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Mention X-ray vision to anyone and the ability to see through clothes is usually the first thing that comes to mind. The two are nearly synonymous in popular culture.

What's the origin of this link? The only thing I know is that Superman is the most notable possessor of this power according to Wikipedia.

  • The first superhero with this ability was Olga Mesmer, in 1937/38. Her adventures were published in Pulp magazine Spicy Mistery, but this version's popularity never increased as much as the others. So I don't think that Superman's ancestors were in cause of the link you underline. He is the only one. – Saphirel May 13 '16 at 8:19
  • It always seemed a strange association to me, x-ray vision would let someone see bones, it shows density differences, not layers as if it were selective invisibility (especially when it includes recognizing faces or reading something hidden). It makes me pretty curious about where that link comes from. – Megha May 23 '16 at 12:36
  • Superman used X-ray Vision for the first time in Action Comics #11 (1939).. – Baby Yoda Nov 29 '17 at 19:19
  • It's been a while, but I seem to remember an issue with his Xray vision going out of control; instead of being voluntary, he starts seeing every sans clothing, then skin, etc. I want to say it was a side effect of being exposed to either some form of Kryptonite or some other radiation. – K-H-W Nov 29 '17 at 19:26
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    @K-H-W As I recall, this was something Clark dealt with in the Smallville TV series -- involuntary x-ray vision episodes. That was quite recent, however. That said, Superman's X-Ray vision has never operated like real X-ray imaging -- at least since the 1960s, it's been "see normally despite barriers" rather than "see density differences by using penetrating radiation" -- except when it was doing things even real x-rays couldn't, like transmuting gold to lead to shield green K that was killing Supes. – Zeiss Ikon Nov 29 '17 at 19:30
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+50

I think this would tie back to the X-Ray Specs as sold in the backs of comic books. From X-ray specs there are quotes:

X-Ray Specs were long advertised with the slogan "See the bones in your hand, see through clothes!" Some versions of the advertisement featured an illustration of a young man using the X-Ray Specs to examine the bones in his hand while a voluptuous woman stood in the background, as though awaiting her turn to be "X-rayed".

This article says that they were patented in 1906, but I am betting the whole "See through clothes" thing was influenced by this event:

X-Ray Specs were improved (Patent# 3592533) by Harold von Braunhut, also the inventor of Amazing Sea-Monkeys.

As after all, those Sea Monkey ads were amazing. (I regret never buying some and letting them swim around in their little castle and wear their little crowns).

And The Secret History of X-Ray Specs opines (emphasis mine)

Although the harmful effects of frequent exposure to X-rays were soon discovered, the exciting promise of X-ray vision never really went away. X-ray specs, a novelty item often sold via boys’ comic books and magazines, were first patented in 1906.

So you just have to put 2 and 2 together to get the answer!

So while I can't see a definitive date, it seems that it pre-dates Superman by up to 30 years.

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There are two possible sources of this association:
1. Supposedly "X-ray" glasses that were marketed from the early 1900s
This Wikipedia article explains that they were marketed with the slogan - "See the bones in your hand, see through clothes!" This slogan is most likely where the assumptions came from for seeing through clothes
2. The use of X-ray vision in Superhero films
The earliest reference of x-ray vision (before the major Superman film, starting in 1978) was in the film X in which the main protagonist superhero has "X-ray" vision. This is one of the first major use in mainstream media of x-ray vision being associated with seeing through clothes.

My conclusion - The association between X-ray vision and seeing through clothes has existed since at least the early 1900s but it only came to light when it was included in film and television that most audiences viewed (in the 1930s-1960s when Superman became a mainstream audience star.)

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