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Sunday 21 July 2013

The costumes of X-Men: First Class, Part 1: Womenswear.

Sometimes I feel like superhero fandom is suffering from some kind of intricate mass delusion regarding X-Men: First Class. Specifically, that it's a good movie. Because it's not. It's just not. But I love it anyway! Half of it may be trash, but the other half is heartbreaking doomed romance and clumsy-yet-effective political allegory. And McAvoy and Fassbender are really excellent casting, which is just as well because it takes serious acting chops to make some of their dialogue sound plausible. NEVER FORGET that this is the movie that forced Kevin Bacon to utter the line, "Turn the nuclear reactor up to 100% and make sure I'm not disturbed."
The best way to appreciate XMFC is to remove your brain with an icecream scoop and concentrate fully on the agonising Romeo & Juliet-style romance between Magneto and Professor X. It is beautiful. It is timeless. They could have cut out every other character (except maybe Raven and Oliver Platt) and I would still have queued up to watch the Doomed Mutant Terrorist Soulmates show on opening night. Also, if you're focusing on the Charles/Magneto stuff then you're less likely to notice this movie's main flaw: the fact that it's intensely terrible when it comes to The Gurlz.

Raven is the main female lead, and is simultaneously the best and worst-written of the ladies -- mostly because Moira's primary job seems to be Emoting At Stuff (Rose Byrne was tragically underutilised in this role), and Emma Frost is the archetypal amoral vixen character. With Raven, many aspects of her character are perfectly understandable in a really, really depressing way. For example, when she starts wandering around naked it really kind of makes sense, at least from the perspective that Erik is a douchenozzle who takes advantage of her low self-esteem and desire to be recognised as a mutant and an adult woman. Yeah, right, becoming a nudist is definitely a way of showing "pride" in your mutant side, I'm so sure. The fact that she's blue does not make one iota of difference to the fact that some dude just told her the best way to be proud of her body was to walk around naked for the rest of her life.
But while that does make sense (ERIK, YOU'RE A DOUCHE), Raven's relationship with Charles is kind of baffling. At most she's five years younger than him, but he treats her like a child -- presumably because physically, she ages slower than he does. It's understandable for her to be frustrated by his patronising attitude -- particularly since if he's in his late 20s, then she's at least 22 years old. However, their final scene was just bizarre. While it's easy to understand her being drawn to Erik (ie, someone who represents a more radical view of mutant freedom, and "respects her as an adult"), it's just plain inexplicable for her to leave her brother dying alone on the beach while she swans off to be Magneto's naked sidekick for the next 50 years. Emotionally, this did not ring true to me at all. Yes, she might have left him to join Magneto, but she wouldn't have left him bleeding to death with a broken spine.
I don't watch Mad Men, but the presence of January Jones leads to some inevitable side-by-side comparisons, particularly when it comes to the movie's aesthetic. I have to wonder if January ever wanted to criticise the 1960s-era costumes and set design in XMFC, because they're really not very... accurate. Not that this matters as much as in Mad Men, since a) it was probably a purposeful design choice, and b) XMFC technically takes place in an alternate universe, so even if the Cuban Missile Crisis etc did take place, it's reasonable to assume that fashions would be slightly different. However, there's another, rather more serious comparison you can make between X-Men and Mad Men: the way each one treats its female characters.
When making a movie set in 1960s America, it makes sense to include some period-specific sexism -- particularly when it's a movie that focuses on certain groups being oppressed by the patriarchy. X-Men is an ideal opportunity to slip in a couple of casual references to everyday sexism and racism, to highlight their similarities with anti-mutant xenophobia. Instead, you get things like Moira McTaggert infiltrating the Hellfire Club by taking off all her clothes to reveal a convenient set of perfect lingerie (including garter belt!) that allow her to pretend to be a hooker. While there are probably some people who are ready to go undercover at the Playboy Mansion at the drop of a hat (or skirt), that list begins and ends with Lady Gaga and people on their way to a hot date. Not a businesslike CIA agent on a stakeout with a male work colleague, who has now seen her in her underwear.

