Monday, 14 February 2011

Female Armour: Chainmail

Moving away from the previous posts on full plate to depictions of women in chain-mail.

Anna Popplewell as Susan Pevensie | Isis Mussenden | Narnia: Prince Caspian
One of the main 'realistic' issues of female chainmail is that it will, by virtue of its weight tend to flatten out the curves, which is where the cuirass comes in. Pevensies short sleeved chain-mail shirt hardened leather cuirass / bodice with full-length (velvet ?) skirt, was designed by  Isis Mussenden for  The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, which was nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award in 2008. This is a nice, pretty, woodsy adventurer type costume, over all I think it's very well thought out giving the character the feminine edge the she needs, as...

"My sister Susan, is no longer a friend of Narnia. She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up."
~ C. S. Lewis, The Final Battle

The shoulderless cuirass particularly creates a quite feminine look, as does the subtle tapering of the shirt-tails. The exposure of the shoulder area also gives more movement (being an archer type, will need to raise the arm considerably above the head to gain distance), and as a trade-off some additional neck-protection has been given in the padding the collar. The tied-back hair is adequate in getting it out of the way.

Svanhild the Sure |  Tre Manor | Red Box Games

Ok. I'm going to dive in with an immediately similar character design: Svanhild the Sure. Whilst undoubtedly a more mature lady than Susan Pevensie, Svanhild manages to be even more covered, arms in sleeves, and an additional bucker, because, you know, occasionally ranged fighters sometimes get caught up in hand to hand combat. Arguably the chest-plate might be a metal rather than a leather cuirass, but the figure-shaping concept remains, which combined with the flowing skirts and exposed hair.

This also illustrates something that might be thought of as the hero / adventurer divide. Adventurers, by their nature suffer from cold, damp, rain, and carry stuff whereas Heroes tend to just look cool. This divide between characters designed primarily for the spectacle of violence and the portrayal of real warriors goes back at least to the Roman Gladiatorial arena. But I digress, the signature fur cowl, adds another layer of protection and also stops Svanhilds hair getting trapped in the armour.

Éowyn | Angus McBride
I'm not sure this Angus Mc Bride painting was ever used as an ICE MERP cover, but it did appear in some ICE adverts in Dragon Magazine, as a Jigsaw puzzle and in Angus McBrides Characters of Middle Earth. The picture depicts the climactic scene in The Lord of the Rings where Meriadoc Brandybuck kills the Lord of Nazgul whilst Éowyn keeps him distracted. Interestingly McBride has concatenated events somewhat for pictorial effect. Nontheless, Éowyn is here in a full coat of cavalry chain-mail. Gender signifiers are slightly confused, as the character is supposed to be wearing mens armour (like the Chinese folktale Mulan, our heroin rides into battle in the guise of a man) yet she also appears to be wearing an ankle-length skirt that has no centre split, which presumably means either exposing her legs after hitching the skirt up or riding side-saddle, both of which would rather give the game away. McBride, veteran of military history paintings might just be playing fast and loose with his depiction. We also get those amazing golden curly locks, great for signifying femininity, not so great for kicking ass.

McBride is being true, if rather spectacular in his interpretation of  the text:
A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of her secrecy, had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy's eyes.
~ J.R.R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Nonetheless, have I mentioned braids as a solution to this design problem before? I think I might have, here's some more!

Alexander Wang | model with Scarf | image found at Forward Forward

Éowyn as Miranda Otto | Ngila Dickson | Return of the King
Susan Penvensie's armour in Narnia may well have been a reference to this other leather cuirass and chainmail combination. Bless those Inklings for nicking each others ideas, I'm sure JRRT and CSL would have had a right chuckle about this. This time it's Ngila Dicksons design for Miranda Otto's portrayal of Éowyn Peter Jacksons Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It's interesting to have two interpretations of Éowyn that are remarkably similar, it's almost like someone at WETA looked at McBrides version, put a curiass on it, turned down the volumiser on the 80's hair-do and said 'job done'. Although it's not in this photo, even the dark-green tunic remains.  There is little in the way of other female armour in Peter Jacksons version of Lord of the Rings, even his warrior-princess version of Arwen just gets a padded dress-coat.

Henga Rolf'sDottir | Tre Manor | Red Box Games

Another example of a full-length chainmail (ok so it's 3/4 length) Henga Rolf'sDottir from Red Box Games, wearing a chain-mail coat over a tunic with barbarian-esque fur shawl or fur-hood and cape. The belt holding in the waist and the flare of the skirts (more created by the pose than anything else) helps define the hip-to-waist ratio even if it is obscured by the pouches, dagger and tied belt. 

