Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, edited by MET Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton, attempts to bridge the gap between the world of fictional crime fighters and contemporary fashion design. The book features the work of some of the most highly regarded fashion houses, as well as the best of Iron Man, Spiderman, Cat Woman and the like.

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy begins with an essay by novelist Michael Chabon discussing the relationship between superheroes and their costumes. In what Chabon coins as “Unitard Theory,” he emphasizes that the costume/clothing of a superhero is more than a mere unitard-cape combination. The costume serves as a spectacle of transformation, symbolizing humanity’s desire to manipulate and reinterpret their bodies into physically perfected, supernatural beings. The essay, originally written for The New Yorker, lays the foundation for the remaining eight sections of the book. Bolton has arranged the book into the following sections based on the designers’ attempt to interpret the body as a constantly changing entity: The graphic body, the patriotic body, the viral body, the paradoxical body, the armoured body, the aerodynamic body, the mutant body and the postmodern body. Each of these sections explores how the superhero costume has influenced the design of radical couture, avant-garde sportswear and state-of-the-art military garments.

The book itself is also aesthetically pleasing. Printed in full colour on thick glossy paper, it has taken on the characteristics of an actual superhero. Comic books are usually floppy and easily destructible. This book is the complete opposite. Armoured in a tin, the book itself represents the strength and endurance embodied by the superhero.

Dolce and Gabbana’s spring 2007 collection inspired by Iron Man

Superman was North America’s prototype of what would become the very definition of a superhero: a public figure endowed with otherworldly powers, committed to fighting evil for the betterment of society. Since his inception, and the slew of crime-fighting crusaders that followed, the superhero (like fashion) has established itself as a powerful influence upon society. They embody the hopes, dreams, and fantasies of humankind. Often disregarded as superficial and frivolous, it is their very lack of seriousness that enables superheroes to address greater social issues without controversy or objection. Over the years, superheroes have metaphorically represented our social and political realities. They reveal shifting ideologies and attitudes towards identity, sexuality, and agency, as they are constantly being redefined to reflect ideal interpretations of beauty and character.

Similarly, fashion also embodies many of the characteristics for which superheroes have become famous. Fashion not only shares the superhero’s metaphorical diversity, but it also embraces and flourishes based on its ability to transform. Fashion celebrates metamorphosis, providing designers with unlimited opportunities to reinterpret the body and the self. Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy brings its readers a different understanding of the relationship between popular culture and fashion design. And even if you don’t truly believe that Iron Man was the inspiration for Dolce and Gabbana’s spring 2007 collection, the book is still worth the read.

Edited by Andrew Bolton, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008
Reviewed by Candice Okada