My Lungs Are Up Here: The Scarlet Librarian Weighs In On Functional, Yet Attractive Armor (Updated)
First of all, this is not an argument that women’s armor in media should be the same as dudes’ armor. Most main characters are supposed to look attractive most of the time they’re on screen; whether because of social or biological conditioning, the bulk added by armor on dudes’ chests and shoulders hottens them up. Dudes in practical armor still meet the hotness standards they’re held to. Women, however, genuinely are trickier to armor up without losing the hourglass figure or lean lines expected by their hotness standards. That’s a thing. Whatever you may think of it, it’s a thing. And it’s not like anybody ever gets a closed-face helmet. Nor is this exclusively about Wonder Woman’s armor, although it is the kickoff, as I explain below.
Women’s armor is TRICKIER. Not impossible, and I’m looking at you, director Patty Jenkins and costume designer Lindy Hemmings of Wonder Woman.
Honestly, I would have just let this bullshit armor go as typical Hollywood bullshit armyr, rolling my eyes, but not getting all that worked up about it. But Jenkins made the mistake of arguing, “To me, they shouldn’t be dressed in armor like men […]It should be different. It should be authentic and real – and appealing to women.”
Authentic and real, my functional-armored ass, and yes, I have armor for swordfighting, and yes, it’s damn well functional because I have a thing about avoiding cracked ribs and collarbones. They hurt.
Jenkins is open about the heels and leg exposure being wish-fulfillment, which is unnecessary, because you can show off muscle without showing flesh (*cough* Superman *cough* Batman *cough* every Superdude costume ever), but fine, we’ll let it go. What I will NOT let go is the belief that this armor is functional, or that you can’t have sexy AF armor that shows no skin whatsoever, AND is entirely functional.
Later edit: A lot of people have interpreted this as an argument that Wonder Woman and Co. should get proper medieval armor, and have given all kinds of reasons why that is not the case. Most of them know a lot more about Wonder Woman than I ever care to, because that’s not what I’m talking about in this post. I’m not here to argue what Wonder Woman should be wearing. I’m pissed about way more than that.
My beef is not with this specific armor being used on this specific character in this specific iteration of the franchise. My beef is the description of this armor as “functional” and “authentic,” although it isn’t clear to me from the article what it’s supposed to be authentic to. It is neither functional nor authentic to any armor of any place and time, so, presumably, not that anyway. Its authenticity within the Wonder Woman franchise I can’t speak to, so I admit that as a possibility, but, again, this post is not about Wonder Woman.
What it IS about is the perception, perpetrated by Wonder Woman’s look and highlighted Jenkins’ description of it, that women’s bodies have to be exposed for them to look attractive, that only exposed flesh is sexy (which is also part of my rage against the fleshmesh trend, along with just thinking it looks shitty), and that this (bullshit) belief is more important than making ass-kickers look actually capable of ass-kicking. Onscreen armor is the same as any other costume, which is why I’ll allow certain inaccuracies and weirdness on male or female armor, the same way I’ll let them go with clothing–onscreen armor needs to tell the audience about the character, just as clothing does. It’s completely in-character for Brienne of Tarth (see below) to wear basically dude-armor that doesn’t distinguish her as a dude in anyway. That’s who she is. If we ever see Daenerys in armor, cosplayers will completely lose their shit, first of all, I would bet money it’s going to be form-fitting and make a big deal out the Khaleesi/Queen thing, because that’s who she is, her femininity is part of her presentation of herself. Her armor would need to reflect that. But, as I’ll demonstrate below, it can ALSO be completely functional to show that she’s a hands-on kind of ass-kicker.
Boob plates and minimal coverage signal that a character doesn’t need functional armor, it’s just for show, her job is to look hot rather than whup ass. It’s the armor equivalent of making a toolset pink, sparkly, and shitty quality despite a jacked-up price, because the little woman will never really use those tools for anything more than hanging a picture. Or a pastel bike helmet that’s designed not to mess up her hair, because a woman doesn’t need to be protected, she just needs to look pretty. High-heeled hiking boots–she’s just a girl, she’ll never do anything requiring real ankle support. She doesn’t need real tools, or a real helmet, or real boots, or real armor, she needs to look hawt, and that means showing skin.