Barbie as Rapunzel Éowyn | Bass & Rankin | Return of the King | image found at The Black Gate
Éowyn did manage to get her hair tied back in Bass & Rankins version of The Return of the King (clip here), although only with a simple band to keep those princess tresses out of her eyes. The armour appears to consist of not much more than a pair of shoulder-pads and some bracers and greaves. However,  the light-blue tunic could be chain-mail (it is keyed the same colour as the shield rim). The rigours of cell animation making all those links highly impractical to draw, although Eric from the D&D cartoon and Prince Valient seem to manage with just a suggestion. So I like to think of it as  chainmail tunic even if it isn't really drawn as such. Éowyn also has something of snood or perhaps a cowl-neck sweater dress going on, again, great for keeping those long flowing hair from getting tangled in the rings and snagging, all in all the femininity remains in those design cues, but is ultimately the hair.

Hey, and not a single image of Red Sonjas chainmail bikini  or Morgan Ironwolf's nipples. Well done me!


  1. Just to let you know, this is one of my favourite blog-series.

  2. Nice one Harald. You'll be glad to know I've not exhausted the subject just yet.

    There's always been a bit of a discussion in the Fantasy / RPG scene about depictions of women in fantasy and game art. Often the debate is characterised by a lot of looking and pointing and saying 'bah! this is wrong!' and 'I like sexy girls' In fact the entire debate seems to quickly devolve into a kind of us / them territory with "Chauvinist Pigs" on the one hand and "Feminazis" on the other. Having said that, there are a lot of women who feel empowered by wearing the 'Red Sonja' style costume, and I've nothing against that at all, it's the gladiator / spectacle thing - but I'm just not interested in that at the moment.

    So rather than perpetuate the discourse I thought it would be much more productive to examine what I consider to be 'good design' for (female) fantasy characters. And fortunately there is quite a lot of great examples around these days. Think I'm rambling a bit now...

  3. @zhu baijiee
    'One of the main 'realistic' issues of female chainmail is that it will, by virtue of its weight tend to flatten out the curves':
    'Female' chainmail? I find it it odd that there's a fixation over the fitting of the armor to retain a 'feminine' look! It's sole function is to keep your ass alive when someone's trying to slaughter you. It's pretty unisex in that regard. I mean, why does it matter if you or your opponent retains a 'masculine/feminine' look in their steel skin?(The person on the inside is the one with the gender, not the armor, right?) It seems more like an aesthetic issue about external 'attractiveness' which I don't think would be that much of a problem in a game.(Unless looking 'sexy' in an imaginative context is that important to the players(or GM)...) But I guess, My Mileage Do Vary On This One.

    'there are a lot of women who feel empowered by wearing the 'Red Sonja' style costume':
    It's popular as a costume at cons, costume parties, Halloween and such, but I don't think the 'empowerment' mentioned is about battlefield competence! :-)

  4. I suppose part of the question is 'why do armours signify gender at all?' There are a few answers to that. One is a design and narrative concern, for both Éowyn and Susan their femininity is central to their characters, the parts they play in their respective stories, so this is reflected in their visual design.

    Another is that people want to play gendered characters, little girls want to play princesses and fairies, and little boys want to play soldiers and knights (ok i'm being grossly simplistic). Part of the issue is what happens when the princess becomes a warrior, when the player doesn't want to go to the extremes of a butch / unisex tank or a chainmail bikini, nor fall foul of the Elmore thigh syndrome, there is the option of sensibly designed, practical and feminine characters.

    What is interesting (to me) from a design / visual culture POV, with the armours I've been showing in these posts is that they remain totally practical 'save your ass' armours without totally abandoning the signification of gender, and how the different designers have achieved that balance along the practical/spectacle line, while still evoking gender.

    Of course, this isn't restricted to women, the moulded 6-pack and barrel chest of the Roman curiass, the loincloth Conan, the greased up homoeroticism of 300, Henry VIII's codpeice, huge shoulder pads, male armour is often gendered. However, there is a lot more armour designed for males so it's less of an issue finding good examples.

    In a fantasy 'pseudo-medieval' world where women warriors exist equally alongside their brothers in arms, it's entirely likely that the armourer able to craft one-hundred percent practical, usable armour that allows women to express themselves as women will do much more business than the blacksmith who insists that they all wear butch-drag or battle-thongs.

    OMG. I can't believe I just typed Butchdrag & Battlethongs.

  5. I have put too little thought into the subtlety of the image of characters and all they portray in media. Your female armour series goes into a lot of detail on how armour can portray women as both feminine and tough. Will you be doing it for other outfits?

  6. Well, looking at my Research notes folder, I've got at least one more example of female chainmail armour to write up, a bunch of notes about halflings / hobbits and Englishness, and another bunch of notes about Pig-faced Orcs (which is a kind of deviation from: Orcs in Disneyland. These tend to be more based on historical ideas which support the development of the campaign world. We shall see!