Before I begin, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not obsessed with comic books, and that what follows is based on information gleaned from googling and trawling through internet forums at 1 am. If I’ve got a detail wrong, please point it out nicely and I’m happy to make the necessary corrections.
Wonder Woman the movie was hailed so widely for being what it was but surprisingly few fixated on the protagonist’s clothing – a noticeable departure from reality, where social media commentators often pick on women’s sartorial sensibilities in various circumstances over anything else that might be contextually relevant. I do realise that what Diana Prince chooses to wear is her choice and none of my business. Then again, what about the fact that she happens to be a character created for popular consumption by a man who modelled her after his idea of women: that they feel happy when they are submissive?
There’s more. The reason I’m going to fixate on her clothing now has to do with mechanical engineering (which I studied for my undergraduate degree). Of all the things Prince wears, her breastplate is particularly interesting.
As the visions of sci-fi and fantasy films have evolved in the last few decades, there has also been a noticeable evolution in the liberties taken with set and costume design. Specifically, they have become less displays of their creators’ being awed by the possibilities of the future as well as to contain their fantasies and artistic overtures – and more humdrum, utilitarian and functional. For example, in a limited sense, filmmakers on average have reduced their attention on the “wow” factor of gadgetry, keeping audiences from getting ‘distracted’ by some outlandish vision of the future. Some of my favourite recent examples of this include Iron Man, Nolan’s Batman and Mad Max: Fury Road. The movies’ script is always such that the “wow” object isn’t introduced in our midst suddenly. Its creation process is exposed to the viewer at every step such that the ultimate effect is for the viewer to be viscerally familiar with the object by the time of its deployment in action – especially with the choices behind its more unique features.
But one area in which filmmakers have broadly seemed reluctant to get functionalist about is the breastplate of female warriors. Or at least they have become functional to the extent that their function is to make female warriors looks sexier instead of afford proper protection. For example, consider the battledress of three characters: one each from Game of Thrones, Man of Steel and Wonder Woman.
While Faora Hu-Ul and Wonder Woman have breastplates that cup the breasts, Brienne of Tarth wears one that doesn’t. This is important because all of them are warriors and their armours must be able to protect them in a variety of conflict situations. One of them is melee combat, and when the breastplate receives a blow, its duty is to lessen the impact on the torso by absorbing it as well as directing it away from sensitive areas. However, when the breastplate cups over the breasts, striking it on top risks the force becoming directed inwards (especially if the seam is bad), towards the ribs and the sternum. This is what Emily Asher-Perrin wrote about for Tor in May 2013:
Assuming that you are avoiding the blow of a sword, your armor should be designed so that the blade glances off your body, away from your chest. If your armor is breast-shaped, you are in fact increasing the likelihood that a blade blow will slide inward, toward the center of your chest, the very place you are trying to keep safe. But that’s not all! Let’s say you even fall onto your boob-conscious armor. The divet separating each breast will dig into your chest, doing you injury. It might even break your breastbone. With a strong enough blow to the chest, it could fracture your sternum entirely, destroying your heart and lungs, instantly killing you. It is literally a death trap—you are wearing armor that acts as a perpetual spear directed at some of your most vulnerable body parts. It’s just not smart.
This is particularly true of Wonder Woman, whose latest costume appears to feature a metallic lining at the helm with a prow in the middle (the ‘golden eagle’) bending into the centre of her chest as well as sharp tips angling over her breasts. How is this sensible? Imagine what would happen if she fell face-down.
