From left: Mystique “X-Men” costume, Alexander McQueen gold bodysuit, As Four nylon and rubber pants,
Thierry Mugler corset ensemble. More photos >
By CATHY HORYN
Published: May 9, 2008
Superheroes exist for many reasons. Certainly in our time they exist to sell movie tickets and plastic action figures. (Somewhere in my basement is a box of X-Men that represents a period of desperate pleadings.) But superheroes, those crusading men and women in tights, allow us to believe that in a cape or magical second skin we can do the impossible. We can transform ourselves.
Fashion thrives on the same expectation: Buy this hot dress or pair of Jimmy Choos, and see if you don’t feel curiously invincible at the next party. To an extent all superheroes, like some of the most flamboyant creatures in fashion, are playing a role inadvertently thrust on them by circumstance, their true identities and physical shortcomings concealed.
What separates the nerdish Bruce Banner, who morphs into the Incredible Hulk, from the mousy Luisa Annan, who as the outlandish Marchesa Casati aspired to look like a wild animal and for one Belle Époque-era ball wore a necklace of live, writhing snakes?
The answer is nothing. They each make their claim on the world by becoming Another. The ideas that dominate fashion — identity, performance, gender, body shapes, sexuality, logos and the quest for state-of-the-art materials — pretty well describe the world of the superhero.
These two forces are brought together in “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s playful look at comic book costumes and their influence on radical haute couture as well as high-tech sportswear. Organized by Andrew Bolton, curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, the exhibition is a departure from the museum’s lavish historical surveys. This is the lighter, more fantastical side of fashion, an industry that loves to talk about the genius of Balenciaga while clamoring to dress the body of Beyoncé. Yet inevitably fashion is pioneered by the young, by their daydreams and obsessions, and this exhibition may open one’s eyes to new modes of style as surely as a fur-lined teacup or a slashed punk T-shirt depicting the British queen.
The notion of experiment is embodied in the design, which was done by Nathan Crowley, the production designer on two Batman films and the exhibition’s creative consultant. The 60 outfits, many from movies, are displayed in a sleek, white, brightly illuminated space that suggests a laboratory. All that clinical whiteness, along with three sections of mirrors arranged to create an endless reflection, helps to set off the extreme materials of the costumes and the vivid Gotham backdrops.
Superheroes emerged in the late 1930s, the hinge years between the misery of the Great Depression and the start of World War II, and American utopianism literally colored the costumes and avenging exploits of the comic heroes as they hurled bowling balls and other objects at the heads of the Axis dictators.
Wonder Woman, created by William Moulton Marston, first appeared against a patriotic Washington skyline in January 1942. The drawn version — unlike Lynda Carter’s television character with her 22-inch waist and ample bust — looks wholesome and cute in her flirty star-patterned skirt and bustier. Clark Kent, when trouble loomed, slipped out of his street clothes and into Superman’s sleek, empowering unitard. Since speed and flight were crucial to his mission, it’s possible that his attire owed something to circus acrobats’ costumes of the era. But the 1930s also marked the introduction of a streamlined modernity in interior design, automobiles and the fashion of couturiers like Madeleine Vionnet, whose dresses flowed like liquid over the skin. For contemporary designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, who did a printed version of the unitard in 1995, the attraction of a comic hero’s “second skin” may be that it looks modern.
But as the writer Michael Chabon points out in a witty essay on the unitard in the “Superheroes” catalog, this minimal garment, for all its flash and novel materials, ultimately “takes its deepest meaning and serves its primary function in the depiction of the naked human form, unfettered, perfect and free.” Of course the body is the prime form of fashion. It also supplies the exhibition’s principal organizing theme — the Patriotic Body, the Armored Body and so forth.
Quite a few of the fashion interpretations of superhero costumes here are fairly literal and do little to expand our knowledge of either form of expression. Bernhard Willhelm’s 2006 Superman-inspired dress features an S logo that appears to be dematerializing in drips of red, while a Moschino three-piece suit from 2006 sports a T-shirt emblazoned with a red M. But beyond commenting on the proliferation of logos and branding, what do these garments tell us?
The suit worn by Tobey Maguire in “Spider-Man 3,” 2007. More Photos »
In the Spider-Man display, which includes Tobey Maguire’s costume from “Spider-Man 3,” there are a number of cobweb knit and web-embroidered ensembles. Some of these show finesse and sly humor, like a 1990 Giorgio Armani gown traced in silk threads and crystal beads. But you can’t really know if this design springs from the natural world or a comic book, and you are left simply to marvel at its creepy beauty — which may be enough.
The magnified, supercharged body runs through fashion, from the hyper-athlete (cleverly evoked by Alexander McQueen in a 2005 silk ensemble with pretty football pads) to the sexy pinup, and is well represented in the exhibition. An inflatable jacket by the Belgian designer Walter van Beirendonck adds instant bulk and musculature to a man, while Hussein Chalayan’s “Aeroplane Dress,” made from fiberglass and nylon, has moveable wing flaps and presents the body as a kind of flight capsule.
If John Galliano’s spangled bodysuit and studded leather thong seems to be a comic take on a comic book heroine (Wonder Woman’s star-spangled television costume), the Armored Body section of the exhibition alludes to a fascination with machines, technology and extreme, often violent, sensibilities. In the late 1980s and early ’90s few other designers provoked as much outrage and feminist debate as Thierry Mugler with his metal and molded plastic armor suits. With openings for breasts and belly, they left the most vulnerable parts of the female body exposed. Meanwhile a metal and flame-enameled bustier, from 1992, seems to transform the gal into the front end of a Harley, complete with handlebars and side mirrors.
It’s camp. But when these pieces were first shown on a Paris runway they were unfairly dismissed as crass, and Mr. Mugler’s motives were questioned. There was very little attempt to understand the themes of violence and eroticism conveyed in the style. Certainly these ideas are the basis for a lot of contemporary art and literature. You have to wonder if the reason Mr. Mugler didn’t receive serious consideration is that he was a dressmaker.
Designers liberate themselves from the banal just as superheroes do. They do remarkable things with materials and craft. Dolce & Gabbana’s corseted minidress from 2007 looks as if it were molded from Tiffany silver. It is actually made of leather. Although it would have been nice to see more clothing examples from the 1960s and ’70s, and more abstract takes on transformation — where is Comme des Garçons, the avant-garde label of Rei Kawakubo? — Mr. Bolton intelligibly connects these two distinct worlds.
And while it’s surprising that only two American designers are included in the exhibition — Rick Owens and As Four — it is also understandable.
Superheroes are largely an American invention, and designers here are probably too close to Catwoman and the Flash to be inspired in a new or funny way. Their fantasies involve England or Rome, not Krypton.
Copyright 2008 New York Times Company