It may not be as fancy, but this new costume will be more in keeping with the swingy seventies! …And with the modern image of the new Black Widow.
Comic book costumes are expressions of purpose, it is a genre that requires you to don tight pants and bright colors in order to be transfigured into something more than you are. Thus costumes are always, in one specific sense, empowering; they let the world know that you have powers and you are going to use them. Or, failing that, it at least communicates that you are going to act like you have powers, dammit, and you are going to look the part. So I’m not going to get all creepy over-fascinated that Black Widow wears tight clothes in a world where everyone wears tight clothes. Marvel continuity, though, sometimes forgets that the black jumpsuit red hair lookbook was not Natasha’s original— it was something she had to arrive at.
Natasha was first introduced all raven hair and fur stoles— a non-costumed, non-combatant, Lex Luthor style supervillain. Within a few issues though, her KGB superiors saw fit to give her a new uniform.
You are the cleverest agent we have… and now you are also the most colorful, the most dangerous! You are truly the Black Widow!
Here then, was the first costume, the fishnet element possibly a callback to her old funeral veil, that symbol of literal widowhood. It was a goofy Silver Age confection, with big earrings, big hair, and a tiny cape, but for all that a clear upgrade. Now Natasha could charge into battle alongside, and with more conviction than her then-partner, Hawkeye. Wearing a goofy mask meant, in a deep and weird and deeply weird symbolic sense, that she as no longer physically defenseless. But the costume and its genesis still tied her to things not of herself. It was the gift of masters who betrayed her and whom she betrayed in turn. The one element up to her choosing— ironically, the mask— was one she suited to Hawkeye.
Natasha tried to give up her life as a superagent, one that began in grief and brought her only more of it. She tried to salvage her relationship with Hawkeye, but that was tricky after she faked betraying him order to maintain cover. Also after her dead husband came back to life and then promptly died again in a specatcular fit of comics, everybody! She and Clint grew apart, Clint started overcompensating by calling himself “Goliath”, and Natasha ended it in Avengers #76. The Black Widow was a woman, alone. But she found she couldn’t stop fighting.
There are too many tragic memories that never stop haunting me! Memories that won’t let me rest… that won’t let me sleep… that won’t let me ever know peace! And my only escape is in the forgetfulness that action and danger can bring!
But if the Marvel soap opera is eternal, no fashion is forever. It was clear Natasha needed a new costume. Her old uniform was handed to her by a regime she now despised. She’d dumped Hawkeye. Natasha was starting over fresh, rinsing the dye out of her hair, to showcase her natural color. If her old costume was handed to her, she’d make this one herself.
The new look represented Natasha’s liberation from the ghosts of her old lives. It represented liberation in another sense, too. This was the Carol-Danvers-Gets-Pants of its day, and the story that got her this costume was also the story that set her up as a solo hero, aggressively independent, forsaking her previous ties with SHIELD and the Avengers to forge her own stories. And, while I can’t blame the assorted flashback panels that pretend she wore this get-up all along (it’s much less visually confusing, that way) I think something gets lost when you take this costume, and this decision, away from her. It’s important that she marches into battle now wearing her own colors, not some KGB hand-me-down. She called herself the new Black Widow.
And, in order to erase every last vestige of that past… I’ll begin by designing a new costume for myself!
The look is clearly modeled on Emma Peel, the Patron Saint of another Avengers which inspired its share of comic book couture. Spy jumpsuits, however, have been ground in deep by the Mortar and Pestle of Popular Culture. There’s a particular Cold War cool to these ultra-streamlined silhouettes; it’s retro-glamorous. No coincidence that SHIELD mandates all of its agents wear spy catstuits trimmed with white. The scientists get to wear lab coats over the spy jumpsuit. I love comics.
Natasha’s old outfit, meanwhile was practically bedazzlered with fabulous but superfluous details. My favorite was the classic B earrings with the W brooch:
But even if Natasha’s hair back then was full of secrets, there’s not much about the costume that suggests super-spy. The updated outfit packed a visual reference that suggested spy right off, and t just seems more practical— there’s no cape to trip over, no fishnets to get caught on things.
