Saucer Of Milk For Table 1: Getting Catty About Catsuits

Oct 14, 2020
Catwoman and Tweety Pie by Darwyn Cooke: cat-shaped goggles, black suit, cowl, clawed gloves, cartoon bird pointing at something
The Cat that got the canary? Darwyn Cooke's Catwoman meets Tweety Pie
The Bat and the Cat - no other comic book pairing involves such complexity, so much grey area between love and emnity, so much rooftop action and - let's face it - more latex than the Dr Who SFX department. But my fascination with Selina Kyle has from the start had a much simpler source: THAT SUIT. 

In her various incarnations over the years, Catwoman's style has been a standout - for me, she monopolises my attention in any story she graces, and I find myself poring over the details of her accessories, her boots, her mask... Always the epitome of independence, the Cat has never allowed herself to be controlled, and what she wears reflects that - she is audacious, unapologetic, often shameless.

Here then are her nine (costume) lives, as I see it...

Side by side images showing: cover of Batman #84, Catwoman in a purple dress and green cape, in front of glass cabinets containing women in bathing suits, Batman and Robin swinging in from the left; next to Jean Harlow, seated in wraparound dress and stylish shoes
The cover of Batman #84 "The Sleeping Beauties of Gotham" and inspirational Jean Harlow, Reckless in 1935
The Dress:
Catwoman has been around since Batman's first eponymous comic book, appearing in Batman #1 as simply 'The Cat', Bob Kane's design reflecting the fashion of the day and based, apocryphally, on Jean Harlow - thirties blonde bombshell before bombshells were even a thing. The Cat initially wore no special costume at all - in fact when she and Batman first meet, she is posing as an old lady on a cruise ship - her green (because all the baddies wore green in those days) dress was perfectly tailored, classy to the max. 

Kane took her through a few iterations in the next few issues, the dress gained a cape and several colour changes and for a few issues she wore an actual cat head before eventually getting a classic half mask and ears, but it's strongly evident that Kane was echoing the Bat suit in his design. Sadly, although the Bat could get away with swooping around in tights with his undercrackers on the outside, the double standards of the era, and the introduction of the CCA in 1954, meant that the thigh deep split in Catwoman's skirt was too rich for DC, and she vanished from sight for a full twelve years. 

According to Katie Kilkenny's excellent article for the Pacific Standard, in his 'cat'-astrophic (sorry) book Seduction of the Innocent, which triggered panic over the comic book industry of the age, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham...
"...argued that Catwoman was emblematic of the comics having no "decent, attractive, successful" women, and that Catwoman's signature whip connoted homosexual deviancy." 
Well, honestly, that just makes me like her more. 

...but let's take a quick inventory of what Kane gave us: the dress and the cape may have only seen the light of day again very occasionally and Selina hasn't had many green outfits since, but we have the cowl, with rampant tresses of hair, and cat ears, plus fearsome kitty claws but, above all, we have that almost unmatched forties style - and it's been in her feline DNA (almost) without pause ever since.

Three side by side images each showing a black and white image of the Catwoman character in black lurex suit gold belt and necklace
Three sixties: Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt on the small screen, Lee Meriwether on the big screen
The First Catsuit: 
Catwoman's first major (costume) reincarnation came not on paper but via the small, and then the large, screen. On her return to comic books in 1966, Catwoman was already sporting a one-piece catsuit - though it's very hard to see the essential 'catness' of something green and scaly with yellow boots. Julie Newmar's suit was the first black catsuit, and every other Catwoman costume which followed was born from this litter. Woven from fabulous new fabric Lurex, it was designed to shimmer as Newmar moved, whilst also clinging to her ballet dancer figure. In heels, she stood 5'11' - she must have been jaw-dropping in person - and whilst costume designer Jan Kemp suggested the gold belt and chunky gold jewellery (there were concerns that Newmar would look too 'naked' with just the one piece suit - more on this later), Newmar asked if she could wear the belt slung on her hips, to emphasise her waist, a shrewd decision that perfected the iconic look. This suit is now held in the Smithsonian Institute, a testament to its status as TV costumary of historical significance. 

