3. Hi! First off, thank you for your posts! I'm a long time fan, I found you back in April when I was still largely shell shocked after Cap2, and I never left! I have picked up your like "the operatic tragedy of the death and resurrection of Bucky Barnes" and have been using it whenever anyone asks me about Cap2. Nailed it!

    Anyway, according to "Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier: The Art of the Movie",

    (costume designer Judianna) Markovsky wanted Nick Fury to look elegant. "I decided Nick Fury would always have his clothes made at the finest tailor (which we did - Dennis Kim here in Hollywood)." Markovsky says, "His coat is a realistic shape, like a very hip trench coat. I knew I didn't want leather and Sam Jackson wanted it to really move in the wind, so it is a beautiful lightweight wool with inserts of polished denim. We kept his trademark turtleneck sweaters." (p95)

    I assume it's the same one you're talking about? Hmm... the billowing of the coat in the gif does not indeed suggest leather but otherwise, I'd say they have certainly fooled me!

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  7. I know this is so so late, but I just realized that Black Widows leather jacket (in the bottom pic) is kind of reminiscent of Bucky's howling commandos uniform and later the Winter Soldier's armor. Any thoughts as to what this parallel could represent? Or am I seeing things?

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