Superman - Suited for Greatness - 1940s

By Joe Kucharski - June 10, 2013

Superman is one of the most iconic American superheros, a symbol of strength, hope, and goodness.  Many a child has played out the role, pulling their underwear on over their pants and donning a towel or pillowcase cape. It is hard to imagine a time before this blue, yellow and red hero had invaded our cultural psyche.

In preparation for the June 14th release of Man of Steel, we look back at the history of the Superman suit as a costume.

Superman was created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel for DC Comics in the 1930s. His first appearance in print was in Action Comics #1 printed in April 1938. The character design of Superman was still evolving at this time, and a look back at it now reveals a somewhat generic or simplified character to the one we know today.  

Action Comic #1, cover date June 1938.

In the summer of 1939, Superman became the first ever comic book publication of a single character.  

Superman #1 and Superman #2, 1939.

Superman's live-action debut!

The first time Superman was depicted by a live actor was for the New York World's Fair in 1940 by Ray Middleton. This marks the first known creation of a Superman costume. It was a simplified knit garment, as spandex would not be invented until a later decade. At this point Superman was so little known that the addition of the name "Superman" was added to his famous "S" shield so that viewers could identify him.

Ray Middleton as Superman, New York World's Fair, 1940.

Ray Middleton as Superman, New York World's Fair, 1940.


Superman stuns on the silverscreen!

Superman quickly grew an audience, and in 1948 the first filmed serial was released in theaters, starring Kirk Alyn.  The suit had been highly refined, with a much smoother fit and now featuring simply the "S" shield.  This incarnation of the suit more closely resembles the our modern idea of the man of steel, and features custom boots, ribbed cuffs, and a shorter cape.

Superman, 1948, starring Kirk Alyn. 

Superman, 1948, starring Kirk Alyn. The suit in flight.

Superman, 1948, starring Kirk Alyn. A close look at the "S" shield and cape attachment.

Throughout the now 75 year history of this iconic character, there have been several origin stories of the famous suit.  The 1948 Superman serial features one of the earliest references, spoken by Ma Kent (Virginia Carroll), “Here’s a uniform I made for you out of the blankets you were wrapped in when we found you."  This helps to explain the somewhat "low-tech" look of the original filmed suit, seen on display below.

Superman, 1948, starring Kirk Alyn. Costume on display, front and back. 

Of note, the 1948 Superman serial, like many early filmed projects, lists no Costume Designer or even wardrobe crew members.  The only creative position listed is Paul Plamentola as Art Director.

Check back all this week as we trace the history of the Superman suit as a costume for film, television, and live performance. 

Superman - The 1948 & 1950 Theatrical Serials Collection


To view part two of The History of Superman's Suit as a Costume click here...