I often associate the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Egyptian pyramids, campy Warhol portraits, and a great grilled chicken salad from the café near the Greek sculptures. But now superheroes are surprisingly getting recognition from the fine art world in “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” — the Met’s latest exhibit that explains how the looks of some of our favorite childhood heroes (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, among others) have influenced real world avant-garde fashion, ready-to-wear pieces, and high-performance sportswear.
As I navigated my way through groups of well-heeled fashionistas, comic book nerds, and a gaggle of NYC tourists in the exhibit this Saturday, I was pleasantly surprised to find everything from Superman’s classic, but somewhat risqué skintight “S” unitard — which I learned was inspired by costumes worn by circus acrobats in the 1920’s — to a beyond vulgar (but amazing) Thierry Mugler black vinyl body suit, mask, and cape, reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman costume in 1992’s “Batman Returns.” (Tons more plus pics after the jump!)
What brings the superhero bodies and the fashionable bodies together, the exhibit’s mission statement explains, is that both celebrate metamorphosis and offer entrance into another world. Both give us the freedom to fantasize and escape from the daily grind.
The exhibit flowed well as I strolled through a natural series of sections that featured some of my old favorites — Superman & Spider-Man (the Graphic Body), Wonder Woman and Captain America (The Patriotic Body), Catwoman (The Paradoxical Body), Batman and Iron Man (the Armored Body), and Mystique from X-Men (the Mutant Body).
But for me, it was all about the ladies. Catwoman’s “Paradoxical Body” portion is a particularly badass look at the chauvinistic representation of the superheroine. Although these women are blessed with superhuman powers, many are trapped by being sexualized with larger than life physical characteristics and by sporting air tight fetish gear. John Galliano, Dolce & Gabbana, and Alexander McQueen, among others have taken a note from Catwoman and the idea of “liberated” sexuality and by embracing fetishized items such as catsuits, corsets, and whips, thereby helping them become mainstream and somewhat sanitized.
At the “Patriotic Body,” Wonder Woman’s red, white, blue, and gold one piece, was featured alongside politicized & strikingly similar designs by John Galliano, Bernhard Wilhelm, and Jeremy Scott in a look at how superheroes appearances and modern fashion can offer political commentary.
Finally, Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique “costume” from the X-Men movies (which literally consists of prosthetics and blue body paint) represented the “Mutant Body” — which, according to the exhibit, encompasses those superheroes that represent the agony, rather than the ecstasies, of the transformation. Fashion, the exhibit argues, also welcomes different and diverse characters, and often celebrates the painfully odd and out of place. Mutant-like designs by Alexander McQueen and Thierry Mugler were also on display.
The exhibit obviously ended up in a gift shop where I got a great new coffee table book on the subject. The comparison between Superheroes and avant-garde fashion is something that I never would have really though of, but now that the Met has done it, it seems so obvious. Although it’s way overdue, the exhibit is definitely worth seeing.