Comix Couture 101

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By Matthew Shaer

"I could cite the influence of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne aesthetics, with their roots in fantasies of power, speed, and flight, or posit the costume as a kind of fashion alter ego of the heavy, boxy profile of men’s clothing at the time. When in fact the point of origin is not a date or a theory or a conjunction of cultural trends but a story, the intersection of a wish and the tip of a pencil."

That's novelist and unabashed über-comix-fan Michael Chabon on the birth of the superhero costume. In a March New Yorker essay, Chabon noted – coincidentally – that, "like the being who wears it, the superhero costume is, by definition, an impossible object." As evidence, he asked readers to imagine a large comic-book convention, full of kids "shpatziring around the ballrooms and exhibition halls dressed as Wolverine, say, or the Joker’s main squeeze, Harley Quinn. Without exception, even the most splendid of these getups is at best a disappointment."

So what would Chabon make of “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy,” a new exhibit at New York's Met?

The whole, sprawling, glitzy thing is dedicated to comix couture, from Tobey McGuire's Spider-Man suit to a meditation on the ubiquity of the superhero symbol. (An example of the latter, from the museum catalog: "Many designers are attracted to Superman's 'S' emblem, if only as an exercise in iconoclasm. Bernhard Willhelm, in collaboration with the artist Carsten Fock, produced interpretations of the insignia that suggested the hurried handiwork of a graffitist. While Jean-Charles de Castelbajac's treatment of the talisman is more traditional, that of Rossella Jardini for Moschino is typically mischievous." Ahem.)

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The symbol that launched a thousand super-suits.

The New York Times has rounded up a host of multimedia, including a glimpse of this week's star-studded gala (Julia Roberts! George Clooney! Zap! Pow!). Of course, what's truly fascinating about "Superheroes," which features work by a host of designers, is its timing. Ten years ago, the houses of Giorgio Armani and Pierre Cardin probably wouldn't have wasted too much time wallowing around in the world of tights and masks.

As a press release from the Met makes clear, superheroes are enjoying a "surge in mass popularity." Iron Man flies his canned ass into cinemas and sells a gazillion tickets; Jonathan Lethem and Junot Díaz dig deep into the comix mythos; even notorious editrix Anna Wintour gets a bit of geek cred.

It's enough to make a man jump for joy, somewhere under his fur-lined, diamond-encrusted designer cape.

More: "Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy"


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