I can almost guarantee that someone will end up haranguing me in the comments section for being a prude, but seriously: if you're a female CIA agent in the 1960s, it's not a good idea to strip to your lingerie while sharing a car with a male work colleague. He's vanishingly unlikely to be impressed by your ingenuity, and will most likely report back to your bosses, some of whom may literally have been born in the 19th century. The perfect icing on the cake of Moira's "character arc" (LOL) was when Charles removed her memories without her consent, leaving her mumbling about a ~half-forgotten kiss~ in front of a room of old CIA dudes, who promptly turned to each other and were like, "THIS is why we shouldn't allow women out in the field."
And then there's the Angel Salvatore situation. In the X-Men comics, Angel is not a stripper. So why is she a stripper in the movie? What reason is there? Pro-tip for any filmmakers out there: if one of your female characters is a stripper or sex worker for no apparent reason... maybe reconsider and make her a bartender or bus conductor or something. This kind of thing is the reason why there are only about three actresses in Hollywood who have made it to 30 without having to play a stripper or a prostitute.
To me, the most surprising thing about Angel's transformation from sulky highschool dropout to sassy go-go dancer was the fact that, at the time of the movie's release, I don't remember people being particularly bothered by it. I'm certain plenty of fans were bothered by it, but nowhere near at the levels of the vocal douchebag contingent who thought it was sacrilege to cast a black .guy as Heimdall in Thor -- despite the fact that Idris Elba is as close as you're likely to get to a demigod in real life. Additionally, the combination of the underwear (or semi-underwear) costumes worn by Emma, Angel and Moira are the point where I start to lose faith in the original excuse of, "It's an alternate universe, so things don't need to be historically accurate!"
The way "1960s" costumes seem to work in this movie is that the menswear is relatively accurate, because for men, 1960s style is all about harking back to an era were Men Were Men. Back in those days, Don Draper and James Bond could order sixteen martinis and a new pocket square from room service, and not have anyone bat an eyelash. However, 1960s womenswear just doesn't have the same connotations, and most of the womenswear in XMFC was altered to make it look more appealing to modern standards of beauty. Most noticeably, the bra shapes. It's absolutely plausible to include a scene where a bunch of Playboy Bunny types are entertaining gross old dudes in a members-only club, but the girls would all be wearing bullet bras, would have ~trendy '60s hairstyles (WHERE WERE THE BEEHIVES??), and would probably be about 15 lbs heavier than the modern-day models they hired as extras in that scene.
With the exception of Emma Frost, most of the womenswear in this movie was kinda meh to me. No disrespect to the costume designer, who has done amazing work on a bunch of movies like V for Vendetta, Hellboy 2, and Stardust. It's just that the way I see it, the filmmakers went out of their way to create a "best of both worlds" scenario: 1960s sexism allowing them to include a scene where a whole bunch of women strip down to their underwear for male entertainment, but 21st century standards of beauty so the (male) audience can appreciate it on the same level. Emma Frost was great, though. She's pretty much the only character you can get away with dressing in a white leather miniskirt and a white bra for everyday wear, because that's just how she rolls. Which begs the question: why bother with extraneous eyecandy scenes like Moira's CIA lingerie mission in the first place?

The menswear, on the other hand, is excellent. More on that in Part 2.


  1. TheMichaelMoran21 July 2013 at 12:14

    I gave Mystique a pass because she's often nude in the comics. and besides I had bigger concerns there — such as how Charles had completely forgotten her by the time of X-Men, I gave Angel Salvatore a pass because I didn't know anything about the character, I wasn't reading the X-books in the period where she was around, but (speaking as a heterosexual man who enjoys the look of a lady in her gym kit) I thought the Moira McTaggart lingerie modelling scene was gratuitous and a touch patronising to men, as well as objectifyingly dumb towards women.

