The Spandex Decade



T H E  S P A N D E X  D E C A D E  –

A  S U P E R C O S T U M E  C O M P A R I S O N

1 9 7 8   /  1 9 8 7



Now rightly considered the Godfather of the modern Superhero film, Superman: The Movie and its sequels set the precedent for faithfully translating the outlandish comic book page into cinematic reality. Such was the success of this particular adaptation (created by Oscar-Winning British designer Yvonne Blake) that the Man Of Steel’s outfit remained consistent throughout all four movies – something that simply wouldn’t occur in today’s merchandise driven blockbusters.

Though the tights & cape may be considered quaint by modern standards, don’t be fooled into thinking the classic movie versions were any less complex in their execution. In fact, the plethora of visual effects involved in making you believe a man could fly in nothing more than a lycra two-piece imposed challenges on the wardrobe dept. to accommodate everything from hiding cape-flapping devices to maintaining its colour even when wet.

SUPERMANIA is proud to present this companion piece to its definitive guide on the creation and analyses of the Reeve Superman costumes hosted by These are important matters to be sure, but still matters of mere fact.  Now, courtesy of SuperFan Greg in the US comes this totally unique opportunity to compare and contrast surviving costume examples from both the beginning and close of Reeve’s 10-year tenure, revealing details hitherto unseen almost forty years later. Greg takes up the story from here –


“I met the owner of these pieces through a transaction on eBay back in early 2015. He had purchased one of the cape replicas I make and asked if I produced any other parts of the costume. When I told him that I also made the belt, he asked if he could commission two replicas using materials that he had. After reading an email from him explaining the belt construction and pattern in great detail, I knew he was no ordinary fan. He sent me a picture of a current replica mounted to a full costume on display that had issues he wanted corrected. As soon as I saw his display, I knew he had an original piece –

When asked if the costume that my replica belt and cape would be adorning was original too, the owner told me he was looking to complete three original costumes with replica pieces to fill the gaps. This of course got my attention, and I asked if he would be willing to help with my research and help answer a lot of ‘unknowns’ about screen used pieces that still existed. He graciously agreed, and started by taking a few measurements of an unstretched tunic shield, something that had never been done before.

Fast forward a year and a half, and a job move would take me to Southern California, about 40 miles from North Hollywood, near the private collector’s home. Since I had my own definitive replica Superman suit in the making, I asked if would be possible for us to meet up since we lived so close. Again, he agreed and I knew what a fantastic opportunity this was going to be..!

Upon arrival I was lead to the owner’s ‘man cave’ where I was greeted by a full length mannequin with a complete suit, filled out by replica boots and belt. I stood in awe for a few moments as my brain processed what was unmistakably the genuine article, and that I was about to finally get information about these props that no one had documented thusfar. Also in the room was another “flying” tunic on a hangar alongside the replica cape I had made for him, and a large piece of paper with belt tracing drawn in it.

I planned on breaking down each piece to examine them in detail, as well as getting a side by side comparison with my replica. In an effort to organise this information, I’ll go piece by piece.  They were – 

Superman I ‘wet’ tunic (with trunks)
Superman III flying cape
Superman IV flying tunic (without trunks)
Superman IV leggings 

The first item I looked at turned out to be a Superman: The Movie ‘wet’ tunic with attached trunks that was displayed on the mannequin. The piece was in excellent shape, with no damage noted. There were two holes behind each of the front belt loops with some haphazard stitching along the border, suggesting that these were purposely installed for flying rig. The tunic was much lighter in colour than what I imagined, which was most likely due to the “wet” designation stated on the tunic’s Berman’s and Nathan’s tag (still attached to the neckline). This piece was designed for the pool scene in Luthor’s lair, and would turn the appropriate shade of blue when saturated for the camera. This particular blue was lighter than the Superman IV tunic that I would examine next. The chest logo also seemed smaller than expected and the pattern looked more like a Superman IV, but in fact was from the first movie. The colors of the red and yellow of the chest shield and trunks also seemed brighter than expected, but may have been this way again due to the wet designation for this particular piece. When the neckline was peeled back, it revealed the inside colour to be even lighter and paler than the outside colour. The inside also lacked the sheen and glimmer of the right side of the fabric.



