If THERE is any doubt that the world is experiencing a superhero moment, then the Costume Institute's "Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy" puts the question to rest. The exhibit, which opened Wednesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers as much an opportunity to step inside the pages of a comic as you'll experience this side of a video game.
About 60 ensembles -- superhero costumes from runways, movies and sports arenas -- are on display, proving that a mere 70 years after DC Comics introduced the flying strongman from Krypton, there is no underestimating the magnetism of capes, unitards, masks and armor.
"We first toyed with the idea of staging an exhibition on fashion and superheroes about five years ago," said Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute. "But at the time we questioned its relevance to fashion. The prevailing aesthetic was a soft, rather vulnerable femininity."
But as a more aggressive femininity, reminiscent of the sexualized fashions of the '80s, began to hit the runways -- and with the release of three superhero movies this summer -- Bolton returned to his idea.
"The concept of the superhero is reflected in fashions that are both anti-nostalgic and unsentimental," he said of the transformation that's occurred over the last few years. "But rather than promoting a sterile modernism, in which pragmatism and functionality are forefronted, these fashions celebrate a dizzying, kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria."
Wander through these spaces in the Met and you get a sense of how single-mindedly Bolton followed the kaleidoscopic vision, dividing the world of superhero fashion into eight sections -- "The Graphic Body," "The Virile Body," etc. -- that address the latent and not so latent expressions of these designs. In "The Patriotic Body" section, the flag motif becomes a commentary on America-as-arrogant-superpower in Bernhard Willhelm's "I Am the One and Only Dominator" collection.
Riffing off the somewhat tame expressions found in the comic world itself -- and in old TV shows -- the exhibit makes clear how designers have taken the superhero troupe and bent it to their own means, be it through explorations of identity, sexuality or nationalism. Whether it's Giorgio Armani's Spider-Man-inspired gowns from the 1990s or John Galliano's gladiator vision of 2008, the interpretations range from elegant to fevered.
Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman suit from 1992's "Batman Returns" anchors a section on "The Paradoxical Body." It's an easy choice given how this crusader is not only the object of fetishists' desires but also the embodiment of the "bad girl-good girl." A mannequin in shiny black (a Thierry Mugler design) follows this conceit into the realm of the dominatrix, and Versace and Dolce & Gabbana outfits provide purely voyeuristic glimpses between the leather.
While noting that female superheroes are with "unapologetic obviousness . . . objects of male desire and fantasy," the exhibit makes the case that by co-opting the accessories of the cat suit, such as the stilettos and whip, high fashion domesticates the illicit.
Bolton said the timing seemed right for such an exhibit not only because of the summer releases of "Iron Man" (its $100.7-million weekend gross confirms his prescience), "The Dark Knight" and "The Hulk," but also because "in the last couple of years, fashion has seen the return of a more aggressive femininity . . . a tough, hard-edged glamour."
If there's a star of the show, it's Mugler, whose fashions often play off superheroine models. The French designer's work is conspicuous throughout the exhibit but takes center stage in "The Postmodern Body," with his frilled 1992 biker girl with built-in rearview mirrors and a thigh strap for a can of Bud.
During the opening party last Monday night, the Met's director, Philippe de Montebello, said that Bolton had proved again "that the Costume Institute is not an ancillary curatorial department but a full-fledged member" of the museum.
"It's rather entertaining to consider superheroes in the context of this institution, which is filled with all of the great mythical superheroes of ancient times," said de Montebello.
Indeed, a short stroll from the exhibit are sculpted representations of the originals, such as Hercules who became Superman and the huntress Diana who became Wonder Woman.
"Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy"
Exhibition dates: May 7 to Sept. 1