  2. Yeah, I thought it was OK for Mystique to be nude for that same reason, but I also found it kind of dismal that the REASON why she's apparently naked for the rest of her life is this clumsy power-play from Magneto, with him being all "Be proud of your mutant beauty!" which is like, yes, well, that's a nice sentiment, but she can also be Blue And Proud while wearing a shirt, haha. But I guess they had to find a legitimate reason for her to be naked in all future movies, so they went with the "duped by charming Michael Fassbender" route.

    Basically, in a movie where you already have two ready-made eyecandy characters in the shape of Mystique and Emma Frost, it just seems bizarre for the supposedly ~responsible and professional~ government agent character to randomly get her kit off as well.

    1. She can't shapeshift real clothes, so if she's going out somewhere she might have to, she has to go naked.

      That doesn't help with the "wandering around the mansion nude" thing, though.

  3. I originally thought we were meant to think Moira *hadn't* been mind-wiped, because if she had, why would she have been so stupid as to give her superiors that flaky response? I figured she wanted to be seen as a flake so she could blow off her job and go hang out with the mutants.

    Then I was the only one who thought that and I realised I was probably just deluding myself :(

  4. From what (little) I know about sixties fashion, the miniskirt didn't show up until a couple of years after the Cuban missile crisis, and the minidress another year later. Another reason I eye-rolled my way through this film.

    I have to say, I thought the movie was fairly wretched, and ended up glad that I never saw it in the theatres.

  5. Christine Sutcliffe21 July 2013 at 16:26

    With Mystique being a shapeshifter, surely being naked all the time would enable her to transform more effectively - we know from the other films that she can emulate clothing anyway so it doesn't make much sense to wear actual clothes if she could just look like she was wearing them anyway. (which, I suppose makes no sense at all now because she could have just done that anyway and not appeared to be naked!)

  6. i always wondered about the shapeshifter issue because like, are her clothes PART of her when she shifts? or just an illusion? because she shifts clothes, but are they actually her flesh? can she take them off? THIS BUGS ME.

  7. According to most of what I've seen in the comics (which, being comics, tend to change pretty often), the clothes are part of her. For example, if she's in a snowstorm and makes it look like she's wearing a coat to blend in, she'll still be cold because it's not actually a coat, just her skin, looking like a coat.

    BUT, this being comics, her powers have been altered/changed due to various reasons (radiation, or experiments, maybe?), so in more recent years she's been shown to make parts of her body into less attached items (ID cards, etc.). So I guess the answer is "whatever they want to do"?

  8. Christine Sutcliffe25 July 2013 at 16:52

    Maybe the things she can remove would be the equivalent of pulling a hair out or something...

  9. Kathryn (@Loerwyn)30 July 2013 at 12:03

    Sorry to reply so late, but it's worth pointing out that in the later end of the film, Mystique is the ONLY character to have their jumpsuit unzipped... and it's down to her breasts.

  10. I'm not sure Mystique was ever actually portrayed as nude in the comics until roughly the time of the first X-Men movie. I haven't collected comics for a while now, so I don't know what they've done lately. But she did not have scales before, either.

    ... and then Marvel did a time travel story where she and several other mutants (Iceman and Toad, I don't remember if there was anyone else) were put into the bodies of past and future versions of themselves so they could witness events or get involved.

    And in one of those future events, Iceman finds he can reconstitute himself from water vapor. Toad goes from an ugly, stumpy wretch to looking like his Ray Park version. And Mystique, from memory, is surprised to find herself naked and scaly.

    Marvel tying the comics to the movies so new readers brought in by the movies would not be confused.

    So yeah. 'In the comics' is not a great defense of the movie version, because they changed the comics to match the movies.

  11. Alexis A. Hunter30 July 2013 at 12:52

    Maybe I've been "duped" by Fassbender's charm, too, but I rather felt sympathetic toward him and his cause. I was glad when he urged Mystique to be proud of her powers/appearance. I didn't see it as a power play or as him being an ass, I just saw it as him realizing that she was hiding her true self from everyone when she should really be proud and confident instead. But again...I've got a thing for Fassbender, so...

    The scene with Moira stripping down bugged me as well. The least she could've done was wait until she's in the club or whatever. Stripping down in front of her partner would, I would think, only undermine her partnership with him.