I suppose you’re wondering how it matters considering it’s Wonder Goddamn Woman, a superhero who can take punches harder than any armour would be able to withstand on her bare skin and not flinch. But the same can be said of Thor, and even Dr Bruce Banner, and it’s not like either of them is walking around wearing an iron maiden or a chastity belt just because he can. In effect, while Batman got full-body armour capable of surviving a Rottweiler attack, Wonder Woman had to make do with gear that wasn’t entirely about ‘her choices’. It actually created new ways to harm her (were it not for her Amazonian outside) because it was trying to preserve other things: her sexiness and her symbols. In a March 2016 interview to Hollywood Reporter, Michael Wilkinson, the costume designer who created Wonder Woman’s armour, said:
We created a costume that looks like metal armor, but of course, in these films the fight scenes are very intense and challenging so I had to come up with a solution that would allow her to move and breathe, but also to have this very iconic, sort of hourglass shape in a modern and interesting way. … Of course there’s all sorts of things she has such as the eagle and WW motif throughout the costume, so I tried to use that WW motif through the belt and the gauntlets and across the breastplate. There’s WW throughout the costume. I think someone tried to count them and they got to 40. (Emphasis added.)
What do either of these things have to do with combat efficiency? Again, for those wondering how any of this matters, let me remind you that my point is only that the sensibilities going into designing male armour and female armour seem to be different.
In reality (i.e. when we’re not dealing with superhuman abilities), the answer to this is not to exclude bust cups from female body armour, which is feasible to do only in the case of women with small breasts – but to create new designs that don’t bring additional vulnerabilities over the baseline (i.e. male armour), to focus on individual fit and to test it well. According to an article published in Tech Beat, a magazine of the US National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Centre, in December 2014,
Soft body armors designated as female differ from male and gender-neutral vests in that they can incorporate curved or shaped protective panels to accommodate the female bust. Flat male or gender-neutral models may be suitable for female officers with smaller busts. Depending on design and materials, they may not be suitable for those with larger busts, as the busts push the front armor panel forward, enlarging the underarm gap and therefore lessening the area of coverage between the front and rear panels.
Further, according to the US Office of Justice Programs,
Generally speaking, the difference between male and female models is that for the female body armor, most manufacturers cut and stitch the material to create bust cups. … When a female model is tested, the laboratory is instructed to locate the seam that is created by folding and/or stitching the material to make the bust cup, and to place one of the shots on that seam. This is done to ensure the weakest point of the vest (typically a seam) provides the minimum level of ballistic protection required by the standard. … There are many different types and styles of female vests, and ways of fitting vests to accommodate all of the various sizes and shapes needed for female officers. Some manufacturers have developed methods which ‘mold’ the bust cups into the material, negating the need for cutting and stitching to create a bust cup. Other manufacturers simply alter the outside dimensions of the panel (i.e., enlarging the arm hole openings) to accommodate certain types of builds and body types (commonly referred to as a ‘unisex’ vest).
Overall, it seems to be that there can be no single way to verify the strength and integrity of women’s armour as much as subjecting each unit to a single set of tests. Then again, I wonder if there’s any point bringing all these details to bear on Wonder Woman’s armour: how, for starters, are we going to get the Young’s modulus of Amazonian amazongmetal? I’m not sure the movies (including Batman v. Superman) have a scene where Princess Diana falls face down or takes a punch from Superman. In the off chance that such a scene does come to be, I’m going to be interested in her armour’s backface deformation. From a Police One article published in December 2014,
… in ballistic-resistant armor testing, backface deformation (BFD) is the measurement on the indent in a clay backing material when a bullet that does not penetrate a vest makes an impression on the clay. BFD testing of very small panels of armors, as well as whether the amount of allowed deformation should be different for the breast area, could be areas for study. … “The idea is to use a supplemental test technique to ensure that when rounds impact areas of the female anatomy that they have the same level of protection as existing male armors, but when striking the bust area, we want to make sure that we provide a more biofidelic test method that specifically addresses the unique female anatomy,” Otterson says.
Update: Twitter user @shishiqiushi has pointed out that the proper historical comparison for breastplates would be the Roman cuirass. However, I’m not sure where this fits into my narrative because there is no evidence – whether in art or archaeology – that women wore the cuirass into battle, at least not usually. And when they did, they wore versions designed for men. Perhaps I would be able to say that the thinking going into designing men’s armour had some historical basis. For further reading, try this Gizmodo explainer.