I mostly keep the swearing on here PG-13, but fuck that shit.
And that, internet, is what this post is about. It’s about the fact that women can be completely covered in steel and still fulfill standards of hotness and femininity (whatever you may think of those standards). Women can wear completely functional, even historically accurate, armor that is made to keep them alive, and be absolutely smoking hot. Hollywood wants to keep its leads attractive and show off their assets even in protective gear (which is true of actors as well as actresses, even Iron Man’s suit is given idealized proportions)? Okay, here’s some actually protective gear that does not detract from the wearer’s hotness factor. According to some, it increases it, while conveying the character’s commitment to whupping ass.
Because legit badassery is sexy, bitches.
But, Scarlet Librarian, What Exactly is “Functional?”
Let’s be clear on this before we jump in. There’s a lot of bits armor needs to protect, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll mostly be talking about breastplates, the biggest offender of Stupid Armyr Bullshit. The point of a breastplate is to protect the squishy bits like the heart, liver, lungs…do you know how high up in the torso lungs go?
THAT HIGH. The lungs are higher up than the bust stops, which is why a functional breastplate does not STOP at the breasts, it needs to cover the full torso in order to prevent getting stabbed or shot in the lung, which is frequently lethal, by the way, almost certainly in a premodern context. Mail isn’t reliable about stopping arrows or direct stabbiness, although it can usually reduce the damage done. Stopping arrows and direct stabbiness is what plate is for.
Any breastplate that does not protect the lungs is completely non-functional, and will not be discussed here. That’s the shit I’m out to prove is not only stupid, but unnecessary.
Also important, although less vital, are the collarbones, which I trust you can find yourself. They’re right where many a sword swing tends to go for reasons of anatomy (both attacker and defender), and yes, a piece of rebar swung at full-strength into your collarbone is going to crack if not snap it, and even mail is only going to help so much. If you are very, very lucky, you will be so hopped up on adrenaline you won’t register the pain until after it’s no longer necessary to use both your arms to protect yourself. You’ll still lose strength and mobility in that arm, and if you’re very, very unlucky, there will be nerve damage rendering it useless. And you will die. That’s if the cut doesn’t sever large parts of flesh and bone; fifteenth-century longsword manuals tell you to swing for that juncture and come out the other side. Of the body. That’s an awful lot of power, but there’s an awful lot of necessary bits that can be taken out with a much weaker cut that doesn’t get much past the collarbone. That’s the sort of shit armor is for.
So: Lungs and collarbones, two major items that a breastplate needs to protect and armyr bullshit frequently fails to. Ideally, everyone should also have neck protection, called a gorget, and when I shrieked “WHY ARE NONE OF YOU WEARING GORGETS, YOU ARE ALL IDIOTS” just before the Ned Stark and co. vs. Arthur Dayne and sidekick fight, I was proven right about this I believe six times. (I also shrieked “WHY DID YOU LEAVE AN INCREDIBLY STRONG, FORTIFIED POSITION YOU COULD HAVE HELD FOR DAYS FOR A DANCE-OFF OUTSIDE,” but that’s not an armor issue.) Nobody ever gets gorgets, though, whereas most guys get essentially functional armor, so that’s a different rant.
Stupid Hollywood Bullshit, But Demonstrates That a Completely Armored Woman Can Still Be Sexy AF
As many people have pointed out already around the internet, cleavaged breastplates (as seen on Gal Gadot and co. as Wonder Woman), which make a dip or crease in between the boobs, are not actually functional. They’ll direct a strike, and all the force behind it, directly into the sternum, rather than deflecting it like an outwardly curved shape. As such, the following are not entirely functional, but still cover everything without rendering the wearer a shapeless hag devoid of any possible powers of attraction.
Sonja (Rhona Mitra), Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. She is awarded compensation points for her excellent gauntlets, and especially the one gorget ever seen on screen.
Lady Sif (Jaime Alexander) from Thor. I don’t like this aesthetic, personally, and the whole “oh, we’ll just put some stupidly-light gyrl mail over her upper chest and that will take care of the GAPING OPENING” is bullshit, as is having mail directly over skin with no fabric or leather beneath (you’ll have mail shaped bruises and abrasions if you take a hit there, and it’s just uncomfortable even if you don’t). However, once more, completely covered (the mail at least covers the skin), still shapely.
Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) in Jack and the Giant Slayer. The cleavage here isn’t excessive (especially in comparison to Gadot and co., whose boobs are damn near mummified), but it’s enough I can’t put it in the other categories. I also have maneuverability concerns–the pauldrons are attached at the shoulder weirdly, and the integrated turtleneck, as opposed to a separate gorget, could be problematic. How the hell do you get into this thing, anyway? Body armor is typically a breastplate, which is attached to a matching backplate if you can afford it, not a bronze tunic thing. Seriously, where are the openings?
Fantasy, But Included For the Sake of Argument
Stuff that, while not entirely functional, covers everything without making the wearer look a shapeless hag, or whatever these costumers are so afraid of.
Emily Blunt as Freya in The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Again, no neck armor, and the neckline itself is a little low for my liking, but most of her torso is covered, along with her arms, which have both pauldrons on the shoulders and bazuband-style vambraces protecting her forearms and elbows. The scales are really small, which won’t protect her as well as more historically-based lamellar (see below) would, but this is is probably as good as mail, and the point remains that she’s completely covered in metal and still looks damn good. It’s also worth mentioning Freya is a scary-ass winter witch with guards around her RIDING A GODDAMN POLAR BEAR, so while this is fantasy armyr, it doesn’t have to be functional so much as look badass and sexy (and propaganda/parade armor is absolutely a historical thing), and it’s doing just fine with that. While still being more functional than a lot of hands-on-Warryor-Chyck armor is.
For sale by Armstreet, this is…okay, this is a really weird bastard child of late 16th-17th century stays and someone’s perception of Greek armor. I wouldn’t want to wear this in any actual combat situation, since mobility is pretty restricted, and my god, please wear some pants and something with sleeves or that shit is going to chafe, but again–Female torso, fully covered, even her neck, still a very feminine look. (And it comes with a helmet!)
Also from Armstreet. She has been granted, of all shocking things, clothing under her armor! Heavens to betsy. I’m not a huge fan of those pauldrons and the way they fit, and for this to be a wholly protective kit she’d need a chainmail coif (like a hood that also pools around the neck and upper shoulders), but we’ll roll with it, especially as the coif would cover the armor that it’s advertising here.
Also, she has a spear, and that makes me really happy. Spears are awesome. And criminally underused onscreen.
Really, Not Bad
Virginia Hankins, stuntie and performer at the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire (and who thought that was a good name for it?). This is clearly costume armor that’s never been hit in its life (she doesn’t joust, as we’ll get to later, but rides around hitting targets, which is very difficult and not to be disparaged, and how the hell she does it with that hair I’ll never know, because mine would be trying to strangle the horse, but doesn’t require impact-resistant armor). It’s too tight-fitting to be entirely functional, because the idea here is to look badass and feminine on horseback from a distance. Fully covered. Still clearly woman-shaped.
Mia Wasikowska as Alice in Alice in Wonderland, really weird pseudo-mail sleeves that the vambrace bits are just sort of riveted to, but whatever, quite reasonable pauldrons, and even gauntlets!
Kristen Stewart as Snow White in Snow White and the Huntsman, with surprisingly better-looking mail. It’s less girly, both in the shorter and less fluffalous skirts over the hips and thighs, the embellishments, and the overall design, but SW and the H has a weird attempt to be gritty and realistically semi-medieval thing going on (which is hilarious on multiple levels). Honestly, they may have been going for borrowed dude armor here, with which I personally have no problem but, again, completely covered, still looks fine. (Okay, except for that hair, nobody ever looks good with their hair scraped back directly from their forehead. That has nothing to do with the armor, the armor is fine.)
Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, in a padded gambeson (fetch my smelling salts, Martha, someone remembered the gambeson!), mail (still stupidly light, but mail), and even a helmet! With a FACEPLATE! Of all the things. The lobstered plates coming down over her hips are too short and too narrow, but she does have something. She can’t really be described as “shapely,” but she’s not supposed to, the point is she’s mistaken for a guy with her face hidden in the helmet anyway (nor is Gwendoline Christie the most hourglassy lady to begin with). The design of the breastplate could very easily be altered to taper in more at the waist as well if you really wanted to girl up the look. (Also included because a number of fighting female friends would beat the crap out of me if I didn’t, this armor is BELOVED among them. And it really is quite schnazzy.)
Miranda Otto as Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings, also disguised as a dude, and it’s hard to get a cuirass like this to fit really snugly when it’s over accurately-sized mail. So while she doesn’t look all that girly here, she’s not supposed to, and again, like Brienne’s, this armor could be feminized without losing functionality. (There is, however, NO excuse for this hair being all over the place, NO excuse whatsoever. Tolkien SPECIFICALLY refers to her hair being braided, besides the fact that you do not, ever, want long hair around mail, because it WILL get caught and it WILL hurt; long hair worn down on your neck is really hot and sweaty and gross if you stick a metal pot on it and then run about in a very active manner; and two words, ladies and gentleman: HELMET HAIR. It’s real. It’s sweaty. It’s gross. It’s at least a little tangly even if you braid your hair, which is what very nearly every long-haired (and by that I mean even to the shoulders) woman I know who sticks her head in a metal pot and then bounces around excitedly while wearing heavy, warm protective clothing does, because HELMET HAIR. Would you play hockey, or roller-derby, or any other active sport that requires a helmet, with waist-length hair left to its own devices? I’m not even talking about how it looks when you don’t have a professional team making sure you look rugged and a bit tousled but, not, you know, sweaty and gross and afflicted by HELMET HAIR. This is just about how nasty it feels. Also, I have yet to find historical evidence of anyone wearing hair past collar-length loose into battle, because that’s a handle and you’d die. If you managed to keep your hair on your head and didn’t get all caught up in your own kit, especially with mail. I rant about this elsewhere.)
Nicole Leigh Verdin in Shroud. While cinched in at the waist to an impractical degree, it still follows the lines of the late-fifteenth-century Gothic armor I promise I’m getting to, so it still keeps EVERYTHING COVERED.
Valentina Cervi as Caterina Sforza Riario in Borgia, set in the 1490s. See what I mean about Brienne’s thigh protection?
Gina McKee as Caterina Sforza Riario in The Borgias, yup, still 1490s. Both the pauldrons and helmet are weird, but the breastplate is decent, and that’s the main culprit in bullshit female armor.
Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. This armor is more than a century too early, but put her in period-accurate armor and you get…
Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I, an HBO minseries. The costuming in this miniseries is damn near reproduction quality, and I’m happy they went with an accurate peascod shaped breastplate because I’m an accuracy geek, but nobody has ever looked good in either a peascod doublet or a breastplate shaped like one, which is why the costume team on the appealing-to-a-broad-audience-that-just-wants-to-see-Cate-Blanchett-Look-Hot-In-Armor Golden Age went all Gothic instead. As a movie costuming decision, it’s fine. This is Tilbury, for God’s sake, of the “ I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too […] rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general […]” speech. She’s SUPPOSED to be demonstratively female here. The Blanchett version does it with Gothic-style armor, the Mirren with the gown (Mirren’s also representing her accurate age in 1588, her coming out as a shapely young thing doesn’t really work).
So this is actually a gaming mini made by Thunderbolt Mountain, designed to be 12th century Rus, including lamellar (interlocking plates) armor over mail, but the best image for what I was looking for. It’s pretty accurate except for some weird draping in the mail coif over her neck and head (and the fact that there’s nothing between the mail and her hair–DO NOT LET MAIL TOUCH YOUR HAIR, I am dead serious about this). Lamellar, which is I what I wear for several practical reasons not all to do with the Girl Body Thing, is awesome for female armor because of how easy it is to adjust the fit as you make it, and because of its flexibility once it’s made. My quibble here is actually that she only has a sword belt, not another belt cinched in snug around the natural waist, because that makes a HUGE difference for both men and women by getting some of the weight to settle on the hips rather than hanging off the shoulders and back.
It can also make “girl in armor” turn into “hawt warrior princess,” seen it happen.
