Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 1.

Having sat through all four hours and seven minutes of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies once, I don’t feel the need to do so again, but when they show up on TV, I like to drop in and catch my favorite scenes. The Bride’s battle with O-Ren Ishii. Her escape from the wooden coffin to the strains of Ennio Morricone. And, of course, the final sequence with Bill, particularly Bill’s monologue about Superman. I love that monologue. The gist is that Superman is the only superhero whose true identity is, in fact, that of a superhero. Unlike Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker and their compatriots—all of whom must wear superheroic costumes to disguise their true, vulnerable selves—Superman must wear a costume to disguise his true, superheroic self. Bill argues that the “Clark Kent” costume represents Superman’s critique of humanity: Clark is weak and uncertain and cowardly, and that is how Superman sees us.

Delivered by David Carradine, it’s a brilliant monologue. Extrapolating from the Superman/Clark Kent theory helps the movies back away from some queasily anti-feminist, essentialist thinking, which is cool, and on a broader level, the monologue gets at some interesting ideas about identity and costume: what costumes disguise, what they reveal, and who we become when we wear them. It’s a rich vein to mine, which is why the Met’s special exhibit on superhero-inspired fashion is surprisingly thought-provoking. It, too, is concerned with identity and costume and transformation. Bill would feel right at home.

Curator Andrew Bolton collected movie costumes and haute couture from Alexander McQueen, Dolce and Gabana, Thierry Mugler, and a host of others and then divided everything thematically. For example, the Armored Body section, epitomized by Iron Man, showcases several metallic couture creations, including a disturbing “feminine” suit of armor that leaves the most vulnerable parts of the body—the face, breasts, and belly—exposed. The Graphic Body explores how the famous visual markers of Superman and SpiderMan—the chest-plate letter and skin-tight webbing—have been appropriated by designers, to particularly beautiful effect in a spidery Armani dress.

One of the most stunning fashions turns up in the Mutant Body. Mugler’s iridescent, feathered, wasp-waisted Chimera gown is even more extraordinary than the array of tiny prosthetics that constitute Rebecca Romijn’s X-Men Mystique costume, displayed alongside it. (I was happy to see a Mugler work I enjoyed as that suit of armor that so creeped me out was also his.)

But as cool as all the costumes are, I enjoyed the accompanying text just as much, maybe even more. All that great academic-speak about comic books and fashion! As one who loves really thinking about pop culture—the origins and implications and ramifications—I loved the exhibit’s thoughtful, nuanced, intriguing analysis of two media that are often dismissed out of hand. But it is important and meaningful to consider, say, the problematic treatment of the female body by Catwoman’s creators and followers (the Paradoxical Body) or the ways fashion can complicate how we think of beauty (the Mutant Body). So what if everything on display in the Superheroes exhibit is extreme and over-the-top? That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter (or reflect wider trends), and it certainly doesn’t make it any less fun.