Elizabeth Streb of the STREB Company calls her dancers superheroes. Trapeze artists were learning how to fly through the air before Superman was born on Krypton. Superheroes arguably get more respect than us performers, but hey, it’s a tough life. At the end of the day, when we all go home after a long, tiring day of flying about, saving lives (in the performer’s cases those of ours and our flyers’) and preventing the world’s destruction, what do we really have in common? Let’s take a quick stroll through history.
Enter the 1920’s. The same years traditional American circus was riding high on Silver horses and spectacle, DC Comics writers were beginning to create their own excitement. Although DC’s first comics weren’t presented until the early-mid 1930s, the ideas for superheroes were born in the late 20’s. Circus had established itself in American culture with the completion of the railroad systems. In 1872, the Barnum Circus had grown so large it decided it would only play at large venues. The only feasible way to lug all the heavy equipment and animals was via the railroads. The roar of the 20’s kept spectators coming to hear the lions, see the hope and glory of the acrobats flipping above and the confident command of the ringmaster who somehow held it all together.
The Wall Street crash of 1929 exposed the gaps in the American economy, slowed the circuses down and left everyone “waiting for a superman.” Little did they know, he was being busily dreamt up in Cleveland, Ohio. So what do we do as a culture when we experience evil? We fight it! People would have to wait until 1938 for Superman; but he wasn’t the only one they were waiting for. In 1934, Flash Gordon was created.
He had all the glitz and confidence of a circus in one man, AND a Yale education AND the hottest spaceships. But why the underwear over tights? According to Julius Schwartz (famed editor of DC Comics from 1944-1986, who edited the most famous of all external-underwear superheroes), the costume was simply modeled after the garb of aerial circus performers and wrestlers of the 1930’s.
So circus artists and superheros both wear our underwear on the outside, people might think. But why? Because both are both ridiculous and think its fun? What’s the point, they may ask? Ask yourselves, circusy readers: Does wearing spandex make you FEEL more super heroic? Anyone who has ever taken an aerial class has probably seen an aerialist with shorts over tights. I’ve heard quite a few teachers advise their students to dress this way for class. There is not only a historical reason for this, but a functional one: Minimal protection for skin with the allowance of leg lines to be visible and not catch in equipment, while still offering coverage and comfort some people don’t feel with leotards or unitards.
In fact, for Superman in 1938, it did quite the opposite. Underpants over tights were signifiers of extra-masculine strength and endurance. The cape, the showman-like boots and spandex could have easily been an outfit in the circus. His costume helped to highlight the freakshow-esque aspect of his strength and adventures. Lifting bridges and stopping trains with his bare hands were given extra carnival flair in skintight spandex.
So don’t feel sorry for those young superheroes who lost their parents at an early age, thus having no one to tell that that underwear goes UNDER your clothes. They learned how to dress from the best!
Even if you were born in West Chester, PA and not on Planet Krypton. When you come home from the office and get ready for that aerial acrobatics class, you too are faced with the same decision Superman faces everyday: Underwear in or out? So tell me, what will you choose?