Back about six months after the original post with some non-western armor! (If you know of more, please let me know, I’d love to include it.) Khutulun (Claudia Kim) in season 2 of Marco Polo, which is sneaking into “historically inspired” by the skin of its teeth (it is inspired, it’s just wandered rather far from its inspiration into something pretty god-awful). Also sneaking into “armor,” since arrows could get through that weird cross-shoulder pauldron thing, and I think this is more of a soft leather (?) jerkin than a proper cuirass, but that’s still protective and it’s clearly meant to be armor while also providing full coverage.
Sorry this screenshot came out so crappy, this is Khutulun again, early in episode 7 in season 2 if you want to take a look for yourself. She’s in disguise, so wearing the same funky lamellar-ish stuff her brother and the other dudes are, cinched in pretty snugly at the waist.
Kelly Chen in An Empress and the Warriors 2.
And An Empress and the Warriors original, with a truly spectacular helmet which if anyone ever wore it was parade and not battle armor, but is admittedly pretty spiffy.
Zhao Wei in Painted Skin 2, extra points for effective neck protection and elbow cops.
Magnificently titled by China-Cart as “Ancient Chinese Female Superhero Armor Costumes from Movies.” Can more of our superheroes dress like this? Male and female? Because BAMF.
And another example, because this site has a whole bunch and I love lamellar. There may be some boob shapeage going on in the breastplate, but it could also be the embellishment, I can’t tell.
Actual Damn Armor
Armorer Jeff Wasson’s wife Stacey, wearing early- to mid-15th century armor. As armor. Because she’s not an actress or performer, she’s a legit jouster (this is why she has the larger pauldron on the left shoulder, where she’s most likely to get hit).
Here she lands a hit on her opponent. This group used balsa-wood inserts in the lances that are designed to break on impact, the idea being that you get hit but don’t, you know, die (this is historically accurate; tournament lances were designed to break themselves, not break people). That being said, you’re still being hit with a bigass stick by someone on a bigass galloping horse; I would bet money she’s not only taken hits in that armor but also fallen off the horse in it.
(Thomas Swynborn Dating 1412 Church of St Peter and St Paul, Little Horkesley, Essex, England.) What dude armor from the same period as Wasson’s is based on. The hourglass was in for guys as well as women, to the point that men’s clothing heavily padded the shoulders and chest to exaggerate it, which is what makes the 15th century a great period to base feminine-looking female armor on (see Elizabeth: The Golden Age, above).
Other examples of extant (and thus made for dudes) armor that would make excellent inspiration for functional and feminine armor, JUST SAYING, PROFESSIONAL COSTUMERS, is from the late 15th century, google “gothic armor” for more:
15th c. German,courtesy of Dr. Andrea Carloni (Rimini, Italy), AAF ID.
1470 Leeds, UK, Royal Armouries, II.168, composite armour “alla tedesca”, breastplate formerly in Churburg, Milano and Brescia Images courtesy of Igor Zeler*, AAF ID.
1484 - Vienna, Austria, Kunsthistorisches Museum, A 62, armour for Archduke Sigismund von Tirol, by Lorenz Helmschmid, Augsburg Front image courtesy of Blaz Berlec, AAF ID.
No attribution, but typical of late 15th c. and holy shit, gorgeous. Look at me, I’m a pretty, pretty badass!
Armor: Can be feminine, functional, and hot at the same damn time, without exposing any skin. And while I’m of the opinion that armor needs to look functional for the wearer to be badass, and that wearing a metal swimsuit makes the wearer look ridiculous and neither badass nor sexy, I recognize that when catering to mainstream audience, female characters frequently need to look sexy and feminine as well as functionally badass. That’s the reality in Hollywood right now, like it or not. I do NOT recognize that skin is necessary for this, or that bullshit fantasy armyr is, because holy shit, how hot would Lady Badass look in some of that Gothic stuff? SMOKING hot. All the more so because it would be completely functional.
Just saying, costume designers and denizens of the internet. Just saying.
Lord have mercy, people have really liked this. Wow, thanks! I also have a rant about Warrior Chick ™ Bodices, which is less about functionality and more about “Really? ANOTHER one?” but may also appeal.