“The power of fashion, like the power of the superhero, lies in its ability to transcend the humdrum and commonplace,” remarked iconic designer Giorgio Armani in the Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy book introduction notes. The theme of the 2008 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala and exhibition celebrated the link between the runway and the superheroes who began their lives in comic strips. Now instantly recognizable symbols of strength, these characters have influenced designers and enticed fans across the globe.
The first Met Gala was hosted in 1948 to benefit the Costume Institute, shifting in size and grandeur over the years. The last decade has seen big changes in how much coverage is dedicated to this evening, going from one of the most glamorous nights on the fashion calendar to the most extravagant. Recent highlights include last year’s Camp interpretation featuring Billy Porter with golden wings, Lady Gaga’s four-stage outfit reveal, and Zendaya putting on a fairy tale show complete with an illuminated color-changing frock. In 2018, the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination theme led to heavenly appearances from Chadwick Boseman, Rihanna, Evan Rachel Wood, and Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter. Much like any recent public event, the forthcoming Met Gala has been postponed due to COVID-19; the exhibit is hoping it will open in October. Therefore, it is an ideal time to look back at a past exhibition with a theme that speaks to SYFY FANGRRLS on every level.
The “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” Met Gala took place on May 5, 2008, occurring three days after Iron Man landed in theaters — the movie took just shy of $100 million on its opening weekend. When this theme was picked there is no way the organizers could have foreseen how the MCU would shift the landscape or the many successful movies that would follow.
In 2008, Lynda Carter attended wearing on-brand cuffs to match the theme of the exhibit, which also featured a Wonder Woman costume. The red and gold bustier paired with the starry shorts is instantly recognizable; a patriotic design (even though Diana is not from the United States) that has influenced designers from John Galliano to Bernhard Willhelm. If anyone was going to cosplay on this carpet, it should be Carter.
The mostly muted interpretations of the superhero subject point to just how much this event has changed over the last decade. Scrolling through the images, most of the gowns look like they could appear on pretty much any red carpet, barely acknowledging the superhero aesthetic (even subtly).
What is perhaps more notable is the actors who have since gone on to appear in superhero movies, Scarlett Johansson was two years away from playing Black Widow, a fresh-faced Henry Cavill had no idea he would play Superman, and Zoë Kravitz’s turn as Catwoman (or even her X-Men: First Class appearance as Angel Salvadore) was a far-away proposition.
Smallville‘s Tom Welling represents the on-screen Clark Kents and George Clooney was there as a former Batman. Both Rachel Dawes of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were there — Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal — but the current roster of MCU and DCU stars who have attended over the last two years likely bests these numbers.
Red carpet cosplay has become a wider recent trend including Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel-themed attire for the press tour last year and both Larson and Scarlett Johansson looking to Thanos for jewelry inspiration for the big Avengers: Endgame celebrations. These garments and accessories would be a good fit for a superhero exhibit, but it is interesting to look back at how couture was inspired by these characters before the current iterations took hold of the public’s imagination on TV and film.
Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Andrew Bolton organized the superhero exhibit — he also curated the postponed 2020 “About Time: Fashion and Duration” collection — and had an expert on hand as a consultant. Production designer Nathan Crowley (a long-term collaborator with Christopher Nolan, including the Dark Knight trilogy) was the creative consultant, further adding to the relationship between fashion and superhero imagery.
Certain superhero iconography is indelible whether the aforementioned Wonder Woman star-print shorts, Superman’s “S” logo or Catwoman’s penchant for skintight slinky black attire. These elevated designs are part of the branding of these characters, which includes signature colors, patterns, and logos. Monograms or logos as a language is something fashion houses know the power of when it comes to selling a product or building an image.
Identity is an important aspect of the comic book origin story; the costume is an extension of who this character is. The “S” on Superman’s chest has a double meaning; it is emblematic of the name humans bestowed upon him, but it is also the Kryptonian symbol for hope. Spider-Man’s webbing and arachnid at the heart of his unitard showcase his abilities while also nodding to how he became this way. Even if a designer isn’t thinking of Spider-Man when incorporating web embroidery — as Armani himself admitted about a dress that appears in the exhibition — embedded pop culture symbols will draw this connection. Intent doesn’t always match interpretation.
Other nods are more overt, including Berhard Willhelm’s fringed and bleeding logo transforming the unitard into a frock worn over tie-dye leggings for Spring 2006. In 2011, Jeremy Scott turned the iconic symbol into a question mark. It is a recognizable motif with any letter or symbol at the heart of the design and the primary color combination is a shot of optimism that will brighten any closet.
Fashion is aspirational, wielding clothes as a transformative tool, much like the superhero that experiences a metamorphosis. While most of us will forever be a Clark Kent, a variation of his superhero ensemble can be worn as part of a regular human closet.
Batman and Catwoman both featured in the exhibition, the latter included Michelle Pfeiffer’s quintessential liquid-look catsuit designed by Mary E. Vogt for Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. The subversive nature of this design and the juxtaposition between Selina Kyle and Catwoman is also discussed in the accompanying text, “As apparel, the catsuit has long been identified with the dominatrix, an archetype frequently associated with Catwoman. Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance strengthened this connection by spotlighting the themes of alpha-cat and submissive kitten-like behavior.” Her costume is vital in creating this dichotomy and it is still the definitive Catwoman look from her 50-plus years on screen. Designers drawing on this juxtaposition in this exhibit include Thierry Mugler, Christian Dior Haute Couture by John Galliano, Gianni Versace, and Alexander McQueen.
Thierry Mugler is also used as an example of the armored body that characters including Iron Man and Batman represent. These are the billionaire superheroes who use their wealth to enhance their abilities via the clothes they wear. Technological advancements in materials are under examination with the Flash providing the inspiration point for the intersection between fashion, superheroes, and sports attire, prior to the CW incarnation of this character.
Resembling the uniforms of superheroes, bodysuits worn by athletes including Nike’s Swift Suit and Speedo’s Fastskin were on display alongside haute couture and even designs with outer space in mind.
Over the last 12 years since this exhibition, superheroes have taken over movies and continue to influence the runway. Capturing the influence of characters including Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man just before the new wave of adaptations further reminds us that these iconic characters have long dared us to dream big — whether you desire superhuman or sartorial powers.