In the year 2000, superhero movies were at the precipice of a mainstream revolution, and leading that charge were the X-Men. But this was a new millennium and a new format. The tight, stretchy outfits worn by the team in their comics and iconic ’90s cartoon wouldn’t do. Instead, these X-Men donned black leather bodysuits. And yet, even that wasn’t cool enough for the most badass X-Man of them all.
When Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine first joins the X-Men and sees those bodysuits for himself, he says, “You actually go outside in these things?” Cyclops (James Marsden) replies, “Well, what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?”
With just seven words, X-Men sneakily shifted expectations for the entire superhero movie genre. Gone were the days of colorful skintight supersuits. Superheroes were cool. And in the year 2000, that meant they couldn’t wear spandex.
But how did spandex become so synonymous with superheroes in the first place? When did it fall out of favor? And, to ask an even simpler question, what even is spandex? The story of this miracle material and its surprising intersection with the world of comics reveals how a seemingly innocuous invention changed the course of pop culture history — in more ways than you realize.
SPANDEX = EXPANDS
Spandex — an anagram for expands — is a super-stretchy material blended with other fabrics to make modern-day staples, including the leggings you work out in and the underwear you’re probably wearing right now. From its invention in the 1950s to the present day, spandex has revolutionized clothes, leading to new levels of comfort, eras of fashion, and heights of sports performance.
Suze Kundu is a materials chemist and director of research and community engagement at Digital Science, a tech company that invests in science research. She’s also an expert in all things spandex.
“Spandex is another name for elastane, a synthetically produced fiber that’s exceptionally elastic,” Kundu tells Inverse. “It can be pulled apart, often up to seven times its original size. But will repeatedly return to its original shape and size when the pulling force is removed.”
“The first actor to play Superman actually wore wool tights.”
This is what makes spandex great. When it was first invented by U.S. chemical company DuPont in 1958 — the same company behind life-saving Kevlar — the goal was to find an alternative to rubber, the best stretchy material of the day.
Rubber was used in all kinds of clothing — especially girdles — but it was uncomfortable, didn’t retain its shape well, could be degraded by sweat and sunlight, and was in short supply after WWII.
DuPont chemist Joseph Shivers was looking for an alternative and synthetic solution when he invented the process to make spandex, which was initially called “Fibre K” until DuPont branded it Lycra. The name was selected by asking a computer to randomly generate five- or six-letter words that are meaningless in most languages. Clearly, the company had big ambitions for spandex, and it paid off. Today, most people in the United States and Europe refer to all spandex as Lycra, but it’s a brand name — Lycra is to spandex what Kleenex is to tissues.
What’s the scientific secret behind the material’s expanding abilities? Polymers.
“Spandex is a spun version of polyurethane, a fibrous polymer material made up of lots of long chains of repeating units,” Kundu says. To visualize the structure of spandex, she invites us to imagine the individual links in a necklace or a particularly long and unimaginative stacked tower of Lego bricks.
Kundu says these polymer chains are made from alternating building blocks called monomers. The main chemicals that make up this sea of building blocks are processed to create a concentrated solution of the polymer.
“This solution is squeezed through small holes on a nozzle that’s spinning to create the famous fibers as the solvent evaporates off,” Kundu tells us. “The fibers are quickly treated to prevent them from sticking to one another before being twisted into threads and woven into spandex.”
To visualize why spandex can stretch but retain its shape, Kundu says we need to think about noodles. “Long-chain polymer molecules tend to exist in a bundled-up state, like a colander full of freshly drained linguine,” Kundu says. “Without any olive oil, the overlapping strands of linguine start to stick to each other where they overlap or cross over.”
Unlike with your Sunday supper, however, sticking together is the goal when producing spandex.
“In the same way, the long molecules in elastane overlap and form bonds between different strands,” Kundu says. “These bonds are weak enough to allow for some movement and manipulation, like when the fabric is stretched, but strong enough to return the material to its original form.”
THE SPANDEX REVOLUTION
Where can you find spandex? Everywhere.
“Spandex is often used within other materials to allow stretchiness in an item of clothing, to help it fit better,” Kundu says. “This can be anything from underwear to jeans. The possibilities are endless.”
Over the decades, spandex has made clothes stretchier, sure, but it’s also fueled multiple fashion revolutions. Lycra was added to fabric blends so the mini dress of the 1960s could be form-fitting. And as hemlines rose, Lycra was responsible for keeping up the bright tights worn underneath them. Fast-forward a few decades and it’s spandex that was responsible for the streamlined sportswear trends of the 1980s.
The material has even helped make history. It’s used in top-performance clothing worn at the Olympics and was woven into the spacesuit NASA made for Neil Armstrong.
The same properties that make spandex an ideal material for exercise, dance, competitive sports, and space travel are the reason it’s long been considered the go-to material for superhero costumes.
“A flexible, form-fitting suit would allow the wearer to move easily, without inducing too much drag,” Kundu says. “And the wicking properties and washability must also be a big bonus when you’re casually saving the world every evening.”
In other words: You put on a stretchy pair of pants to metaphorically kick ass at your CrossFit class, so why wouldn’t a fictional superhero grab a pair to literally kick ass in the streets?
