Superheroes bash boring fashion
NEW YORK CITY - Anticipating amusement at the juxtaposition of comic book heroes influencing avant-garde haute couture, we recently joined the crowds at the exhibition "Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Indeed, we had great fun marveling at the psychological concepts involved in this unique collection of iconic bodysuits, capes, masks and boots linking the past to the possible future.
Growing up in the 1930s when superheroes were just being introduced, Wayne was a regular customer of the 64-page, 10-cent comics of Superman, Batman and their colleagues, while Carla followed Wonder Woman’s adventures with interest.
Modern youths are more likely to have met these fantasy idols through the movies. In our culture, superheroes seem to have replaced the mythical heroes of our ancestors. How fitting that the exhibition is located in the Greek and Roman art section with its statues of muscular warriors, athletes and gods.
We were greeted by a life-sized hologram of Christopher Reeve that constantly morphs between his role as Superman and his role as Clark Kent. It epitomizes the transformation that occurs when clothing is changed, and it appeals as a metaphor related to our fears of being vulnerable as well as our fantasy of becoming powerful.
The other superheroes were life-sized with original costumes displayed along with mannequins in modern costumes, reflecting the influence of these superheroes on fashion, which also celebrates the body, transformation and fantasy.
Two kinds of superheroes are those with special attributes, such as Superman, Wonder Woman and Wolverine, and those who have only human abilities reinforced with special equipment, such as Batman and Iron Man.
Each hero represents a different body archetype. Michael Chabon notes in the "Superheroes" catalog that the bodysuit "takes its deepest meaning and serves its primary function in the depiction of the naked human form, unfettered, perfect and free."
Of course, each hero needs a striking costume to show off that body. Spider-Man, representing the "Graphic Body," wears a suit made of Milliskin, a material used in manufacturing bras. Muscle groups of foam latex are attached to his undersuit. The foam latex web took eight hours to trim, paint and glue on by hand, and "Spider-Man 3" required 42 suits. James Acheson, one of the costumers, noted that the boots are built inside the suit because, "Once you put a superhero into external boots, he always looks dumpy."
Webs have been influential in modern high-fashion design. On display is skiwear with web-patterned race suits by designer Spyder and a beige evening gown by Armani with an insect-adorned web.
One of the themes is that a costume can cause a metamorphosis, changing the bodies as well as the identities of the wearers, causing them to feel more empowered, patriotic or appealing. Wonder Woman in the "Patriotic Body" collection wears stars and stripes from the flag in a body-revealing design. Some of those elements we have seen in street wear.
One exhibit is given over to the "Paradoxical Body" as represented by Catwoman in the bodysuit of rubber sheeting that Michelle Pfeiffer wore in the 1992 film "Batman Returns." The outfit highlights her sexual features and includes details that are based on sexual fetishes with strong elements of the sadistic dominatrix. The playful kittenish recent offshoots on mannequins were designed by Gianni Versace.
As one of the displays notes, the superheroines have "thin waists, pert bottoms, large breasts and long shapely legs," and as objects of male desire and fantasy, most are neutered or domesticated by males driven by the need for mastery.
The Iron Man - the "Armored Body" - stands inside the original costume worn by Robert Downey Jr. in the movie released this year. The Incredible Hulk - "Virile Body" - is surrounded by figures in padded gear reminiscent of "Mad Max" characters.
Several more useful modern costumes included Nike’s Swift Suit and Speedo’s Fastskin swimsuit, both designed for athletes interested in improving their speed. A BioSuit designed by Dava Newman, an MIT aeronautics professor, would protect the wearer from the vacuum of space. Wing suits, designed by Atair Aerospace founder Daniel Preston, can be filled with jet fuel allowing the wearer to fly up to 350 kilometers per hour avoiding detection by radar.
To see comic book characters, considered by many as one of the lower forms of literary and artistic endeavor, cavorting with haute couture was refreshing and just plain fun.
The exhibit runs until Sept. 1. For more information, visit www. metmuseum.org.
Reach Wayne Anderson at andersonwp@ missouri.edu.