Introduction: Superhero Costume Design

About: Costume and experimental fashion designer and artist. Maker of clothing and accessories for time traveling cyborg superheroes, and lucid dreamers. Interested in fusing couture design and leatherwork with weara…

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. So let's turn ourselves into superheroes by designing our own alter-egos and creating their costumes!

This tutorial is the first part of collection of instructables that will walk you through designing and creating your own superhero costume. In this first part we will talk about materials, and how to design a character from concept through costume sketch. To construct the various parts of your costume, check out the other instructables in this series:

Superhero Costume Design (*you are here)

Designing a Spandex Supersuit

Constructing a Spandex Supersuit

Introduction to EVA Foam

Introduction to Worbla

Painting and Finishing Worbla and EVA Foam

Custom Printed Moth Wing Cape

Step 1: Why Superheroes?

In some ways, I think superheroes themselves are really a representation of our 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 origins run deep. Is it any wonder we find them so compelling?

Step 2: Materials for Superhero Costume Construction

You can use a lot of different materials to create superhero costumes, but here's a little about the materials I like to use, which I've also written tutorials about. I also talk about each material in even more detail at the beginning of my tutorial on each.

Stretch Fabric

To make a good supersuit, you need a good stretch fabric. There are all kinds of stretch fabrics that differ by construction, thickness, and fiber content which are good for different types of projects. The best kinds of fabric for tight fitting superhero garments are spandex knits with a very high percentage of spandex. Even jersey fabrics that contain some spandex, like the fabric used for cotton leggings, will not have enough elasticity and may end up sagging after you wear them a few times.

The fabrics I use in my supersuit tutorial are all variations of 4 way stretch spandex that you can find at most fabric stores. This is the best material for supersuits and is actually surprisingly easy to sew on a home sewing machine. Contrary to popular opinion, you really don't need a serger to sew spandex, and we'll be learning some great stitches and techniques to help you sew spandex on your home machine.

Spandex also comes in an insane variety of colors, textures, weights, and finishes, from crazy holographic patterns and beautiful ombres, to prints of cats shooting laser beams out of their eyes... there's something for every kind of mutant in spandex world... (though I think Spandex House is actually the best place to buy spandex :)

EVA Foam

EVA Foam, also known as craft foam, is a material that was widely used for all kinds of applications such as padding, and flotation before it was discovered by the crafting and cosplay community. EVA makes a great material for constructing costumes and props because it is lightweight, cheap, and can easily be cut, carved and even heat shaped to create interesting forms. When it is finished and painted it is relatively durable and can be made to mimic a lot of different materials like metal, wood, leather and plastic.

EVA foam comes it a wide variety of colors and thicknesses which gives it a lot of versatility. It is great for creating large lightweight forms in costuming, but not that great for creating details. For this reason it can be, and often is, combined with many other materials like Worbla to create beautiful costume armor and props. While it is cheap, and relatively easy to cut and form, the process of gluing and sealing it can be somewhat tedious, but it's still a great material to have on your costume skills utility belt.


Worbla is an amazing, and relatively new, non-toxic thermoplastic sheet material made partially from wood pulp. It's is a supernaturally awesome material that lets you quickly create durable, sculptural costume pieces and props with minimal tools, drying time, or toxic chemicals. It has become extremely popular in the cosplay community because of it's versatility, and ability to mimic materials like metal.

Worbla softens at 194 degrees fahrenheit (90 degrees celsius) which means you can usually mold it with your bare hands and feel like a superhero! It it's heated state it sticks to itself like mad, so you don't need any glue whatsoever to work with it. When it hardens it is extremely strong and can be painted and finished easily. It can also be re-heated and formed endlessly, so you never have to waste any of it! Just heat your scraps and mush them back together. Fantastical.

There a few different types of Worbla that are good for different applications. In my tutorial use the standard kind, which is officially called "Worbla's Finest Art". Other Worbla variations are designed to create finer details, stronger structure, or transparency. They work in much the same way as the standard variety, so feel free to experiment with them once you've grasped the basics.

Worbla comes in different sized sheets that are all 2mm thick and can be layered on top of each other or combined with thin EVA foam to create thickness. The one drawback of this material is that it is fairly expensive. For the headpiece project I'm creating in this class, you'll need about one medium sheet. If you are feeling budget-conscious and adventurous, you could also try making your own Worbla by following this Instructable by Plastic Apprentice.

Glues, Sealers, Paints and Finishes

You will need glue to assemble your EVA foam pieces. The strongest and most effective kind of glue for EVA foam is DAP Weldwood Contact Cement. It is a bit tricky to work with however, and has a long cure time. You'll need a ventilated area and at least 24 hours to let it set before you can move on to sealing. Other potential adhesives are Barge, spray adhesives, and, hot glue, which is good for gluing foam together edge to edge, but not for lamination.

Both EVA foam and Worbla need to be sealed or primed before they can be effectively painted. There are a few different options for sealing each depending on what kind of finish you are going for.

In this class I'll be using Plastidip to seal EVA foam. Plastidip is a great material because it both prepares the surface of the foam for painting and makes the whole thing stronger and less likely to tear. For certain kinds of designs it can be an awesome looking finish in itself without even adding paint.

Worbla, especially the original kind, has a bit of a granular texture that really needs to be smoothed out with a primer before it's painted. The smoothing compound we'll be using in this class is Flexbond. It is very similar to wood glue, but gives even faster and better coverage. It's not a noxious chemical so it can be applied anywhere, and it dries fairly fast.

Once your foam and Worbla creations are sealed and primed, you can paint them in a variety of ways. I like using acrylic paints, but spray paint as a base coat can also be a good option. For creating metallic effects, I'm partial to using metallic pigment powders mixed into an acrylic medium. Pick out something you'd like to experiment with and do some tests.

After your pieces are painted, you can give them extra shine or durability by adding a coat of some kind of clear sealant or finish. The most durable top coat for EVA foam is a roofing sealant called Through the Roof. This will really give your piece a shiny look and a lot of protection, but it's pretty nasty stuff, so if you're looking for something a little less intense, you can use Mod Poge or another acrylic finish.

Step 3: Designing 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 (for a some great examples, listen to one of my favorite episodes of This American Life), 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 (who actually once featured this tutorial on their Facebook page! Thanks Eric!! :)

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".

Step 4: 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.

Step 5: 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.

Step 6: Sketch Your Superhero

So how did you translate your design into a costume sketch? After a lot of versions, this is the design I came up with for my Metamoth costume.

If you've sketched your own character, please post an 'I Made It' in the comments section below! And if you want to keep going and turn this idea into a reality, check out the other Instructables in this series!

Designing a Spandex Supersuit

Constructing a Spandex Supersuit

Introduction to EVA Foam

Introduction to Worbla

Painting and Finishing Worbla and EVA Foam