- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

The children’s superhero costume has been a pop-culture marvel that has evolved over 70 years to fit the trends of the times and budgets of its buyers.

Its origins can be traced to the 1930s, when radio serials, movies and pulp magazines worked with the likes of cereal companies, gas stations and major retailers to offer free wearable premiums to lure children and their parents to buy products.

The majority were of the cardboard-cutout mask variety. Mom helped finish the costume, with the occasional outfit representing a popular character becoming a playsuit.

Some of the earliest suits were based on such characters as the Shadow, Dick Tracy and the Green Hornet. The crown jewel of the era was available for $4.50 (or $3.25 with five Cream of Wheat proof-of-purchase labels) and featured the garb of a popular space traveler who visited the planet Mongo to battle Ming the Merciless.

“Sackman Brothers’ Buck Rogers costume was easily the best of the time and my favorite,” says John Snyder, president of Diamond International Galleries in Timonium, Md., who administers to a 70,000-piece collection of cartoon and comic-book memorabilia.

“It was so professionally done and elaborate with its jacket, vest, shirt, pants, leggings, holster, rocket gun, XZ42 cloth, suede helmet with goggles and beautiful box,” Mr. Snyder says. “Kids could even buy roller skates separately shaped like space rockets.”

As a certain man of steel became popular in the 1940s, May Co. met the licensing challenge with a 98-cent Superman costume complete with a cape that also was offered as a premium for collecting gum wrappers.

Meanwhile, Batman was represented with a (now very rare) cardboard mask in 1943 offered as a reward for reading his syndicated comic newspaper strip.

The 1950s became the turning point for the superhero costume, which hit its stride as discretionary income went up, comic-book heroes became commonplace and baby boomers longed to become even more like their fictionalized friends … especially around Halloween.

One of the most expensive get-ups to come out of the era was Funtime Playwear’s Superman playsuit. Priced at $6.98, it also came with a matching beanie.

“The beanie helped introduce the concept of the accessories, and it was kind of a strange addition,” Mr. Snyder says. “As people could buy more, they added items. Of course, beanies were very popular during the era, and it had a spinning propeller on top, I guess to give it a space effect.”

Premiums still existed during the time but weren’t as prevalent. One of the more memorable found in a magazine ad in the 1960s promised children who brought their parents into a General Electric television store a free two-sided cardboard mask of Batman and Robin based on the opening animated segment from the decade’s live-action TV show.

Companies such as Ben Cooper, Halco and Collegeville Imagineering also began flooding the market with costumes from the 1950s through 1980s as pop-culture icons increased and movies with better special effects gave rise to a higher demand for costumes.

Today, two companies — Disguise Inc. and Rubie’s Costume Co. — primarily compete for consumer costuming dollars in the superhero arena.

Disguise Inc. puts out full lines of Marvel characters based on traditional comic books and movies that include Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk and many of the X-Men as well as other superstars, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.

Rubie’s Costumes took over the Warner Bros. license in the 1990s after acquiring Ben Cooper in 1992 and Collegeville Imagineering in 1996. It first began offering DC Comics hero costumes based on the film “Batman Returns.”

The Richmond Hill, N.Y., company has released a steady stream of Batman and Superman costumes in the $30 price range and this year promises to become even more Halloween-hero-saturated thanks to the popularity of Cartoon Network’s “Justice League” and associated Rubie’s costumes.

“Warner Brothers does a great job of constantly coming up with new variations and guiding it toward the next generation of children, and the ‘Justice League’ has made some characters popular that have not been in the past,” says Howard Beige, executive vice president of Rubie’s. “We are suddenly selling very big numbers of Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern.”

Although the ‘Justice League’ cartoon offers new ideas for children, Batman still rules at Rubie’s as the superhero most worn by the company’s customers.

“[The] youngest children go toward the animated, ‘Batman Beyond’ look; slightly older kids like the comic-book look; while adults like the movie look,” Mr. Beige says.

Costumes from Rubie’s also routinely feature accessories and even high-tech items such as patented Muscle Chests — which bond foam to fabric and print with stretch inks for a pectorally enhanced Caped Crusader — or Animotion — which uses fiber optics and a computer chip to give the logos on its Batman and Superman costumes sequenced, lighted movement.

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