The only comic book I ever read was Betty and Veronica. I was mordantly fascinated by their unfathomable infatuation with the hapless Archie, their tight sweaters and pencil skirts, their google eyes and pert ponytails.
Betty and Veronica are many things—insipid postwar WASP goddesses, pre-feminist ninnies—but they are not superheroes. The fact that I have never willingly picked up a comic intended for boys and am utterly unfamiliar with the Hulk and Captain America—even Wonder Woman is a stranger to me—makes me the completely wrong audience for Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, the current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
But who cares? It’s the Met! It’s the spring costume event, the show that launches the celeb-studded so-called party of the year! (More on that in a sec.) So up I go to the Upper East Side—Gossip Girl territory, replete with terrifying, rich high-school students, latter-day Bettys and Veronicas in gruesome uniforms swinging hockey sticks a half block from the museum—to the magnificent Met, where an unlikely group of superhero get-ups and the high-fashioned ensembles they’ve allegedly inspired are installed in an area just off the Greek and Roman galleries.
The exhibit, mercifully small, features real outfits straight from the movies—Christopher Reeve’s Superman ensemble, Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 3 outfit—and their illegitimate offspring: high-end designer efforts that can be crammed into such museum-created categories as the “Graphic Body” (Superman), the “Aerodynamic Body” (the Flash), and the “Armored Body” (Batman). Well, at least these characters aren’t trapped in the cellar. In a distinct improvement over the basement space that lesser costume shows (the contents of Nan Kempner’s closet, for example) are relegated to, these capes and masks have flown up to the ground floor.
Even in its lofty setting, I’m having a hard time warming up to Superheroes. But the museum is clearly on to something, since not everyone shares my low opinion: The show is teeming with little kids (at last, something a 10-year-old scamp can enjoy, so unlike the stupid oil paintings his parents usually make him look at). Enthusiastic males, including a passel of droolers, are transfixed by a revolving mannequin clad in a bodysuit covered with what the Met coyly calls “applications,” just like the ones worn by Rebecca Romijn as Mystique in X-Men: The Last Stand.
Even under these challenging circumstances, the Met remains determinedly high-concept; the topic may be pop, but the execution remains—to cadge Joe Scarborough’s description of Barack Obama—”faculty lounge.” So there are metal Mugler bustiers and Versace Catwoman derivations, but none of the stuff I’d include if I were the curator: heavy-metal T-shirts from St. Marks Place; Hulk-worthy motocross jackets; Spider-Man Halloween costumes; pics of Jimi Hendrix wrapped in a flag. (Full disclosure: I am good friends with the Costume Institute’s two curators, Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda—or I was, until this review came out—and I have offered them my suggestions, at the top of my lungs, many times over the years. I want a Costume Institute with music! Movies! Holograms! Kinescopes of TV shows! Old newspaper clippings! My hounding once so annoyed Koda after a trip we took to Woodbury Common—he bought Loro Piana cashmere; I bought Wolford leggings—that he nearly drove the car off the road.)
Well, what do you know? Can it be mere coincidence that a spidery glass-and-crystal dress by Signor Giorgio Armani is prominently featured in the “Graphic Body” tableau? Oh, and look—isn’t that gunmetal frock with enormous round shoulders by the same designer? Armani just happens to be the sponsor of this exhibit! (Far better to have included one of his iconic ’80s women’s suits, the uniform that saw a generation of empowered females ascend the career ladder. Now that was an armored body.) Well, count your blessings—if Ralph Lauren had sponsored the show, we’d be getting metallic equestrian jackets and spiderweb jodhpurs.
After nearly crashing into the screwy mirrored walls more than once (I see someone in clothes I really like—oh, it’s me!), I run into my friend Kohle Yohannan, a fashion writer, sometimes curator, and all-around arty type I’ve known for years. Yohannan is full of insights that have eluded me: Don’t the spidery dresses make you think of the insect jewelry that late-Victorian women used to wear? Doesn’t the whole show remind you of a sort of post-plastic-surgery boom? Isn’t it all about taking liberties with your physique?
I’m pondering his ideas when I see something that gets me genuinely excited: Under a wall decorated with the legends “Pow!” and “Bam!” is a souvenir shop, smack in the middle of the exhibit, just like the store in the center of the Murakami show at the Brooklyn Museum—only here they aren’t flogging $3,000 Vuitton bags, and the staff isn’t composed of attitude-y white-suited LV employees slumming in Brooklyn for the duration.
Plus, the merch at the Met is priced way, way lower than the LV items: There’s a fitted T-shirt (for an aerodynamic body), a gauzy scarf, and my favorite: a hot-pink bracelet with a big stud for $85.
Had you been invited, you could have paired that bangle with a Van Cleef and Arpels tiara and worn it to the unbelievably lavish fete that launched Superheroes a few weeks ago. It might have jiggled fetchingly as you shook hands with Mr. Armani himself, who was on the receiving line along with Julia Roberts and George Clooney. I actually went to this party a few times in the past—or kind of went, having been invited for cocktails with the proviso that I vanish Cinderella-like when the gong sounded for the real guests (i.e., practically everybody but me) to sit down for dinner. So I can share with you my experience at the Chanel exhibit (sponsored by—but oh, you’d never guess—Chanel!), where I shook hands with an imperious Karl Lagerfeld and even got close to Nicole Kidman, who seemed to be on the verge of tears.
I’m not complaining. I was thrilled to be invited at all, and I don’t expect a free ticket to a benefit when the seats are strictly apportioned and sell for $10,000 per. So what if I had to race down the Met’s staircase, past legions of bored photographers hoping to see an escaping celebrity and so disappointed that they practically booed at the sight of me? Who cares if I’m home facing a Lean Cuisine by 9 p.m.? (Anyway, no problem this year—I didn’t get invited.)
Oh, well. These sponsored shows raise so much money for the Costume Institute that Koda has told me wearily on more than one occasion that without this financing, there would be no Costume Institute at all. Well, no Costume Institute would be a shame. I guess I could get some Supergirl T-shirts and Halloween costumes and put out a tray of Dunkin’ Donuts in my apartment—but would George and Julia come?