It's the stuff of legend that female superheroes haven't always been treated well in comics. You need look no further than their costume designs — always skintight to accentuate their exaggerated curves, while boasting a variety of cutouts to show more than a flash of flesh. I'll never forget an issue of X-Men Unlimited, where Psylocke was basically wearing her bathing suit on a mission to Antarctica.
Although the character of Captain Marvel — originally known as Ms. Marvel — was designed to be socially progressive, she's no exception to the rule. When Carol Danvers first took up a superhero identity, this was the costume she wore:
Ms. Marvel was inspired by a Kree superhero also known as Captain Marvel, and her costume was clearly based on his — except with the legs showing, her belly displayed and, for some unknown reason, a scarf. As one reader wrote on Marvel's letters page (published in Ms. Marvel Issue 8):
"Question: where is a woman who wears long sleeves, gloves, high boots and a scarf (winter wear), and at the same time has a bare back, belly, and legs? The Arctic equator? That costume requires a few alterations."
Artist Dave Cockrum was hardly impressed by the design for Ms. Marvel, which seemed to have been partially due to editorial fiat. He did a rather racy sketch as a birthday present for editor Jim Shooter, and then proceeded to completely redesign the character's look when he took over as artist on Ms. Marvel.
While Carol essentially joined the ranks of the swimsuit superheroines, the design was radically different, although, oddly enough, hardly less sexual. That said, it is cool, and the lightning bolt became a classic symbol. This would be Ms. Marvel's staple costume until 2012, although she did have a period from the 1980s–1990s when she went completely cosmic:
At the time of that costume, Carol was going under the code name of Binary and was a fixture in cosmic X-Men plots.
In 2012, Marvel chose to radically transform Carol's status quo. She took up the identity of Captain Marvel (the film is skipping straight to this version), and was given a new costume, designed by Jamie McKelvie.
As McKelvie told Newsarama:
"We wanted to provide a link to her past while also striking out with something new. So you've got the basic layout of the first Ms. Marvel/Captain Marvel colors, but flipped, the sash from the Warbird look, then the stripes, gloves/boots and collar taking inspiration from her Air Force life. In the same way Captain America's costume is very much superhero, but also tells you he comes from an army background."
The new look was received with near-universal acclaim and has become Captain Marvel's staple design. It's telling that, in an age where costumes are redesigned every time Marvel embarks on a relaunch, only the little details remain.
Now, there's a new — and popular — Ms. Marvel in the comics. Kamala Khan's costume is a homage to Dave Cockrum's Ms. Marvel designs, but blended with a shalwar kameez (Ms. Marvel is, after all, an American Muslim).
As my fellow Creator Joey Esposito has observed, Captain Marvel's 2012 redesign was revolutionary. It began a shift toward function over form for the costumes of our female superheroes, with artists considering practical designs rather than just catering to sex appeal. It's tremendous that Carol, who was always intended to be a socially progressive character, has now transformed the artistic approach of Marvel Comics as a whole. It's wonderful to see a character migrate from oddly sexualized to a really fantastic and legendary costume design.