The Man in Uniform: Captain America’s Style

By  · Published on April 5th, 2014

Captain America Winter Soldier Helmet

Walt Disney Pictures

When a superhero film is announced, no matter the hero up for the task, the most important component that audiences first look at is the costume that has been designed for that character. It’s the link between the hero and the comic book, a sign that the filmmakers have been paying attention to their source material and fully understand the history and evolution of the character. When a character like, say, Captain America, makes the leap from the small pages to the big screen, the people in charge of adapting years of comics into big budget cinema have an important job on their hands – they’ve got to make the man look the part.

A key difference between adapting a novel and a comic to film is that loyal comic readers already have a distinct, concrete visual of their favorite heroes in their heads. It’s been laid out in front of them for decades by illustrators, in volumes upon volumes of adventures and escapades wearing a particular uniform. In short, fans know what their Captain is supposed to look like, and they’re going to get mildly upset (or bitterly outraged) if their expectations are not met when he shows up on screen.

When “Captain America Comics #1” debuted in 1941, Steve Rogers and his star spangled getup were an instant hit among war-weary Americans looking for a patriotic mascot to lift their spirits during a particularly dreary decade. They certainly found it in a super soldier designed in a lab to take down Adolf Hitler and carry the United States to victory. Captain America: The First Avenger tackles Rogers’ first suit in two different forms, being careful not to deviate away from tradition.

When Rogers first becomes Captain America, as in the USO sideshow spectacle, and not the WWII superhero, he dons the very first incarnation of the uniform – the one seen in the earliest comics – as a homage to the character’s beginnings. It’s a costume, unsuitable for combat or anything more than striding across stage and deftly punching ol’ Adolf in the face; it’s tights and a flimsy shield for show. But it’s wholly necessary in telling his story. With his winged cap, red “pirate” boots and beaming stars and stripes print, his appearance is almost cartoonish, and it’s intentional. Here’s the Captain America we know and love from the comic books, but once he’s primed for real combat, that appearance has to be altered to reflect the needs of a real suit of armor.

Marvel Entertainment

In order to do that, the film’s costumers (as laid out in the First Avenger featurette Outfitting a Hero) delved back into the comics to find inspiration for his war suit. It was reminiscent of his original getup (he’s Captain America after all), but functional enough to take part in battle and thrive. The flashy colors were subdued to blend into a battlefield, straps were added to the chest and the winged cap became an M1 helmet. And for the most part, audiences were pleased with this incarnation of Cap.

As the years progressed, Cap’s uniform has largely remained well, uniform. There are key components to outfitting the hero that have held true in every era of comics – you have to show off his muscles, the helmet must expose his ears, the arms are white and the suit’s material must look as though its made from the same high quality material as the super soldier himself. Here’s where some people started having problems with The Avengers.

According to some fans, the transition from First Avenger Cap to Avengers Captain sullied his costume – and the helmet was mainly to blame. In The Avengers, his helmet morphs from the WWII M1-style look of a soldier, complete with a chinstrap and ample protection. A true American hero. 2012’s headpiece is a smoothed, domed cap lacking a chinstrap; instead a cowl-like piece of cloth from his uniform gives him protection. It does look a bit silly and the words “conehead” were thrown around – not the image you want conjured up for your superhero.

But not all reactions to the modernized version of Cap were negative. Take away the helmet and his uniform is largely true to form. The Avengers costume deviates from the original in several other ways that could be seen as problematic, if you’re looking for problems. Cap’s forearms are traditionally white, but now have only white patches. The colors of his uniform, while subdued in The First Avenger, are now back to being jarringly red, white and blue – but chalk that up to the times? He’s a modern representation of a 40s action hero, and he fittingly looks the part.

Blogs are already geared up to analyze what will be seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where our hero will don yet another iconic uniform. Winter Soldier tackles the “heroic age” of Captain America comics, when our buddy Steve Rogers reappears in the 21st century, starts working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and gets embroiled in a whole new fight for good and evil. With a new age comes another new look for the man, taking him out of the patriotic and star spangled 40s, and into a more somber and subdued period; he’s here to kick ass and get some work done.

Walt Disney Studios

Gone are the red and white stripes, winged cap and flashy old boots that we’ve come to recognize as justice arriving – it’s time for the Stealth Suit to appear. While Cap will still don his regular outfit in the film, the Stealth Suit marks his arrival as a special agent. What makes it so stealthy? A dark blue uniform with silver flag detailing, blue boots and a blue and silver shield to replace the red and white classic. Chinstrap enthusiasts should be happy to know that it’s back in action, along with some blissfully exposed ears.

Of course, not all are happy with this new design, with the phrase “Blue-Denim Power Ranger” tossed around. Harsh. Yes, Stealth Suit Cap could be viewed as a bit more boring than razzle dazzle USO Captain America, but there’s a reason that he needs to get a little subdued this time around, and it’s all in the name of his costume: stealthiness.

Do you have a favorite era of Captain America wear? Do you think the films have done a decent job paying homage to the comics in recreating his iconic image?