Wednesday, October 7, 2015

This is Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman costume for Batman Returns, designed and developed by Bob Ringwood and Mary Vogt.

Women in comic books -- whether villains or superheroes -- undergo stylistic reimaginations of their costumes far more often than men. This is part of the fetishization of women in comics, and shows how women are subject to the dictates of fashion. Catwoman, in particular, has been costumed in comics in a fetishistic way. She is particularly associated with the dominatrix, a sexual tigress mixed with kittenish behavior. (Puns intended.)

Tim Burton came up with many of the visual elements of Catwoman for Batman Returns. He even did a mock up of Catwoman's head with paper ears. It was Burton who came up with the idea for stitches. Burton drew inspiration for the costume from a calico cat toy -- one whose stitches were starting to come apart. (It is one of Burton's favorite motifs: the loss of limbs and being stitched back together.)

Burton's pre-design required Catwoman to be sexy, clad in a black, tight outfit. Latex is as black and sexy and tight as you can get, and provided both the fetishistic element and the "wet-black" look that stands out on film. The stitching element not only served as a metaphor for Catwoman's disintegrating psyche, but also for the disintegration of her costume as she suffers Max Shreck's attacks on her.

Annette Benning had been cast as Catwoman. (Her salary was $1 million.) Tim Burton saw her in The Grifters and loved her performance.

The Catwoman costume was built around Benning. Ringwood was adamant that the costume avoid any sense that it was trashy or cheap. "Black, shiny fetish clothing can very easily slip into the sleaze/porn world and this, after all, was a film for family viewing," he later said. So Ringwood and Vogt tried to incorporate as much "kittenish" feeling as possible to the costume.

The major problem was the stitches. Ringwood and Vogt knew that latex simply couldn't accommodate stiches; it would rip apart. So they sculpted and cast stitches in rubber, and glued them onto the costume. It looked terrible! To restore the visual feeling that this was a "unified costume", Ringwood and Vogt decided to brush the entire costume in silicon after Benning got it on. The silicon had the added benefit of making the costume extra-shiny. That meant that the costume itself now tended to blend into the background, so that what the audience saw was primarily the actress' face, the white stitches, and the flashes of light created by the silicon.

Ringwood and Vogt made the stitches bigger than they would have been in real life. This was done to make the stitches appear a little whimsical. It also helped give the costume a an abstract graphic art quality. The location of each individual stitch was mapped onto the costume, so that if it needed replacing it could be glued back on in exactly the right position.

The Catwoman costume was designed as a one-piece, and manufactured by Syren Couture -- a latex, rubber, and leather costume company that made high-end fetish wear for rock stars, movie studios, and fashion houses. Garment-quality rubber sheeting imported from England was used for the costume. Since rubber tears if sewn, a custom-formulated glue held the seams together. Building a one-piece reduced the number of places where seams were needed, and thus the number of places where the costume could rip apart under wear-and-tear.

And then Annette Bening dropped out.

She got pregnant just weeks before filming was to begin! Burton was frantic. He auditioned Raquel Welch, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Madonna, Ellen Barkin, Cher, Bridget Fonda, and Susan Sarandon for the role, but none of them were right for the part. Sean Young, originally cast as Vicki Vale in the previous film, begged Burton to let her audition for the role. Burton refused to permit it, and Young showed up at his California production offices dressed in a homemade Catwoman costume -- demanding an audition. She was escorted off the property.

One of the last actresses to audition was Michelle Pfeiffer. Burton had never seen her in anything, but she'd been acting for a decade. She'd won acclaim for her roles in Scarface (1982), Ladyhawke (1985), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Married to the Mob (1988), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), and The Russia House (1990, and was just finishing Frankie and Johnny (1991). Four times, she'd been nominated for a Golden Globe, and once each for a Best Supporting and Best Actress Oscar.

After a single meeting (not even an audition), Burton cast Pfeiffer. Her salary was $3 million, and a percentage of the box office. The actress immediately signed up for kickboxing lessons.

The Catwoman costume underwent some redesign in order to accommodate Pfeiffer. First, because it was a skintight costume, a full body cast of Pfeiffer had to be made. Pfeiffer was also in fantastic physical shape, and very athletic. She was capable of doing far more stuntwork and physical movement than Benning, and the redesign had to give her greater freedom of movement and faster speed. Pfeiffer also had a more fluid way of moving, so the costume was designed to be somewhat less athletic looking.

Pfeiffer herself had input into the changes, because it was critical that she feel comfortable in the costume and be able to bring to life the character of Catwoman. Her suggestions helped to make the costume design a little more playful, while retaining the sexiness (without becoming vulgar).

To get Pfeiffer into the costume, she had to be naked and then covered with baby powder.

Ironically, the Catwoman costume design freed Pfeiffer from endless makeup sessions since the costume only showed her face. In order to heighten this effect, her makeup was pure white. The only color seen on her when she's in the Catwoman costume is the red of the lips.

More than 40 Catwoman costumes were made, at $1,000 each. The production team feared the costumes would come apart under the rigors of filming, but in fact they proved to be surprisingly durable. Pfeiffer often touched or itched herself with her Catwoman claws, but once more the latex proved highly resistant to tearing.

Ringwood and Vogt became concerned that the film "justify" the catsuit. Where did the Selina Kyle get it? So they discussed with issue with the Tim Burton. They suggested a scene were Selina Kyle makes it herself out of a shiny black raincoat, and used her sewing kit to make the claws. Burton found their suggestion charming, and wrote it.

This now-classic scene is a critical element of Batman Returns, and one of the most famous in the film.

In 2012, Warner Bros. wanted to put the Catwoman costume on display as a promotional effort for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. When the Catwoman costume was dug out of wardrobe, it turned out to have undergone significant deterioration. (That happens to latex if it is not constantly used, worn, and maintained.) While elements of the costume were put on display, most of what you saw was a recreation by Syren Couture using original designs, photographs, and drawings using new latex elements.

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