Red Sonja Costume History
Robert E. Howard was a successful American author who is credited for creating the popular sword and sorcery subgenre of fantasy that readers enjoy today. In 1932, an issue of Weird Tales magazine would introduce the world to his most popular character, Conan the Cimmerian. Conan would be a financially lucrative character for many publishing companies at different times in his history. Marvel Comics would begin releasing their Conan The Barbarian comic book in 1970. It was in this series that another iconic character from the world of Conan would be created. Writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith created Red Sonja for the 1973 issue of Conan The Barbarian #23. They would draw some of their inspiration for Red Sonja from another Robert E. Howard character, who was not part of his Conan legend. They looked to Howard’s 1934 historical fiction short story The Shadow Of The Vulture. It used Sultan Suleiman’s reign from 1526 to 1529 as its setting. One of the characters in this story, Red Sonya of Rogatino, was a Polish-Ukrainian, sword and gun wielding redhead, with a fiery temper and a grudge against the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman. Roy Thomas changed the spelling from “Sonya” to “Sonja” to make her sound more exotic and dropped the gunslinger angle. A lesser known inspiration for Red Sonja came from another Robert E. Howard character, Dark Agnes de Chastillon. She also had a fiery temper and red hair (Robert had a type). Agnes was in three of Howard’s stories, all published after his death. She was also a 16th century master sword woman, but from France. She was abused by her father and almost forced into a marriage, but killed her fiancé and ran away. After these events she was trained to become an expert swordfighter. After combining these characters, Sonja was then placed in the land of Hyrkania, during the mythical Hyborean Age. This new new character was not only an instant hit among comic and Conan fans, but became the archetype of the fierce, scantily clad, warrior woman that has become a staple in the fantasy genre.
Red Sonja was originally created as a supporting character in one of Conan’s story lines, but proved popular enough to continually make guest appearances. These two strongly independent characters would have a complicated relationship. As mercenaries they would often find themselves in competition over the same job, but end up joining forces by the end to defeat a mutual enemy. Sonja would also never have physical relations with a man, unless he was able to defeat her in a fair fight. Conan was understandably attracted to this strong beautiful woman, but could never secure a clear victory in their skirmishes and thus was frustrated by his inability to act on his desire. By 1985 Red Sonja was given her own solo series called Marvel Features. It would last for seven issues, after it ended she was given a self titled comic.
Readers slowly discovered Sonja’s backstory. She was born in the Western Hyrkanian, where she lived a simple life. Sadly, when she was just 17 years old, mercenaries killed her entire family and burned down their home. At the time she was more brave than skilled and attempted to fight back, but was unable to even lift her brother’s sword. The leader of the group showed no mercy, raped Sonja and left her to live in shame. Sonja’s desire for revenge caught the attention of the goddess Scáthach. The goddess imbued Sonja with superior fighting skills on the condition that Sonja would never willingly “lie” with a man until he defeated her in a fair fight. After accepting these terms, Sonja traveled the world and worked as a mercenary. Legends of a fiery, red haired warrior that spilled the blood of any enemy who crossed her path, spread throughout the lands. She soon became known as Red Sonja and her exploits were infamous.
Dynamite comics would later acquire the rights to the Red Sonja character and it would become their best selling title. They continued to build upon the legend of this She-Devil with a Sword and would bring about a shocking turn of events. At the conclusion of a five part storyline,The River of Styx, the original Red Sonja was killed in the 2008 issue Red Sonja #34. The comic line would go on as a reincarnated Sonja took over in issue #35. This reincarnation took place after a long odyssey through the underworld. It was there that Red Sonja had the time to contemplate on her life and destiny.
The new Red Sonja is a distant relative or our original heroine. She lives in a time where the original Red Sonja’s was a legend from her exploits long ago. The original Sonja was accepted as the most beautiful and fearless woman to ever come from Hyrkania, but the goddess Scathach, who granted Sonja her powers, has almost been forgotten. Our new heroine, Lady Sonja of Dorn, was a noblewoman, who lived a very sheltered life. Sonja’s sister betrayed her and her husband to gain more power by arranging for them to be attacked by pirates. Her husband was killed in the onslaught and Sonja was beaten and left for dead. In what would turn out to be more than luck, she was saved by Osin. As a young bard, Osin was friends with the original Red Sonja, but took on the curse of Claw the Unconquered after her death, so that he could find her reincarnated form. Upon finding her, he took on the task of training her to become the legendary warrior once again. Despite Sonja of Dona’s pampered lifestyle resulting in her body being physically weaker, less flexible and slower, she still possessed a strong determination and ability to quickly learn. With the help of Osin, she was soon an expert combatant and formidable opponent to anyone who dared cross her path in combat. One of her first major quests would be to take revenge upon the pirates that killed her husband and left her for dead.
Red Sonja’s popularity allowed her to not only carry her own title, but made her a valuable guest star for other comics. Despite her fierce independent nature, it was a common occurrence to find her teaming up with Conan and Claw the Unconquered. However, the reason I decided to include this section on Team Ups was not for her fighting alongside her fellow sword wielding barbarians, but because she has teamed up with Spider-Man twice. Both stories had Red Sonja transported to modern day New York. She switched bodies with Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson, and the two team-up to defeat Kulan Gath.