Newmar only filmed six episodes of Batman and yet it defined much of her life - and defined elements of Catwoman which would stay with the character for another few of her nine lives too. Lee Meriwether wore the suit superbly in the '66 movie - but it's Eartha Kitt, replacing Newmar for the third season of the TV show, who really fascinates me. Later incarnations of the Cat have suggested that she might be Latinx, but redefining her as a Black woman in the sixties was a fantastic move: sadly, romantic storylines were toned down due to studio fears of disapproval but Kitt's Cat was a BOSS - literally managing the Joker, as the head of a crime syndicate, with that astonishing feline yowl adding auditory distinctiveness to the overall look.

Inventory of elements we now have: Catwoman's hair is part of her look again in the TV and movie costume, with the alice-band mounted ears becoming a staple of Hallowe'en Slutty Cat costumes the world over. Gold claws (gold, daaaarling!), the small burglar-style mask when incognito (the 'Reverse Clark Kent Glasses' ruse never actually gets old), the belt, the ankle height boots, and a pleasing dalliance with tufty cat eyebrows (I'm a little sad that they never really caught on) but mostly the black sparkly one-piece suit - wow, hats off to you, Jan, you really hit the mark with that one. 

Catwoman in full black latex suit lounges smugly on a bed, a black cat next to her, a whip behind her
Michelle Pfeiffer is Catwoman with a vengeance
The Pfeiffer:
Well... where to start? Here, I guess - this is where it started for me, in a cinema in Westover Road, Bournemouth, in 1992, with That Suit in Tim Burton's Batman Returns. Annette Bening - she of the soulful eyes - was originally slated to take the Catwoman role, one which Michelle Pfeiffer (and a string of other names) had apparently craved for most of her career. Bening's pregnancy changed their history though and Pfeiffer clawed back the role, apparently beating even Sean Young, who showed up at the production offices in a homemade Catwoman costume to try to convince Burton she was the kitty for the job. 

The suit was designed after Tim Burton's original idea of mimicking an old stuffed cat, splitting at the seams a little. It reflects the tortured, fractured nature of Burton's Kyle - a down trodden secretary, murdered by her boss, resurrected by her beloved street cats, now back with manic vengeance on her mind. Selina, in a rage at her horrible treatment by the city fat cat and deranged by her recent return to life, trashes her apartment, smashing all the cutesy imagery of her former persona, and then sits down at her sewing machine to create the (I can't use any other word here) iconic costume from an old patent leather jacket found in the back of her closet. 

Okay, it's not practical, it doesn't hold up to a fight, the stitching splitting allowing her hair to spill out and the lining to show, the white stitching (again, created with painted-on latex) is ridiculous (not least because she's shown making this clearly crudely hand-stitched suit on a sewing machine) but O-to-the-M-to-the-G it is so DAMN HOT! The suit never transitioned back into comics, probably because no artist wanted to have to recreate that crazy-paving stitch pattern over and over, and as a result it has stood as unique ever since. 

The inventory: Black patent gloss that was apparently painted on after Pfeiffer was literally vacuum packed and stitched into the suit, the whip, no belt, the cowl with eye apertures showing heavy smoky-eye make-up and scarlet lips, high heels (even climbing the side of a building) and wicked claws made from sewing machine needles giving a little Scissorhands vibe. 

Side by side images show the cover of a Catwoman comic book, with the Cat in snarling pose above an image of a street girl lying in a pool of water, next to an image from an animated show, with Catwoman striking Batman who is in a fighting pose
Issue #1 of Mindy Newell's Catwoman series and the Cat and the Bat about to face off in Batman: The Animated Series
The Grey Ones:
One of the less well-known suits, the Frank Miller design for Year One was distinctive enough to spawn a respectful update for Batman: The Animated Series. Miller's design, which earned Catwoman her first solo miniseries in 1993, was perhaps the most cat-like Selina has ever been, an all-over soft grey, with a grey cowl and big soft-looking ears, whiskers and even, in a very rare appearance, a tail. 

Bruce Timm, architect of so much of DC's animated universe, picked up the grey one-piece concept from Miller's design but, taking a leaf out of Julie Newmar's book, added long black gloves, black contrasting half mask and a belt of gold medallions replacing that pesky tail, again aiming to give a less 'naked girl painted grey' look. 