But there are more reasons why spandex has become the outfit of choice for superheroes and a symbol of super strength that stretches beyond the obvious.
“S” IS FOR SUPER (AND STRETCHY)
Any superhero with a long legacy has probably donned a spandex-like suit at some point throughout comics history: Batman, Spiderman, Superman, and the X-Men, just to name a few. Even when it’s not explicitly stated that they’re wearing spandex, they’re often depicted in costumes that look and behave just like it.
Louie Dean Valencia, Ph.D., an associate professor of history at Texas State University who has taught courses about comic books and youth culture, traces this trend back to the 1930s and the very first superhero ever invented.
“The use of a skintight costume debuted in 1936 with the Phantom, a purple-clad hero who was a crimefighter and adventurer, having no superpowers,” Valencia tells Inverse.
He adds that while Buck Rogers did debut in 1929 and wore clothing that emphasized his musculature, it wasn’t quite as tight. However, it wasn’t until 1938 that Superman debuted, cementing our image of the modern superhero — clad in his iconic, skintight red and blue outfit.
So, interestingly, the spandex look in comics actually predates the invention of spandex. In real-life appearances — like Superman’s first appearance at Superman Day at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 — and on screen, he was wearing other fabrics.
“The first actor to play Superman on the silver screen, Kirk Alyn, actually wore wool tights to portray Superman in the 1940s,” Valencia says.
Back then, it was less about the material and more about what the tight-fitting costume represented.
“His flamboyant dress and ‘S’ drew from a very familiar trope of the era, which was strongman circus performers who often fashioned themselves to be like the biblical strongman Samson,” Valencia says. “He conveyed to the public of that time an image of what it meant to be strong because of those sideshow strongmen’s costumes.”
As soon as spandex came along, it provided the perfect way to amplify these qualities. To accentuate muscles and nod to strongmen stereotypes.
“Adam West’s Batman then wore a costume made mostly of spandex in the 1960s,” Valencia says, “cementing it in popular culture as the superhero fabric of choice.”
A SHORTCUT TO HUMAN ANATOMY
If you don’t read comics, you may only associate spandex with on-screen superheroes. But they all started on paper where tight-fitting spandex was a quick and easy way to draw human anatomy without worrying about the intricacies of fabrics.
“I suspect they were a simple solution to showing off the superhero physique in the early days of comic books,” Jock, an artist who has worked on comic titles including 2000 AD, Batman, and Wolverine, as well as working as a concept designer on movies like Dredd, Batman Begins, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, tells Inverse. “Showing a muscular figure, coupled with the early printing methods of the day, resulted in tight, brightly colored skintight suits.”
In the decades that have followed, these tight and bright suits have become a bit of a joke, replaced by more subdued designs as superheroes take over the big screen.
“When the transition to movies happened, you notice a lot of designs toned down that look and became way more desaturated in their color scheme,” Jock says.
“Superhero genre comics have always attempted to portray futuristic technology in some way,” Valencia says. “In the mid-20th century, spandex was a new technology.” With that in mind, it’s only natural that spandex would eventually become passé.
“If you look at superhero costumes’ evolution, they have since grown to include body armor, like in the Michael Keaton Batman films; leather, popularized on CW shows like Arrow and The Flash; and a variety of other futuristic materials,” Valencia explains.
“Superheroes in general are so entrenched in the spandex look.”
This is evident too in the way some creators moved away from spandex and instead use a spandex-like material they explain away in the story that’s actually made from a much cooler, more advanced, more futuristic, and entirely fictional fabric.
“Many heroes still wear some sort of tight-fitting, flexible, and durable material that’s made up of anything ranging from body armor to futuristic nanites; think small machines interwoven to build a costume,” Valencia says.
This type of nano-technology was featured in Iron Man’s “Mark L” armor in the most recent Avengers movies, giving him the ability to stretch his suit into anything he could imagine. The website TV Tropes has called this “Future Spandex.” For all intents and purposes, it’s spandex. It’s just no longer cool to imply that.
Then again, maybe spandex isn’t over yet.
“Most sportswear these days is slick and skintight,” Jock says. “I’d say that superheroes in general are so entrenched in the spandex look that we’ll always have some of that feel.”
Not only is spandex a mainstay of comics, but some creators have been embracing the retro look and feel more recently — especially with the bright and tight qualities of spandex.
“Wonder Woman has become more colorful as the movies have progressed through the years,” Jock says. “And Wolverine is about to don his crazy yellow costume from the comics in Deadpool 3.”
Whatever material is used, whether it’s leather, armor, nano-technology, or good old-fashioned spandex, more often than not it all serves the same purpose.
“Those costumes still have that same effect of showing strength and sexuality through musculature and tight-fitting costumes,” Valencia says.
“In a very real way, that’s always been part of the appeal of superheroes: modeling an idealized body type — which is an entirely different sort of conversation to be had.”
Inverse's 2023 Superhero Issue celebrates the unsung heroes of our favorite stories — in the pages of comics, behind the camera, and everywhere in between. Guest edited by Iman Vellani.
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