There are two major issues that always come up with women’s armor in media: coverage and appearance.
The biggest contenders for issues in coverage have historically been Manga/Anime and video-games in general.
Now, there are, of course, exceptions to this rule in both camps. The manga/anime Claymore, for example, gives realistic coverage while maintaining a sort of Greek style brought into the age of Medieval technology. In terms of video-games, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls both hold their own in terms of relative realism of armor, as well as some others.
There is the obvious argument of artistry and style to be made here. It’s a world of fantasy and mysticism, so why not wear next to nothing when magical enhancement makes it as effective as equally enchanted full-plate? If that were the case, we’d have a lot more loin-cloth clad men trouncing about as well, I feel. There’s another argument entirely about gender-equality in character portrayals in media, but that’s a tale for another day.
There is also the issue of the mobility question. What if the person is a stealthy rogue or mage who doesn’t want the blades and mauls getting that close to them? Well, in the mage camp, they can wear damn-near whatever they please. My main concern is a professed and dedicated front-line fighter, regardless of their personal preferences towards plate, mail, and leather, in whatever mix-match and balance they prefer.
Women-warriors in large numbers are sort of the hallmark of Middle Ages fantasy, seeing as most Western cultures had successfully excluded women from the military by the 1100s with very few exceptions. Beyond the Nordic cultures with their disputed frequency of fighting shield-maidens, most post-Roman Empire societies left women to housework and field maintenance when the banners were called to military service. Before this, however, there were a number of cultures where women as fighters was not uncommon. Most Celtic societies included women to some degree in their fighting force, and, perhaps most famously, the Scythians and Sarmatians featured large numbers of women in their military (one possible explanation for the Greek myth of the Amazons). A number of Anatolian petty kingdoms followed this as well. Because of all of this, beyond decorative pieces we don’t have many examples of women’s armor from the Middle Ages to go off of. That, combined with the overwhelming need to cater to a male population in the early explosion of fantasy (as men were by and large the main focus of early fantasy novels and advertisement) probably developed into what we see as common women’s armor tropes today.
So why does lack of coverage not work? Well, it’s fairly obvious, really.
You might be thinking: but what about swords and maces and stuff like that? Well, that’s true as well. But, once you get into the thick of combat most blows that kill you with armor on would also kill you without armor. Armor in a melee is very important to deflect blows and turn fatal thrusts into serious or minor injuries only, but you can’t use your armor if you can’t get within a hundred yards of them.
She looks nice and all, but all that exposed skin is just begging a stray arrow to embed itself in her.
One of the main reason armor developed the way it did was in response to missile technology. Armor that can protect you from a slung stone is not going to protect you from a more efficient arrow. That same armor is not going to help much against a more advance, faster-moving arrow. That armor isn’t going to stop a bullet too well.
Do you see what I mean?
Stopping swords and spears and flails is all well and good, but those don’t mean anything if most of your soldiers can’t get to the people holding those weapons in the first place.
Arrow wounds were also much more serious back then. Rather than plucking them out safely like we can do now, and like the Romans figured out how to do, most arrows had to be pushed all the way through if it got stuck halfway into your torso. That means they had to cut open an exit wound and force the head through before breaking off the end and pushing it out. Much of the time this could cause death from bodily shock or additional blood loss. Even an arrow to the arm could become very serious very quickly. Our vixen in scanty plate above would be down pretty early in an engagement. Truth be told, I’d give it two, maybe three volleys before she was dead.
But what about the shape of the armor?
For the most part, men’s armor could work equally well for women with some minor changes in general sizing. And no, you don’t need to form the shape of female breasts for women to fit into the breastplate.
Here’s lookin’ at you, Laurana Kanan.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but that sort of shape in the armor actually causes a lot of problems with the integrity of the armor itself.
An inward curve like you see in most “look, I still have breasts” metal armor causes catastrophic failure when hit. Breastplates are designed with the one outward curve in order to deflect blows outwards from the weak center. An inward slope could deflect a blade into this center groove, essentially allowing your enemy to split your plate open like an egg.
But what about fit problems?
Truth be told, there’s enough space in designs very similar to men’s for most women to “fit” comfortably. In cases where this is not true, binding can solve that issue comfortably for all but the most obtusely chesty women. For some examples, I draw you to Exhibits A and B from some recent live-action sources. Surprisingly, Exhibit A is from “Snow White and the Huntsman” starring Kristen Stewart.
Say what you will about her acting, Ms. Stewart looks ready and rearing to go in this piece. All of the armor in this film seem to be designed for maximum mobility while still providing protection, so the large degree of mail-only protection on the arms and legs makes a lot of sense.
Exhibit B is Lady Brienne of Tarth from A Song of Ice and Fire’s televised adaptation: “Game of Thrones”. This is possibly the best example of a woman in armor I can come up with.
In all honesty, the reason women’s armor has been portrayed in the way it has is form marketing purposes. Video-games, fantasy/sci-fi, and other fields that prominently feature women-warriors are still largely male-dominated areas of consumption. Women are catching up in terms of numbers, but the advertising aspect of sales hasn’t quite caught up yet.
I always personally appreciate in television, in gaming, and especially in writing when creators treat the woman-warrior with the same dignity as men as warriors. “The Black Company” and “The Lord of the Rings” both have very few women as front-line fighters instead of purely as supporting magic roles, but the ones who are look and certainly feel like a fighter you would not want to be staring at over your shield as she advances on you.
I hope you all enjoyed my little rant on women’s armor and the do’s and don’ts that come along with it.
Obviously there’s nothing inherently evil or wrong with the stylized, impractical, purely artsy-fartsy look, but it’s just not my thing.