Inventory: catsuit - check, cowl - check, gold belt - check. Tail or no tail? Well, it doesn't seem to have stuck - I wonder if this is because, well, if you can't control it, it's just in the way? Maybe a future suit will have a controllable tail, maybe animatronic ears and whiskers? For now, it seems the tail will just be a short term quirk. The Selina of TAS has dark hair which is dyed blonde, in a rumoured homage to Pfeiffer's cat, but it's neatly hidden under her cowl here.

Two Catwoman covers, each showing her in a purple suit, twirling her whip and snarling, the first in a museum - she is clutching a gemstone, the second in an alley, with two hoodlums at her feet, she's holding a third up by his jacket
Corner box face palm image for the win
The Balent (or The One With The Boobs, or The Naked Lady Painted Purple, whatever):
Uggghhh. Any Reddit survey of 'What's your favourite Catwoman costume?' will inevitably, it seems, generate a string of sweaty-looking responses speaking in awed tones about Jim Balent's reinvention of the Cat. Let's go first to the positives where we can. LOVE the long boots and gloves, really like that her hair is huge and wavy and loose, the snarl is fierce and cute, that whip is crazy and brilliant. And Balent capitalised on the success of Batman Returns, putting Catwoman front and centre where, honestly, that queen belongs. 

But...

Come ON. The boobs. They are ridiculous. There is no fabric in the universe which would allow them to sit like that. They cast their own shadow - you could house a litter of stray kittens under there, or at least tuck your keys in there for safe keeping. For the love of God, she's in a fight, with multiple bad guys, put a bra on her! Boys, imagine if your tackle was like three party balloons (you know, two round ones and a long thin one) filled with jelly, but instead of a nice snug pair of jersey boxers, each item is individually wrapped in the same fabric they make ballet tights out of. Okay, get comfy with that idea, now, how do you think you'd fair in a punch up? Okay with swinging that bull whip around? For goodness sake, Jim. 

If the barrage balloon norks aren't bad enough, what is going on with her frame and her proportions as exemplified on that issue #5 cover? A little game I like to play in my head is 'Imagine what that person's skeleton would have to look like for that position to be possible'.

Side by side images of Catwoman #18 cover showing Catwoman wearing a huge partly shredded wedding dress over her purple catsuit; next to collectible signed Balent image for Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose, comprising a red haired woman with impossible breasts
Jim Balent showing off his talents in Catwoman #18 and Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose #92
I'm not saying there isn't a place for this kind of stuff. Following the success of Balent's run on Catwoman, he and his partner and muse, the splendidly monikered Holly Golightly, moved off to form their own studio, Broadsword Comics, where they generate a reliably popular catalogue of content, most famously Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose. The pair (sorry) have a hugely faithful following and I respect the quality and consistency of their output. I just want my cat to be more, well, catlike. 

Inventory: The purple is great, love the long boots and gloves, the Balent cowl is one of my favourites and her hair, if a bit impractical, is gorgeous. The small number of cosplayers I have seen attempting this version are stunning, eye-popping and utterly glorious - for that, if nothing else we should be thankful to Mr Balent. 

A skyscraper scene with search lights in the background, Catwoman backflips across the foreground, in a graceful swan dive, Batman seen in the distant background
Cooke's Catwoman leaps gracefully onto the scene, leaving Batman brooding in the background
Where it all began - again: The Cooke
...and just like that, everything changed. Darwyn Cooke saved Catwoman. I'm in such a quandary at this stage of the article. Hand on heart, this should be my favourite catsuit of all time. Everything about it is perfect: Cooke designed an effective cat burglar, from scratch, considering what she would need to carry out her role and added shovel loads of style on top. 

Newmar's black catsuit is back but now it's no longer sensuously sparkly - it's practical, sleek, covers everything except her irresistible smile, and is clearly easy to move in. The sturdy boots are obviously designed for their required purpose of sneaking past guards and backflipping over laser beams. The whip is a kind of a tail analogue, but it's cleverly fastened with a chunky buckle - more Newmar style. Dark cropped hair tidies away neatly under a cowl and, ooh, now she has night vision goggles! 

