The POW!! factor: Comic-book superheroes can also be style icons

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Carola Long has a sneak preview at a new exhibition in New York

Fashion might move faster than a speeding bullet, but that's not the only thing it has in common with Superman. The interplay of comic-book costumes and fashion is explored in a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, entitled Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. According to curator Andrew Bolton: "Fashion, like the superhero, celebrates metamorphosis, providing unlimited opportunities to remake and reshape the flesh and the self. It offers entrance into another world... the freedom to fantasise, to escape the banal."

The Met's annual Costume Institute exhibition and gala is now a highlight of the fashion calendar, described as the Oscars of the East Coast. George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Anna Wintour are all co-chairs of this year's gala, and it has provided the occasion for a clash between Wintour and "honorary chair", Giorgio Armani. So far, so high profile, especially as the exhibition anticipates a slew of superhero-themed blockbusters such as Ironman, Batman movie The Dark Knight and X-Men Origins. This year the show is a challenging blend of the mainstream and avant-garde. Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy takes an all-American concept and explores not only how it has been shaped by feelings of alienation and marginality, but also how it has influenced some of fashions most radical and innovative designers.

"My sensibility is to push the darker side of things," says Bolton, as he shows me a scale model of the exhibition in a back room at the Met. The model shows how spectral holograms, dropped ceilings and a tunnel effect will create an otherworldly atmosphere, and certainly the tone is as dystopian as it is fantastic. The exhibition was originally conceived as an exploration of sportswear, but Bolton decided that the superhero theme was, "more interesting as a cultural phenomenon". "We changed the phallic body to the virile body to make it more child-friendly," he says, seemingly working on the basis that younger guests will have advanced vocabularies.

The prototypical comic-book hero was Superman, who first appeared in 1938. With a flowing cape and unitard inspired by strongmen of the late-18th and early-19th century, as well as Douglas Fairbanks in Zorro, he "defined the iconographic components of superhero attire", says Bolton. Superman also introduces the strong connection between superhero symbols and fashion branding – both work on a system of graphics and signs. These are often ripe for subversion; in 2006, designer Bernhard Willhelm, collaborated with the artist Carsten Fock to adorn T-shirt dresses with versions of the famous "S" logo that were fringed with long hair, while Moschino sent out models looking like Clark Kent, and wearing T-shirts that fused the superman logo, a heart and an M for Moschino.

Spiderman is another comic-book superhero whose signature attire is instantly recognisable, even when you rework it. Jean Paul Gaultier, Giorgio Armani, Galliano and Julien Macdonald have all taken the web and turned it into something darkly glamorous – more Kiss of the Spiderwoman than Spiderman.

One of the most recognisable signs in the world is the Stars and Stripes, which forms a key element of many superheroes' attire, and continues to fascinate designers. When Wonder Woman and Captain America were first conceived, their outfits symbolised a commitment to upholding the values of American society. They were depicted fighting political enemies of the United States. Times change, however, and since then the American flag has also been used to express a more ambiguous, often critical view of the States. Even Captain America briefly rejected his patriotic persona at the time of the Watergate scandal, although he swiftly reclaimed it after only four issues.

Walter Van Beirendonck's decision to name a collection, featuring the Stars and Stripes, "I am the one and only dominator" should surely be interpreted as a denunciation of the nation's aggressive foreign policies.

Sometimes, however, the American flag's appeal is nothing more portentous than the fact that, as Bolton puts it, "graphically they are very appealing, and there is also a heightened sensitivity to them because of the war and the American elections".

Behind, or rather underneath, Wonder Woman's patriotic corset-and-boots ensemble, is an insight into how the evolving representation of the superhero physique has reflected changes in perceptions of the ideal body shape, and how fashion, in turn, influences superheroes. In the early 1940s Wonder Woman had a softly curvaceous body, shown off by a demure full skirt. In the Sixties, however, this morphed into an Avengers-style mini dress and patent boots, reflecting the mania for Twiggy's angular form. Then, in the Eighties, the character became more Amazonian.

Bolton explains that, "at the obsessional core of the superhero is the body, and that is so critical to fashion". This notion of an idealised superhero body form is satirised in the 2004 animated film The Incredibles, which shows Mr and Mrs Incredible having put on weight since they returned to normal life. The film also underlines the "ping-pong of ideas between comic books, films and fashion", as Bolton puts it. The eccentric character of the superhero fashion designer, Edna Mode, recalls the legendary Hollywood designer Edith Head with a touch of Anna Wintour, while the sulky teenager Violet Incredible inspired one of Marc Jacob's collections.

Another comic book character whose dress has reflected the vicissitudes of fashion – and, to a greater extent, male fantasy – is Catwoman. Since sporting a knee-length coat dress in 1954, her costume has become increasingly fetishistic, even pornographic. It is worth noting that not only are most comic-book writers men, so are many of the designers behind the kinky pieces. Many of the paradigms in the original comics present a crudely stereotyped view of women: the virgin/whore dichotomy defines Catwoman, for example, who turns from tame domestic kitten to feral tigress. But it is open to debate whether subsequent interpretations of her kinky attire – such as Galliano's savagely stitched PVC number for a 2001 couture collection, Dolce&Gabbana's S&M corsetry from spring/summer 2007, or Thierry Mugler's latex catsuit – suggest a powerful, sexually liberated vision of womanhood, or just sexually objectify the wearer.

The emerging British designer Gareth Pugh frequently uses fetishistic imagery in his designs, which not only blur the boundaries between art, fashion and costume but also what is considered beautiful or ugly. "I always like to push my shows to an extreme, and my designs are more fitting for a superhero than your average Joe," he explains.

Many superheroes, such as Catwoman and Superman, are depicted as being attractive yet damaged. But The X-Men, which first appeared in 1963, are outcasts with bizarre, often grotesque looks that have made them a metaphor for society's fear of difference. Designers such as Mugler and Alexander McQueen (who has used amputee model Aimee Mullins in his catwalk shows) are known for challenging prevailing norms of aesthetic perfection – although Mugler also reinforces plenty of them.

Mugler's Chimera dress is a fantastic representation of a body mutating, and proposes an unorthodox version of glamour that's about as far from the little black dress as the planet Krypton is from Earth. Bolton describes it thus: "It is like the missing link, blending fish scales, amphibious scales, feathers and horsehair. It's like an ontological mystery fusing man and beast into new phenomena."

Along with blending the human and animal characteristics, superhero costumes also mix man and machine, or "meat and metal", as Bolton dispassionately puts it. Sometimes they articulate our fear about the diminishing gap between science fiction and science fact; other futuristic designs, however, such as Nicolas Ghesquière's "robot leggings" or Hussein Chalayan's aeroplane dress, drive fashion forward, away from the comfort blankets of vintage and nostalgia, and allow us to dream of a brave new future the way that designers such as Pierre Cardin did in the Sixties.

As Pugh puts it, "I think there will always be a need, or want, within fashion to escape into another world, and if it's a universe where women can fly and men release fire balls from the palms of their hands, then so be it!"

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy runs from 7 May to 1 September

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