Superhero Costume Class
Lesson 1: Origin Story
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Holy killer creativity Batman! In this Class we're going to turn ourselves into superheroes by using some powerful making techniques and fantastical materials to create an incredible costume!

We'll learn how to design, fit, and sew our very own spandex supersuit on a home sewing machine. Then we'll explore some fantastic costume making materials that will let you create unbelievable accessories to complete your secret identity. We'll learn the basics of working with EVA foam to build, finish and paint lightweight sculptural costume armor. Then we'll work with an amazing thermoplastic material called Worbla that will allow you to easily create some seriously sophisticated structures and details and bring to life almost any character you can imagine. By the end of this class you'll have enough skills in your utility belt to take on all of Gotham.

If you're feeling more like a villain than a hero, or interested in creating some other kind of costume this Halloween, fantastic! At the Instructables School for Gifted Makers we welcome all creative powers, and you can use the skills we're learning in this class to make many kinds of costumes, from historical and fantasy, to sci-fi and beyond ;)

Have you always wanted the power to transform yourself at will? At our secret Instructables base, we've developed a classified program that will mutate you from an ordinary human into a superpowered costume maker! We think you have what it takes be our test subject, and all you have to do is enroll in this class to begin your evolution to next stage of humanity. Are you in?

What We're Creating

To create your new secret identity, we are going to be working with three main materials and making three main costume pieces in this class. Of course, your superhero identity and the costume that defines it will be unique to you, but the techniques I'm demonstrating will give you the know-how you need to adapt my designs and create your own awesome pieces.

The Supersuit: spandex and superheroes go together like bad puns and Batman. While not every superhero walks around in a primary colored onesie, tight fitting garments are a classic element of the comic-book hero look, and learning to sew spandex is a great skill to have under your belt... (or at least under the underwear you wear over your tights).

We'll be learning how to design a supersuit with spandex construction techniques in mind, then we'll choose an existing commercial pattern and alter it to fit your measurements and style. To construct your look, we'll learn tricks for effectively sewing spandex on a home machine, and combining fabrics to create eye catching paneling and insets for a look that will have you leaping tall buildings in a single bound. When you're done with these lessons, you'll be stitching up supersuits like Edna Mode.

The Armor: Nothing helps give mere mortals an air of strength and supernatural power like a pair of broad shoulders. So, to enhance our supersuit design, we are going to use EVA foam create a set of sculpted shoulder armor. We'll learn to pattern exaggerated shapes around the body and turn our patterns into reality by cutting, shaping, gluing finishing and painting EVA foam. If the alter ego you've envisioned feels more at home in a breastplate, or another similar piece of super armor, you can easily adapt the techniques I'm using to create your own design.

The Headpiece: Whether you're trying to hide your true identity, deflect the telepathic powers of your nemesis/best friend, or stay in constant contact with the omniscient supercomputer who is your personal assistant... headpieces are key elements of superhero ensembles. We'll use an amazing thermoplastic material called Worbla to create a custom fitted sculpted headpiece with 3 dimensional details. Then we'll learn to finish this piece to look like it was forged out of metal! If your super-self would rather let her hair down, you can use the same techniques to create a pair of bracers, a belt, or another super-accessory of your own invention.

In the next lesson we'll talk more about what specific tools and materials you'll need to create each of these projects.

Why Superheroes?

If you could have one superpower what would it be? I always say I'd choose flight, but when I really think about it, I'm pretty pleased with the superpower I already have: the ability to make things. As characters like Batman and Iron Man prove, you don't need a superhuman power to be a superhero, you just need a motivation and some serious skills.

In some ways, I think superheroes themselves are just a representation of this human desire to create, an embodiment of our belief that we can become a perfect version of ourselves. As Grant Morrison writes in his book Supergods, "Could the superhero in his cape and skintight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project?"