Cooke was the first to give Ms Kyle a full length zip, and later artists have loved the big metal ring adorning it, sometimes adding it to her boots as well. To Cooke's expressed chagrin, though, artists following him pulled that ring down to her mid-riff, again rendering her assets explicit and the suit impractical, plus (here I speak with my mother's voice) there is no way you'd want to wear all that leather all day without some kind of vest underneath. I imagine Cooke kindly giving Selina comfortable, supportive, moisture wicking undergarments - the kind that M&S would be proud to supply to the discerning sneak thief. 

In researching this, I found an obituary for Cooke by CBR's Joseph Phillip Illidge and was struck by this: 
Selina Kyle, the Catwoman, is a master thief. So was Darwyn Cooke. He stole our cynicism, our disillusionment, our disappointment, our concerns. He stole all of these things and replaced them with hope, joy, excitement, adventure, suspense, pathos, and a renewed faith, in worlds of sunlight and stars, magic and strange science, seduction and romance, elegance and class, ideals and righteous struggle. 
Get The Look - the inventory: There's no going back from the black suit now, the whip mimicking a tail, the black boots, the eared cowl, the black gloves. Cooke gifted us the goggles and gave us the metal ring zip pull but, most of all, he made Catwoman a real Cat Woman - small, agile, practical, ruthless, smart. She almost entirely steals my heart...

Halle Berry in Catwoman suit: black gloves, cat-eared cowl, shredded-looking black leather leggings, bra top and harness
Just a little girl playing dress up?
The modern movie looks
I'm going to be brief here because 1) the Catwoman movie, oh dear, and 2) I haven't yet seen Hathaway's version - I know, it's a disgrace, that's fair - but I am currently in progress on a project to rewatch (or, in this specific case, watch) all of the Batman movies and will update my comments on this only when I feel qualified to do so! 

Halle Berry as Catwoman in her first solo movie should have been so good, every perfect ingredient could have been there - so how did this earn a regular spot on Worst Movie Ever Made polls across the net? Let's not dwell, though we're here to talk catsuits and this one, well, doesn't entirely justify dismissal. The bra top and bondage harness thing is... disappointing, but then I can't really criticise: one girl's kink is another girl's sexist pandering to male gaze, I suppose. The rest of the suit is actually pretty awesome: designer Angus Strathie worked with Berry, incorporating cutting edge fabrics in the shredded leather-look trousers, the long gloves with white claw detail are a nice addition, and I kind of like the peep-toe boots with obligatory kitten heels. I've always found Berry's scultped mask/cowl a bit odd - it's so tall, the proportions just look all off to me. But LOOK, look at her gorgeous eyes in that mask, they're hypnotic. I think we can all agree that Berry deserved so much better. 

From a brief glance - I don't want to wreck the experience with spoilers - it looks as though Anne Hathaway's cat brings back the long hair and Hallowe'en Slutty Cat costume alice band ears! Hooray!

Inventory: Berry's Patience Phillips wears Angus Strathie - black ripped leggings, long black white-clawed gloves, black cowl over adorable cropped hair, whip AND chunky belt, and cute-as-heck kitten heels. Give the girl a cropped black fur bolero jacket and she could carry off a new movie...

...and, talking of which, what will Zoë Kravitz, announced as the Selina to Robert Pattinson's Bruce for Matt Reeves' The Batman in 2022, be wearing? When she voiced the role for Lego Batman, one assumes that jeans and a t-shirt were sufficient. Kravitz wins points by explaining that she's been reading Year One in preparation for the role and several teaser articles have paired her up with images from the current comics series of Catwoman (more on that in a moment). Some clever Photoshop heroes have allowed her to 'try on' famous suits of yesteryear and, joyfully, the handful of images of a real Kravitz in costume seem to show a slightly militarised version of Cooke's design, notably with the goggles (YESSS!) and she's been sporting a neatly cropped pixie cut at a number of events. 

The much-craved DC Fandome trailer paints a slightly different image again; Selina leaning hard into her cat burglar origins with a knitted balaclava with liddle woolly cat ears (I feel a project coming on). More recently, on set images have appeared of the nascent Ms Kyle, and whilst they show her in alter ego garb, there are still hints (possibly even echoes?): long hair with an alice band fascinator, chunky belt buckle on a glossy black coat, long sharp white nails and (oh my, I need air) THE BOOTS. 