After a successful Conan The Barbarian movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Red Sonja project was being developed. Marvel Comics decided to try to relaunch the character in her own title as a helpful promotion and hopefully capitalize on the character's revision. They ditched the metal bikini and went with a more conservative blue tunic. This basic garment worn by men and women of Ancient Rome was a simple garment that goes from the shoulders to the hips or ankles. In Sonja’s case it went to the hips and fitted at the bottom more like a swimsuit than a dress. Later versions would keep the length, but have it end in a tattered dress. Both tunics were open at the chest and at times seemed ready to burst open. To add some style, she also wore gold arm bands. This costume would see a short lifespan as the comic failed and the movie bombed.
Red Sonja's legend grew as she traveled the world and entered new lands. Her adventures would take her through the scorching heat of a desert, the dense foliage covering a forest, the bitter cold of the tundra landscape and many other inhospitable environments. However, she never let any of these harsh conditions slow her down. A blizzard could not stop Sonja from walking through freezing temperatures, while wearing nothing more than her bikini armor and a fur coat. She doesn’t even have to wrap it around her body for warmth. She simple wears the hide of a dead animal around her shoulders like a cape. Frostbite is afraid of her fiery temper. She is the most interesting woman in the world.
Red Sonja’s first outfit was also one of her most practical. As a warrior, it is important to gain as much protection from a suit of armor as possible, while still maintaining your dexterity. This can be a delicate balance and is often dependent on your fighting style, as well as type of job being performed. In her first appearance, she could be found wearing a pair of red silk shorts and a sleeved scale mail shirt. This design gave her the protection she needed from glancing blows and arrow attacks, but still allowed for the superior speed and reflexes utilized in her fighting style.
Chain Mail Bikini
For Red Sonja’s next costume, she clearly chose freedom of movement over protection. Perhaps she wanted to lighten her load as she quickly traveled across distant lands. The chain mail bikini armor would become her most recognizable outfit. She has worn it for the longest period to time, it is the one most used by artist and a favorite among cosplayers. The armor did not offer a lot of protection, except perhaps to keep her chastity safe. However, based on many “artistic” interpretations, even that is questionable. Later versions would have slim pauldrons attached to her shoulders. However, I am unsure how they were balanced on the small straps holding up her top. To compliment this wardrobe, Sonja would often wear thick boots and gauntlets for added protection. Clearly with this outfit, she did not plan on being hit.
Something Old, Something New
For our new century, Red Sonja would get a wardrobe upgrade. It would incorporate and add elements to her original costume. The more practical chain mail shirt was back. The long sleeves offered a lot more protection from a lucky blow by her opponent. However, after wearing barely anything for so long, she would leave her midriff exposed. She didn’t want to come off as too proper. To offer even more protection, she kept the long leather gloves that covered her forearms. The addition of a roman style leather skirt or lappet added a more warrior like appearance, than the red shorts from her past. I am sure the leather strips of fabric exposing more leg as she moved in combat had nothing to do with the artist choice in clothing.
Two Piece Royalty
After years of wandering the lands in little more than what could be considered metal underwear, wearing so much clothing was obviously too cumbersome. So, Sonya would ditch the full chain mail top for a more supportive leather armor bra. It covered a lot more than her old chain mail top, but still offered the freedom of movement she clearly desired. The arm and leg bands were much thicker and looked to offer more protection, than her previous accessories. Her gauntlets looked as if they could double as small shields. She kept the lappet, but the whole ensemble was covered in decorative pictographs. The whole ensemble had a Roman gladiator/soldier feel to it.
Brigitte Nielsen would be the first actress to bring Red Sonja to life. At 6’1” tall, she easily capture the physical presence of our warrior. This would be Brigitte’s first acting role, after making the transition from a modeling career. This part would later secure her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest living leading lady in a film. The film followed Sonja as she seeks vengeance against an evil queen who slaughtered her family. This was not technically part of Schwarzenegger’s Conan series. His character’s name was Kalidor, because they did not acquire the rights to the Conan name. Schwarzenegger was only supposed to do a cameo appearance as a favor to producer Dino De Laurentiis. However, Schwarzenegger was kept on set for almost a month and they used a lot of editing tricks to transform his role into that of a co-star. Schwarzenegger was not happy at being manipulated and ended his 10 year contract with Dino De Laurentiis.
Angelica Bridges would play Red Sonja in episode 14 of the 1997 Conan television series on the USA Network. The series followed Conan, played by Ralf Moeller, and his battle against Hissah Zuhl, who has enslaved his people. The series starts with Conan escaping slavery and wielding a magical sword from Atlantis. It would only last one season, for a grand total of 22 episodes. In the episode Red Sonja, the red headed warrior joins our heroes as they chase down a group of bandit soldiers. The show’s casting department went with the model turned actress route again. Angelica’s episode aired in 1998 and in 1999 she was named one of Maxim Magazines Hottest Women in the World. Coincidence?
Despite Red Sonja making appearances in several forms of media, a mass produced Halloween costume is not available in stores. Fans must assemble their own costumes from scratch or piece it together from Renaissance Faire clothing.
Google Images (Images appeared on several sites and was unsure of original)