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Do the Clothes Make the (Super)Man?

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.

In some instances, it can be difficult to distinguish Hollywood costume from fashion. Designers such as Bernhard Willhelm, John Galliano, Gareth Pugh and Walter Van Beirendonck have built their reputations on merging fashion and fantasy. They are not realists. They are also not American. For while superheroes are closely tied to American ideals, it's European designers who are most inclined to appropriate them for their own needs, to subvert the messages or to present them with a thick layer of irony.

The American designer Donna Karan, whose work is not included in the exhibition, addresses the notion of the powerful female body in her work, but in a subtle way -- through her choice of body-conscious fabrics, for instance. Ralph Lauren certainly plays with the idea of American heroics. But the exhibition focuses on fashion's most exuberant showmen. By the time one arrives at a lone dress by Giorgio Armani, in which subtle beadwork creates the effect of a spider's web, it's a welcome resting place for eyes that have been dazzled and numbed from the ka-pow and wham of hyperbole.

Visitors can catch their breath as they examine this gown -- the rare piece of evidence in the exhibition that superhero tropes might be hiding somewhere in one's personal wardrobe. It serves as a reminder that fashion is at its best when it assists in the daily transformation of private persons into public ones.

Armani is the unlikely main sponsor of the exhibition -- a minimalist underwriting an exhibition based on exaggeration. (If Armani could have any superhero power, he says, it would be to travel through time.) But he was drawn to it, he said in an e-mail, because of the "democratic" nature of the theme. "Superheroes are the modern-day representatives of the ancient archetype of the classical hero, engaged in the struggle between good and evil. Because of this, their appeal works at a very primal level -- everyone can relate to the hero myth. . . . Fashion is not just about catwalks and glamorous red carpet events. It has deeper ties to the culture."

The exhibition could not be better timed. This is a culture in the throes of a superhero obsession. The film "Iron Man" opened this month. This summer, the latest installation in the Batman saga, "The Dark Knight," opens, as does "Hancock," in which Will Smith stars as a flawed and reluctant superhero whose feats of heroism leave a trail of collateral damage.

While the exhibition doesn't make specific references to the Olympics, the Beijing Games will be the setting for a collision of patriotic one-upmanship in the pursuit of athletic dominance. Real-life superheroes -- complete with body-hugging costumes -- will demonstrate extraordinary examples of speed, strength and agility in the name of national honor. The exhibition includes examples of a high-tech Swift Skin suit from Nike and a Fastskin swim unitard from Speedo.

It also touches on the idea of the militarized man, with examples of the "soft wing suit" and "rigid wing suit," both designed by Daniel Preston -- an engineer, skydiver and someone who says he never dreamed of being the Flash, despite his fantastical, daredevil inventions. His creations are high-tech parachutes and personal gliders that give man the ability to fly. One of the flight suits in the exhibition is a modified version of military-grade, satellite-guided parachutes: the Army Ranger as superhero.

Presidential politics tussles with the meaning of patriotism, power and heroism. Who are the candidates with a flag (pin) emblazoned on their chests? Who is best prepared to save the world when the bad guys come calling at 3 a.m.?

"It's very much a part of contemporary politics, this rise of interest in superheroes," Bolton says. "Maybe there's a need for these optimistic images."

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