There's no doubt that superheroes have particularly captured our current cultural imagination, but since the first popular superhero, Superman, appeared on the pages of comic books in 1938, superheroes and their shadow-selves, supervillians, have been a presence in our cultural narrative. Their stories reflecting back our own evolution in exaggerated pop colors and brooding noir.

The creation of the superhero multiverse has been a literary world building exercise unlike any other, spanning multiple decades and weaving together a dizzying array of characters and plot-lines. Superhero stories are our modern myths, mutating with the times to embody our values and help make sense of our expanding understanding of reality.

Superheroes and supervillains themselves are archetypes made real, the manifestations of our own deepest fears and most unrealistic fantasies. They may be drawn in broad strokes and bright colors, but their psychological their origins run deep. Is it any wonder we find them so compelling?

Designing a Character

You may have already designed your own superhero, or you may just be excited to create a costume for your favorite classic comic book heroine, but if you're still looking for inspiration, here are a few tips that might help you conceptualize and flesh out a character.

First of all, I think it's important to consider: do you want the character you're designing to be a reflection of you? One of my favorite things about making costumes is that they give me an opportunity to create a hyper-real version of myself, or express parts of me that might usually remain hidden. The secret identity of a superhero is often less a disguise than an expression of true inner nature.

Once you have an idea where your character will sit in relation to your own identity, it will be easier to create your superhero. I've created a "Secret Identity Sheet" that you can print out if you want fill it in with your character's traits. You certainly don't have to do this, but it's a fun exercise, and I'll be showing you how I filled out mine as you read this section.

I talked to artist Renee Busse, who represents the awesome drawing app Sketchbook Pro, about what she takes into consideration when she's designing a character, and she gave me some great tips for thought exercises that can help you create your hero.

World: if you really want to create a 3 dimensional character with internal logical consistency, one place to start is by imagining the character's world. Is it normal reality? The future? The past? A slightly skewed version of reality like The Marvel Universe? Another planet or dimension? Knowing what kind of environment your character inhabits and what kind of challenges it has to face, can help you define its important traits.

Type of Superhero: Decide what made your superhero super.There are three classic kinds of superhero in terms of origin, with infinite variations.

  • Some superheroes, like Superman, Thor and the X-Men, were born with enhanced powers. Whether they are aliens gods or mutants their superpowers are something inherent to them.
  • Characters like Spiderman, Captain America and Deadpool have supernatural powers, but they were not born with them, they acquired them through some sort of accident or experiment.
  • However, you don't really need superpowers to be a superhero, all you really need is some kick-ass gear, a good sensei, and an altruistic death wish. Heroes, like Batman, Ant Man and Iron Man are just regular people with extra special gear, damn good training and a strong motivation.

Specific Powers: Using your hero's type as a guide, decide what your character's specific abilities will be (or maybe you did this in reverse and decided on a power first, that works too.)

Can your hero manipulate fire? Read thoughts? Spontaneously turn into a giant rat? In the long history of the superhero genre, almost every variation of superpower has been explored, but sometimes the most ridiculous powers can make for the most entertaining characters, because it's all about how you use your power. One of my favorite examples is a bit character in the British TV show Misfits who used his ability to manipulate milk products to surprisingly evil ends. With great power comes great responsibility ;)

Characteristics: Besides powers, what are your character's more personal characteristics? When you're nearly indestructible like Wolverine, you tend to be fairly reckless. So, if your character is can transform into a giant rat, does that mean it has a particular affinity for cheese in normal life? Details like this are what give your character personality.

Origin Story: How, specifically, did your hero get his powers? If his powers come from some sort of accident or experiment, how did it happen? If she is a mortal human who just dresses up and fights crime, what's her motivation for acting heroic?

Moral Compass: Another interesting way to conceptualize your character is to figure out where it falls on the moral spectrum. This is a concept that comes from Dungeons and Dragons, where it's referred to as "character alignment", but it can be applied to literally anyone. I find it a very fun and illuminating way to think about a character's identity. If you're not familiar with the idea, I'd suggest listening to this great episode of one of my favorite podcasts Imaginary Worlds.

