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Monday, February 22, 2016

The story behind 'Jane Fonda' Supergirl

Also known as 'Pat Benatar' Supergirl, 'Olivia Newton-John' Supergirl, or simply 'Headband' Supergirl, this version of Supergirl was featured prominently throughout the early to mid-80s and will probably (depending on when you were reading DC comics) be cemented as the 'definitive' Supergirl in many fans' minds (thanks, in part, to the fact that she was wearing that particular costume on the cover of 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths #7).

When did Supergirl's iconic 'Jane Fonda' costume first appear? Well, that's actually a two-part answer...

A new costume for Supergirl was first announced by series writer Paul Kupperberg in the letter column of The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl #12  (1983). To celebrate it's one year anniversary, The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl would be dropping the 8-page Lois Lane back-up feature (so Supergirl would have an entire book to herself) and Supergirl would get a new costume. The first glimpse of her new costume was revealed in DC Sampler #1 (1983) and became a permanent fixture in the series as of Supergirl #13 (1983). The most noticeable difference is that her top in no longer low-cut - her previously exposed neckline is now covered by a huge 'S' crest. Her hotpants were also traded in for a frayed mini-skirt (with shorts underneath), and the shoulders of her costume were given some red accents (should pads?). According to the story, her new costume was meant to replace her old costume which was destroyed in battle during Supergirl #12.

Fan reaction was mixed. Some found it "too conservative" while others liked it and compared it to the original 1960's Supergirl costume (while remaining modern and up-to-date).

Previous costume
New costume

Describing Supergirl's new costume as 'in-step' with contemporary 80's fashion is a pretty fair assessment. The 80's were all about looking powerful, and adding accents to Supergirl's shoulders made them appear broader (hence, the 'shoulder pad' effect). The mini-skirt had experienced a revival in 80s fashion, and was most likely at it's peak when this costume design was conceived. The new costume proudly displayed Supergirl's physical female form while remaining sleek, functional and flowing. (Spandex was featured quite prominently in the 80's.)

The next big change to Supergirl's outfit was the addition of the headband and a new hairstyle (a permanent wave - aka a 'perm'). She appears with a headband on the cover of Supergirl #17 (1984) - but only wears it on the last panel of the last page. The headband was a symbol of her Kryptonian citizenship. Interestingly, it's been pointed out that only Kryptonian men wore the headbands of citizenship, but Paul Kuppeberg quickly corrected that by explaining it was a Kryptonian custom and not a hard-and-fast Kryptonian rule. Supergirl's hairstyle was also updated in issue #17 (last panel along with headband) explaining that her new 'do is a result of a specialty treated comb that also changes her hair color. Fan reaction to the new headband and hairstyle was overwhelming positive (in contrast to the polarized opinion of the new costume).

Supergirl #17 - last few panels

Again, the headband and big, teased hair were a nod to 80's contemporary fashion. This was influenced by a mix of the early 1980s aerobics/fitness craze that was sweeping the nation (hence the headband), and the hair... well, just watch any music videos from the early 80s and you'll be able to pick up on that reference. The 1980s are considered as 'the decade of excess' and the hair styles were no exception - film and music stars wore big, teased, bouffant hairstyles as a symbol of glamour.

So how do we get 'Jane Fonda', 'Pat Benatar' or 'Olivia Newton-John' from all of this?

Jane Fonda is an actress whose career experienced a revival in the early 80s when she released a series of home aerobics videos called 'Jane Fonda's Workout'. Fonda has been pinpointed as one the catalysts for the 'fitness craze' that took the early 80s by storm. To that effect, Jane Fonda is a pop culture reference to the 'fitness craze' and the closely associated 'aerobics fashion' (i.e. headband) that Supergirl appears to be sporting. 

Pat Benatar is an American Pop-Rock singer who enjoyed much success in the early 80s. Benatar was one of the music video fashion icons du jour, and coincidentally was experiencing a 'headband-wearing' phase around this time - so you can probably see the perceived association between Pat Benatar and Supergirl's 'new' look.

Olivia Newton-John is an English-born Australian actress/singer (most famous for her role in 1978's Grease) who, in an attempt to re-ignite her music career, re-branded herself as a soft-rock bad girl/vixen in the late 70s/early 80s. Olivia rocked the head-band pretty hard with her blonde hair, blue eyes and lithe figure. Olivia is probably the most similar in physical appearance to the 'new look' Supergirl - if you don't believe me, check out Olivia's provocative 1981 "Physical" music video (which was banned in Utah, thankyouverymuch). It's been said that "Physical" sparked the whole "headbands as a fashion accessory outside of the gym" fashion thing in the early 80s, so who knows how much of Supergirl's 'new look' was actually influenced by Olivia Newton-John?

What was really going on

Behind the scenes, it was the "movie people" (Alexander and Ilya Salkind, I'm assuming) who wanted Supergirl redesigned. When the Salkinds acquired the film rights to the Superman franchise in 1978, they additionally picked up the film rights to Supergirl. 1983's Superman III, also produced by the Salkinds, was a flop and the idea of a Supergirl film was conceived in the hopes of revitalizing the film franchise. Apparently, the headband costume was dreamed up by the "movie people" in 1983 and DC was encouraged to work it into their Supergirl ongoing series.*

So why did the movie version of Supergirl (Helen Slater) look like this?

Please note the absence of the headband in the final Supergirl costume design

Apparently, when the "movie people" did screen tests featuring the 'perm and headband' version of the costume, audiences didn't respond well. (This may have something to do with the 'fitness gear as street wear' fad being on it's way out in 1984.) There are still some images of the prototype costume floating around - check out this really embarrassing photo Helen Slater probably doesn't want you to see. The final version of the Supergirl film costume incorporates a lot of the 'new look' costume design found in the comics: big 'S' shield on the chest, frayed mini-skirt, (almost) knee-high boots with yellow trim below the knee, and the (almost) v-shaped yellow belt. DC comics stuck with the headband version of the costume until Supergirl's death in 1985, regardless.

*Comic Book Legends Revealed #458 by Brian Cronin

The fact that Supergirl's ongoing series was cancelled two months before the movie release is a mystery of the ages. Supergirl #17 (introduction of the headband and hairdo) proclaims "SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE" above the cover logo. Changing the name of the title from The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl to simply Supergirl may have been requested so that it would sit on the retailer's shelves beside her cousin Superman's title (especially if the retailer was displaying issues alphabetically) and thus gain more exposure.

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