A page from a comic book showing Catwoman in four different poses as she whirls her whip attempting to subdue a copycat Catwoman: in the final panel she poses with both whips, having disarmed her opponent.
Whip it good - a page from Joëlle Jones' Catwoman series
The Joëlle Jones Catwoman
...and this is the point where I lose it a bit. I think it's fair to say that I am obsessed with Joëlle Jones' redesign of Selina Kyle. I'm going to start this one with the inventory - because this has everything I could possibly want: 

  • The black glossy suit, sleek, gleaming, flexible but not a wildly impractical one-piece - it's leggings, a racer back top with a cincher corset and the cutest little cowl/long-sleeved bolero jacket combination on the top.
  • The zip with the big metal hoop - Jones twists this though: the zip in this suit fastens her cowl, with the zip fastening downwards instead of up, so the ring sits on her chest like a pendant (and not around her navel like a floozy).
  • Yes, she's added a corset, but modern corset design can be flexible and comfortable (they make sports corsets now, true story) and look, the racer back top underneath it looks soooo comfy - my mum would totally approve. No reason not to have that lovely practical M&S lingerie underneath either.
  • The boots, yes, there's a heel, but Jones gives a grip to the sole that Pfeiffer could have used climbing that wall - after all, like Ginger Rogers, the Cat does everything Batman does, but backwards, and in high heels.
Catwoman arcs through the air in front of a pink and grey skyline, broken glass from an appartment window flying all around her
A section of the cover of Catwoman #5 - an explosion in Selina Kyle's apartment causes her to be thrown through a window, with Laura Allred's colours
  • The gloves - these are classy little biker gloves, reflecting Selina's fascination with fast cars and faster motorcycles, but fitted with wicked black claws you wouldn't see coming until the damage was done.
  • The whip, sometimes worn around the waist, often shown mimicking a tail.
  • The cropped black hair mixed with bright green eyes, made up in perfect monochromes, nude lipstick just serving to make her eyes even more irresistible.
  • ...oh, and while we're mentioning the green eyes, the colours require mention here. Yes, the suit is black but Jones, ever one to magpie the best of earlier designs, always highlights it in purple, and Laura Allred, frequent colourist for Jones' work, regularly generates a pageant of green, purple and orange for this book. 

This, then, is my ultimate catsuit. Other artists are drawing this version now, and some make a good job of it but, for me, Jones draws Catwoman like an architect drawing a stunning modern building: she doesn't just draw the outside - she understands everything which is going on underneath. Every kick, every twist, every backflip, each thoughtful catlike pose, each exquisite arch of an eyebrow is perfectly constructed. 

In a dark room lit from tall gothic windows, Selina Kyle is seen standing at a huge ornate mirror, her reflection is dressed in a black catsuit but the real Selina is wearing a long off the shoulder dress, white silk with black lace overlay, the skirt trailing down the steps on which she's standing. She holds a diamond tiara in the shape of cat ears behind her back.
Jones' art for the cover of Batman #44
The wedding dress:
All the best catwalk shows end with the wedding dress, don't they? Catwoman has modelled a few in her time - even before Fred Wertham impacted on the comics world, most female characters seem to have gone through a phase of being obsessed with the whole white frock experience and we've already seen the Guns N' Roses version in the Balent section above but, in fact, this image is where I fell in love with Jones' art work though it's not her version of the suit, and look, there's even a diamond cat ear alice band - purrfection. 

Catwoman is the perfect comic book character: complicated, capricious, sometimes damaged, sharp of claw and wit, constantly slinking around the grey areas between villain, urchin, champion, harlot, goddess and monster - she will never be ordinary, always be climbing the boundaries. Just like a cat, she invites herself into our homes, and into our hearts and steals away with precious things - yet even when she's once again committed some horrendous crime, we forgive her. She can't help it, it just her nature. 

So, there we have it, nine lives - or nine looks. I'll add to this when I've experienced the Hathaway - but I'd love to hear you favourite in the comments, yes, even if it's the Balent! 

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