  12. Indeed. Except the line that stuck with me was, "I'm Frankenstein's monster."

  13. Or shedding a layer of skin, lizard-style.

  14. Having collected all of Mystique's comic book appearances from the '70s to mid '00s, I can say with some confidence that she was not portrayed as nude (outside of shower/sexy times/etc) until after the first movie came out. Her classic outfit was a white dress open to the hips with a belt made of skulls.

  15. That's the Mystique I always knew, yes. I'm not sure if the white dress/skull belt was actual clothing or part of her, whether she could shift clothing with her when she changed shape, or what.
    And yeah, I reckon 'looks cool' was one reason. It also provides some leeway to wiggle around nudity taboos, since the scales are effectively covering the same areas as the outfits worn by Moira and Emma in the images above.
    The other aspect, I think, is that they had to make the various powers look 'real'. Plausible. For some of them that's only a suspension of disbelief ("His eyes shoot LAZERS? Where's the battery?") and for some it's just getting the right actor or prosthetic, like with Sabertooth's physical build and claws. Mystique, on the other hand, had to change shapes in a way that looked okay on camera. Couldn't just change in a flash from one frame to the next the way the comics show her changing. And a sort of 'amorphous gel form' transformation would probably not be... well, sexy...

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  18. I know this is an old post, but I just had to say how completely I agree with everything in this post. X-Men: 1st Class is entertaining enough, and does achieve a clunky sort of emotional resonance with some of the relationships, but it's just so cheesy and dumb and, yes, sexist that I find it hard to believe it was praised as a legitimately good film at the time of its release rather than as a schlocky guilty pleasure. I am confused as to whether I am meant to find Xavier a hero of the standard variety or a well-meaning but patronizing adolescent. (Days of Future Past at least addresses his relationship with Mystique in a satisfying manner, but the rape-analogous mind wipe remains troubling--who is he to decide what's best for Rose Byrne to remember? Just because he has the ability and he means well doesn't make it right, but even when it's brought up again in Apocalypse it isn't addressed as to whether it was okay for him to perform said procedure. Hard to believe First Class was co-written by a woman.)

    It also really bothers me that Beast's physical appearance is the result of a serum cure for mutantism gone awry--why in the hell does that effect a transformation into a blue Seuss-like super-strong cat-monster? Completely random and ridiculous, especially when there's absolutely no tie-in to Hank's inherent mutant power at the beginning of the film, his monkey feet.

    1. I am so with you on this. It's what's bothering me in First class too. I mean I like it as a film but it's sexist in every way possible and i don't understand why peple rank it best than DOFP and Apocalypse and even worse...why people who allegdly promote feminism rank it higher as well and call it a "cinematic masterpiece".. I mean DOFP and Apocalypse have their female charaters and their costumes much more improved. And let say it now before anyone else comments on it but Psylock's costume sure showing a lot of skin but it's done in a good way. I dont think it's meant to be shown as sexy it's just the designers trying to stick ot the comics costumes...and it's ok if a female wants to wear a costume like that. The most important thing though was that no camera angles or close ups were used on her for eye candy. It's ridiculous how we think ourselves lucky in the 21st centrury for such things but unfortunately that's the bisness.
      also ...on charles...i've decided after a lot of thought that i love his portrayal in First class...yes hear me out....He's meant to be like's a real nod to the manipulative xavier of the comics and also shows his amazing character growth. It took me a while to realize it...but in first class he is in no way the awesome professor we know and love from the xmen films....he's a brat....a patronizing little shit whose idealist nature is starting to show..but needs a good shake for it to come to place. He needed what he went throught to become the nice guy he is now otherwise he would've stayed a brat. He needed to go through that abandonment from Raven and see his istakes so that in DOFP he could reconcile with her...he could finally accept that she was her own person, respect her choices...let her be. It took him all that to learn a lot of lessons and it took a lot of pain to make him a lot more empathetic in a non mutant for that reason alone i love first class.

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