Newsflash: A cadre of superheroes has invaded one of Gotham’s top cultural institutions, bringing swaths of bright color, pop graphics and an everyman theme to the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Have no fear, though. Their mission is friendly.
Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and hero-of-the-hour Iron Man have been employed by the Costume Institute to illustrate the parallel worlds occupied by fantastical creatures with super powers and creative fashion designers who dress mere mortals — or at least the stars.
Sound like a stretch? There’s no Plastic Man ploy at play.
“Superheroes are about issues of the body, identity and transformation, about acting your fantasies and transforming yourself into anyone or anything you want to be,” said Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton. “Those are all the things at the heart of fashion.”
Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy begins with an examination of Superman, the first modern superhero when he appeared on the page in 1938. He stood for all things good and patriotic during a time when the American public was trying to shake off the Depression while also watching what was happening in Europe in the days leading up to World War II.
Thanks to an old smoke-and-mirrors trick used by Victorian-era magicians, Superman is presented to museumgoers as both Clark Kent (in a 1950s Brooks Brothers suit) and the Man of Steel in the 1978 film costume worn by Christopher Reeve.
Then there are the antiheroes of the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Punisher and Ghost Rider. Bolton points to them as successful metaphors for the conflicted and flawed characters prevalent in the dark side of the contemporary world.
If Superman is the ultimate graphic body, with a physique inspired by circus strongmen, a costume that came from acrobats and an “S” emblem that has become a positive icon and a textbook lesson in branding, the Punisher represents the postmodern body — flaming skulls and all.
That look resonated with designers such as Alexander McQueen, Walter Van Beirendonck, John Galliano and Thierry Mugler, all of whom have embraced the Goth, grunge and biker styles. He thinks fashion could be headed down the dark road again, and that was a factor in the timing of this exhibit.
Bolton, an admitted Spider-Man fan from childhood, first wanted to marry superheroes and style in an exhibit about five years ago but, he says, it was the wrong moment in fashion as the “in look” was soft and ladylike.
“We’re now returning to an aggressive femininity and the highly sexualized fashion of the 1980s,’’ Bolton said.
Anyone looking for sexy has to go no farther than the Catwoman section of the exhibit. In addition to Michelle Pfeiffer’s remarkably slim black catsuit from 1992’s Batman Returns, there are real-world examples of dominatrix-style outfits by Mugler and Dolce & Gabbana.
One of the most stunning couture pieces in the exhibit belongs with mutant creatures such as the X-Men: A rainbow-colored Mugler gown that morphs from a birdlike top to an amphibian’s corset and then mermaid hem.
But Superman and Spider-Man have had the strongest influence on mainstream style. In the vignettes dedicated to each, there are not only the costumes that made these characters famous in film, there are clothes that mimic their spirit. For Superman, there is Moschino’s M-logo gown with complementary red cape, while there are several spider-web dress silhouettes by Mugler, Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Julien Macdonald and Giorgio Armani.