The next piece I had access to was a Superman IV ‘flying’ tunic (denoted on the attached tag) that was a one piece leotard with no trunks. It exhibited purpose built flying harness slits at the waist with heavy duty re-enforcing around the border. This piece was in pristine condition, with its only flaw being fading along the tops of the shoulder and sleeves –



The owner, who works in the movie prop curating business, stated that almost all remaining examples have this fading which is not from the sun, but from how the costumes are stored on the racks at Warner Brothers. Apparently, for many years they were stored on hangers without any protective bags simply jammed together on a clothing rack. The halogen lights of the wear-houses over the years would fade the only exposed parts of the costume, which were the top edges of the shoulders and sleeves –

One other small piece of information about the sleeves that is interesting, is that Superman I/II tunics can be identified by the single line of stitching at the cuff while Superman III and IV sleeves have a twin stitch at the cuff. This theory was supported in these two examples as well as with photographic internet research of screen used pieces. This can come in handy when a genuine piece has lost it’s tags to narrow down it’s origin – 


The colour of this piece was incredible. It shifted in depth and sheen with even the slightest change in ambient lighting. Upon feeling the stretch of the sleeve, it was noted that this fabric indeed stretches in a 4-way fashion. The fabric was once believed to be a true 2-way, meaning that it only stretched horizontally, but in fact, the fabric will stretch vertically as well like modern spandex.

The blue was deeper than the first ‘wet’ tunic, and had a sparkle to it that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The red was consistent with the shield and trunks of the ‘wet’ tunic, in that it was a brighter red than expected and brighter than the Movieum of London color matched fabric that made up my replica suit.

One of the biggest surprises was the actual size of the tunic itself. Even though Reeve was a tall man, he had a short torso but very long legs. The unstretched tunic looks impossibly small, and was 73cm long from top to bottom. The chest shield interestingly is almost the exact same size as the cape emblem when unstretched. I measured it at 25.5 cm (10″) across and 18.5cm (7.25″) from top to bottom. This aligns with one other source that shows a supposed original Superman The Movie shield at 10″x7.5″. When compared to my replica, it shows what happens when a pattern is taken from a stretched display – The result is a distorted replica – 


The cape, a Superman III ‘Flying No. 5, Damage’ was taken from the mannequin for a closer look. The fabric itself isn’t a pure red. It’s more of a red-orange and stands out from the red of the tunic. The feel was that off a blended fabric – not as soft as pure wool, yet nicer than polyester or cotton. The weave was also not one that I’ve seen, it had a “box” pattern to it that was bespoke –


 Attached to the top corners were long, soft and thin burgundy cotton straps which are used for securing the cape to the body. They were hand stitched to the bottom corners of the cape collar in a haphazard fashion. It was evident that this was the second pair of straps on the costume because you could clearly see that there was once another set sewn underneath them that had been cut away – There was even some of Reeve’s flesh coloured make-up present on the collar.

A peek into the inside of the cape folds revealed a rat’s nest of cotton batting, threads, and elastic. The pleats of the cape were held on top of each other by the stitches going inside here, which seemed to have no particular pattern at all.  Of note, there were a total of 8 metal snaps sewn to the satin red lining – the bottom row of 4 was most likely used to secure the cape to the flapping device – 

Similarities Between the STM and IV suits include the fabric type, which was identical, yet the Superman IV was a shade darker and had more of a sparkle to it. It should be noted though that this was only due to the STM costume being an example of a “wet” tunic, so I don’t think that’s typical. The reds and yellows of the shields were exactly the same, and much brighter than I figured they would appear in reality. The shape of the Superman IV shield seemed a little more refined and “sharper” in its lines than the STM one. The STM one looked as if it was drawn free-hand and had some obvious portions where curvy parts started to go straight, and the border around the shield was inconsistent in width as it went around the S. The Superman IV shield was much more proportional and cleaner all the way around.


I was also surprised to find that costumes that were made probably 10 years apart were consistent with details as small as the zipper pull, an item which would never be seen or would matter on screen in any way. They both also were consistent with the size of the poppers on the costume. One small difference (other than the cuff detail) was that the neck hole of the Superman IV tunic was smaller than that of the STM costume. It’s noticeable on screen as well, as the costume sits closer to Reeve’s neck and the cape is smaller and less padded in the shoulders.  These are all details that tell a story and let you know that this is the real deal – Many thanks to the owner for allowing me in his home and access to his priceless pieces of film history…