Bodysuits have become a mainstay in the wardrobes of pop culture figures. We’ve seen the the style rear its airtight, curve-hugging head (or behind, rather) on many of our favorite female stars, such as the original Catwoman of the '40s and Britney Spears in the "Oops, I Did it Again!" music video. With these strong women wearing the garment, the viewer is reminded of the inextricable link that has formed between female empowerment and the bodysuit. Despite its humble beginnings as an athletic style, it developed into a hallmark of the dominatrix, a sexually dominating woman, and the bodysuit that we have come to know and love thus became synonymous with a sense of power that was previously held by men. CR looks back at the important history of the bodysuit, and explores how it has maintained its status as the ultimate symbol of girl power to this day.
Evolving from the leotard, the bodysuit made its way out of the athletic wear category and into day-to-day closets in the 1940s. This was partly due to the bodysuit–specifically the front-zipped catsuit style–making its pop culture debut in March of 1940, when Catwoman, then just The Cat, was born. She made her first appearance in the comic book Batman Vol. 1 #1, clad in a tight purple full catsuit with feline ears to match. Catwoman was presented as Batman’s love interest–a relatable and kind femme fatale with undeniable sex appeal. Catwoman was quintessential for many reasons, but above all, she was a female leading role in a time when women scarcely took up space, be it socially or culturally. This translated into a dominatrix-inspired look, complete with a bull whip as her weapon of choice, to show the power wielded by Catwoman. She not only owned her sexuality but used it to her advantage, becoming the most enticing antihero. As her character evolved and took to TV and film, so did her bodysuit. This strengthened the bond between female empowerment and the characteristically skin-tight garment, as Catwoman went crimefighting in her bodysuit.
It's no surprise that as female-driven causes, such as the Women’s Liberation Movement, rose in the 1960s, so did the popularity of the bodysuit. The unique garment first emerged in the fashion world around the mid-'60s, when French designer André Courreges introduced his Space Age collection. His designs featured robotic looking goggles, futuristic moon boots, and astronaut helmets, plus an unsung highlight of the women’s collection–a long-sleeved, one-piece. The bodysuit entering mainstream fashion was a tangible confirmation of women's changing role in society–it symbolized her newfound liberation, departing from the more modest fashion of the decade before and opening the door for further sociocultural innovation.
During this decade, the bodysuit became highly visible, starting with the 1967 weekly television series Batman and the reintroduction of Catwoman. In a time when women’s societal roles were changing in real time, the role of the shiny patent leather bodysuits worn by Catwoman (played by Julie Newmar, and then Eartha Kitt) highlighted the power and confidence of the female. Women were no longer background fixtures–they were taking up space and airtime.
The tight, curve-hugging bodysuits were designed to turn heads, until the women's brains and brawn stole the show. Jane Fonda’s bodysuit in the 1968 film Barbarella, with breasts cut out and all, perfectly embodied the balance of strength and humanity that came with a powerful woman. The associations that the media made with the bodysuit were largely responsible for how popular it became. Women loved it, men loved it, and fashion designers took note.
Another heroine of the '60s, Emma Peel of The Avengers TV series, contributed to the popularization of the bodysuit. Peel, portrayed by Diana Rigg, dressed in several signature leather or neoprene bodysuits featuring strategic cutouts. Thus, came the rise bodysuit in high fashion as designers began to mimic the powerful look dominating the screens.
The fashion staple hit a resurgence on the runways in the 1990s, where edgy chic was in. Women embraced their figures, flaunting tighter and tighter clothing and higher and higher hemlines. In the fashion space, form-fitting unitards embodied this trend, featured by fashion designers such as Azzedine Alaïa in his Fall/Winter 1991 collection, with his animal print bodysuit, and Thierry Mugler, who displayed more futuristic, space-age styles on the Fall/Winter 1995 Haute Couture runway.
In recent years, there has been an undeniable growth in the defiance of gender norms and inequality by women, and this is clearly reflected in the most telling cultural staple of all–fashion. Among the designers taking part in the modern wave of the bodysuit are Versace, Jeremy Scott, and Marine Serre. In the Versace Fall/Winter 2018 show, the bodysuit saw a revamp–models strutted down the runway sporting layered, multicolored print jumpsuits with attached headpieces. At Marine Serre, the Fall/Winter 2019 collection included a number of head-to-toe bodysuits covered with the brand's signature crescent moon print. Though these bodysuits are uniquely contemporary, they still undoubtedly pay homage to the classic bodysuit of decades past.
Hollywood has also seen a resurgence of the bodysuit. The tight bodysuits appeared in many films of the late 1990s and into the 2010s, worn by iconic characters such as hero and villain Carrie-Anne Moss of The Matrix (1999), the Bride in Kill Bill (2003), Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow in all of Marvel’s The Avengers movies (2012-2019), and so on and so forth.
Throughout the bodysuit's history in pop culture, there has been an undercurrent of its connection to the dominatrix. Across film, television, and music, female figures have channeled the dominating persona to show their prowess and power–and donned a bodysuit while doing so. From Rihanna's sexually charged "S&M" to Nicki Minaj's "Only," the dominatrix has been brought into the mainstream. In the"Only" music video, Minaj wears a sheer fishnet bodysuit, similar to others she's worn on tour, as women in black lingerie surround her with handcuffs, whips, and other BDSM paraphernalia. By owning the dominatrix character, which is usually kept behind closed doors and tied up in taboo, the female force is put on full display in an act of empowerment.
Musicians and performers have also embraced the bodysuit. Female idols such as Britney Spears, P!nk, Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and now, Miley Cyrus, have all worn bodysuits in music videos or on stage. These powerful women have all touted feminist messages not only through their music, but also through their personal platforms, highlighting the link between bold women and the bodysuit. In Cyrus’ new music video- where messages like "virginity is a social construct" and "not an object" flash across the screen, it's clear that the bodysuit still holds the same significance that it did at the debut of The Cat.
It's no accident that this tight feminine fashion staple, which has become the a staying symbol of female capability, has stood the test of time. As Catwoman has shown, the woman demands attention, forbidding you to look away until you have taken in her feminine curves, recognizing her as an empowered female presence. But then she proceeds to wow you with her stealth, strength, intelligence, and, most importantly, her ability to kick some butt.