The simplicity of the new silhoutte made it much easier to draw kicking and flipping, annd they were quick to show Natasha springing into karate-chopping, wall-climbing action: something she never did in her old costume. As a rule, the Marvel Women of the Silver Age didn’t weren’t front-line combatants. They had mental or defensive powers, or used trickery and gadgets to fight their battles. But they didn’t punch things. The new Black Widow? Could punch the shit out of things.
She had the “flipping around skyscrapers and kicking shit” thing down too.
What I’m saying is that the new design implied a degree of mobility and physical capability that wasn’t there before. These days Natasha has been tutored in the ways of mano-a-mano since her teenage team-ups with Wolverine. And she also moves with a unique, dance-like grace. She’s a kung-fu ballerina, in short, and that’s become the bread and water of her storylines. But she didn’t start out that way— she was introduced wearing a fancy dress and opera gloves. It makes perfect sense, that Russia’s best secret agent would also be a master of mixed martial arts. She couldn’t be that until she got this New Look.
Natasha’s costume is unique in it’s simplicity. No color, no symbol— it’s one of the few supercostumes that could really be called minimalist. There’s a deep confidence implied in understatement. You have to be brave to go with less instead of more, especially when you don’t have laser eye-beams or super strength to back you up. But there’s also an agnosticism. Superheroes are, in a sense, living symbols. They wear the causes that they fight for, they dress up as the ghost that haunts the cowardly and superstitious night. Natasha doesn’t have a banner. Because if you think about it, Natasha is fighting to free herself from symbols. All her life she’s been strangled by various flags, by these dissonant chords of conflicting loyalties. The strongest statement she can make is to not make any.
It’s really the little black dress of supersuits; it travels everywhere and brings sophistication. If you don’t believe me, consider that of all the MCU Avengertypes Natasha’s costume was the least altered. You didn’t need to bleed the purple loincloth out to make her look like she belonged in an action movie. She did already. But you can strip away the pouches and the gun holsters and just give her simple gold accents and she’s fighting Stilt-Man in San Francisco with Daredevil, all high-flying superhero action. Still recognizably the same costume, and the same character wearing it.
The color’s another thing. Black is the color of mourning, of stealth, and of melancholy. You don’t put black in your superhero suit if you don’t have some designs on the brooding loner trope. It’s perfect for Natasha, secretive a figure of deep sadness and deep fury. On a man, it means business, but on a woman it means danger— and Natasha has that all wrapped up in her codename.
The other curious thing about this costume is the lack of mask, in a Marvel age where secret identities were still the rule and not the exception. Official comic book logic would say that Natasha Romanov, master of mysteries, just forgot:
I do not think they recognized me, but they very easily may have! If the world learns I am the Black Widow, it would mean the end of my private life! I should have considered that when I designed my maskless new costume.
But using my executive “person on the internet” privelges, I reject that reality and substitute my own. We’ll call it a Freudian slip. Because she has every reason to be sick of masks, of secret identities. She’s had to make “Natasha Romanoff” a lie so many times it must kill her to keep herself concealed. For a lot of heroes, masks can mean freedom. But masks are Natasha’s habitual chains.
Natasha described the new duds in the hep jive of Stan Lee soundbites— it was “modern” and “swingy.” But it did move her storyline forward, and it was part of a rising tide of superheroines packaged as icons of women’s lib. The issue that sees her make the switch has Natasha pitted against Spider-man, desperate to make herself more than a pale imitation. They’d never really met, but they both had spider codenames— and everyone knows girl superheroes are usually knock-offs of some dude. What Natasha discovers in fighting him is that she’s not like Spider-man at all.
And that’s the game set and match of it. Natasha’s codename will always be something she did not choose, something assigned to her, because her past sins are her burden and her weapon alike. But she can choose the Black Widow she wants to be, how she uses those weapons, how she wears those sins. And that’s what the new uniform is all about. Her own beginning, her own choice. That’s why she puts on really tight tights and goes out every night to kung-fu fight crime.
And so, whatever strange secrets Spider-man may possess— they’re bound to remain his own… until he himself decides to give them away! And perhaps that’s the way it should be! I have my own unusual powers, my own style of combat, and my own strange destiny to fulfill! So whatever dangers lie ahead… I’ll face them my way… as the Black Widow!
Panels from Tales of Suspense #64, Avengers #36, Amazing Spider-man #86, and Amazing Adventures #1.