The basic idea of the Moral Compass is that the moral identity of every character falls somewhere in a 6 part spectrum between "Lawful Good" and "Chaotic Evil".

Translating Character to Costume

Now that you have a character in mind, let's turn that into a costume. What's your character's visual identity? How do all these powers and characteristic effect how your character looks and what they wear?

Think about what colors, shapes and textures might best represent the identity of your character. If you want you can even dive into color theory to find colors that will look good together and convey a certain mood or personality.

If you want your costume to have a classic superhero look, try to merge aspects of your character's identity with classic superhero costume styles. Gather references. Find photos and drawings of both superhero costumes you like and things that represent the other traits of your character.

For example: my character the Metamoth, is based on a moth, but I'm not designing a moth costume, I'm designing the superhero version of a moth costume. I am taking traits I see in moths such as wings, antennae and interesting textures, and adapting them to fit into the structure of a superhero outfit.

Think about what your superhero does and and how you can reflect that in the costume. If your character flies, should it have wings? If it shoots laser beams out of it's eyes, does it need a special helmet?

Sketch! Get your ideas down on paper, or on a screen by whatever method you like. I like to sketch over fashion croquis on marker paper. I usually do a lot of sketches and revisions before I find the right idea. Once I've got something I feel good about, I start trying different colorways using markers, or sometimes I scan my sketch and color it digitally.

Sketchbook Pro is an awesome tool for creating beautiful design sketches if you're comfortable working in the purely digital realm.

Design Constraints

When you read a comic book you'll see some truly fantastical costumes and characters represented on the page, superheroes wear some outrageous (and sometimes physically impossible) outfits. They're superheroes after all, so anything is possible!

Unfortunately for us there are some limitations. The materials we're using can do some amazing things, but we still have to keep the laws of physics and physical mobility in mind. There are also some practical guidelines that will make things easier for you when you are sewing and constructing your new identity.

As you're sketching your design, try to remember that:

When Designing for Spandex:

  • You will need seams in some places, particularly along both sides and in either the center front or center back.
  • When you are creating paneling and style lines, straight lines and gentle curves are easy to sew, drastic compound curves and points are very tricky.
  • You need to get in and out of your suit. You will need a wide enough opening or a closure like a zipper somewhere on your suit.
  • Keep it simple. If you're new to sewing spandex don't make something too complicated, a little bit of detail can go a long way. Avoid complicated cut-outs and style lines.

When Designing for EVA Foam:

  • While EVA foam can be heat shaped, it's not great at making compound curves. So don't design anything too sculpted when you're first starting out. Creating very tiny details with foam can also be a bit tricky, so keep it simple when you're starting out.
  • Remember that you need to be able to move. Foam is slightly flexible, but if you're designing something that's going to be worn around jointed areas of your body, covering too much with one solid piece will limit your mobility. The shoulder pieces I created for my costume, prevent me from raising my arms fully. I was aware of this when I made them, and I decided it didn't matter, but if I had wanted a full range of motion, I should have made the shoulders smaller, or incorporated some kind of articulation.
  • Think about how you're going to attach your pieces.

When Designing for Worbla:

  • Keep in mind a lot of the same considerations you thought about with foam, but remember that Worbla is harder, heavier, and more expensive. It's better for compound curves, sculpted shapes and details, but worse for creating sharp angles, large volume, and crisp edges.

Class Project: Sketch Your Superhero

I'm sure you've created something amazing that only you could imagine. So show us a sketch of your superhero costume design, and what you plan to create! If you want, you can also share your Superhero Identity Sheet so we can find out a little bit about your origin story.

If you have any questions about the feasibility of your design, please feel free to ask them now :)


Share a photo of your finished project with the class!

Nice work! You've completed the class project