Wide Angle

Do the Clothes Make the (Super)Man?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute pays tribute to superheroes in an exhibition that explores the connection between their costumes and contemporary fashion.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

NEW YORK -- For several months, a host of Equinox gyms scheduled an hour of body conditioning called "superhero training camp." It was not for the faint of heart. It involved intervals of cardio that recalled elementary school gym class, interspersed with strength training and tests of agility that included a Spider-Man crawl (imagine moving across a gymnasium floor by executing a series of spread-eagle push-ups).

The allure of the class was in the title, which implied tear-inducing difficulty and the possibility of transformation -- that one might enter as Clark Kent but emerge as Superman. Or that one would blossom from a bespectacled Diana Prince into a bullet-deflecting Wonder Woman.

That fascination with transformation is the subject of the summer exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. "Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy" opened Wednesday and runs through Sept. 1. In the twisting corridors of the exhibit, Iron Man inspires Dolce & Gabbana's metallic dominatrix ready-to-wear. Catwoman offers aesthetic commentary on female sexuality. Superman is a patriot.

The infatuation with cartoon gods and goddesses typically begins in childhood when the indignities of youth -- the powerlessness, the ignorance, the insecurity -- are salved by the superhero fantasy. Who has not draped a blanket around their shoulders and called it a magical cape capable of flying them to a promised land? Who has not dreamed of having extraordinary speed or strength to take on a relentless bully?

For adults, comic book characters serve as pop culture repositories for grown-up angst about gender and power. They become tools for indulging fetishes about heroes with Popeye biceps and heroines who purr like pussycats. In adulthood, the childish interest in Wonder Woman and her invisible plane, for instance, gave way to her being appropriated by feminist Gloria Steinem, who cast her as cover girl for the first issue of Ms. Magazine in July 1972 -- eagle-embroidered corset and high boots notwithstanding. The headline read: "Wonder Woman for President." The adult fantasy of a sexy, strong and heroic woman -- an image created by a man but embraced by women bent on self-determination -- was laid out as the ideal ruler of the free world. Thirty-six years later, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton -- with her pantsuits, hint of cleavage and tough policy talk -- has had to wrestle with that enduring conceit.

Superheroes are peculiarly American. They are not merely cartoon characters, and they are distinctive from sardonic anime or sci-fi manga. It is no coincidence that more than one superhero has bedecked himself or herself in red, white and blue. Superheroes are symbols of patriotism, and they often wave the flag with the eager enthusiasm of immigrants -- who were often their creators -- out to prove their loyalties.

"Other cultures drew superheroes, like Japan . . . but the fostering of individualism and self-reliance seems to reflect values that are prevalent in American society," says Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton. "Superheroes are political figures. They cannot not be political figures. It's not just Wonder Woman or Captain America. They were always being co-opted to serve America in some way."

Inspired by the Michael Chabon novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" as well as the ongoing evolution of performance sportswear, Bolton has focused on the way the fashion industry uses superheroes to explore complicated notions about sexual politics, power, nationalism and the potency of the human body. The exhibition raises more questions than it answers -- and that's part of its appeal. And it encourages consideration of figures from Greek mythology -- Diana the huntress, for example -- and how even now they influence the culture's understanding of powerful women. Mostly, though, the exhibition aims to delight the eyes.

One can already imagine children and action-adventure geeks lining up to see the original costumes on display: the Batman costume worn by Christian Bale in "The Dark Knight," one of the metal suits worn by Robert Downey Jr. in "Iron Man," Michelle Pfeiffer's black Catwoman unitard from "Batman Returns" and a Wonder Woman costume -- complete with golden lasso -- worn by Lynda Carter in the television series.

The exhibition captures the fantasy and joy of comic books as well as the genre's darker moods. Thanks to the set designed by Nathan Crowley -- who worked on "Batman Begins" as well as "The Dark Knight" -- mirrors play games of misdirection with visitors, and special effects cause Clark Kent, dressed in a gray 1960s Brooks Brothers suit and looking eerily like a K Street lobbyist, to magically transform into Superman. One only wishes for more smoke-and-mirrors tricks, for film clips and sound effects, for the sense of having stepped out of the mundane and into another world.

Still, there is nothing ponderous about this exhibition. How could it be stuffy and dull when a glowing green mural of the Hulk glares across the room at a three-dimensional Spider-Man climbing up a vertigo-inducing cityscape? Bolton has chosen examples from the fashion industry that are among the most dramatic interpretations of superhero style. There are ensembles from Balenciaga, in which designer Nicolas Ghesquiere's models look like human Transformers, with metal leggings, dresses held together by brass-colored rings, and shoes seemingly constructed out of industrial chains and rivets. Dolce & Gabbana's silver bustiers and molded skirts sparkle next to the Iron Man suit -- each of them addressing a tug of war between invincibility and vulnerability.

And there are several pieces from the archives of the French designer Thierry Mugler -- known for his fascination with larger-than-life women -- including the motorcycle-handlebar bustier that had a starring role in the supermodel-rich George Michael video "Too Funky" from 1992.

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