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Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (2008)


There is a lot that goes into making a superhero look seductive and heroic, especially when transforming the characters on page to screen, because their costumes are manifestly impractical to wear. The costumes are meant to perpetuate the unhumanness of superheroes, which is all nifty on paper, but on screen, to be both as faithful to the original as possible without the costumes coming undone and looking silly is a onerous task. Given the challenge, it’s amazing how badass and irresistible today’s superheroes look! What’s more, they even got a style update; Out with the mullets, bellbottoms and pouches.

A few years ago, Giorgio Armani’s Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition at Met Museum explored how fashion designers interpret superhero costumes in their modernist creations; It also explored where comic artists draw their inspirations for creating the costumes; say from early 20th century professional wrestling, gymnastics and circus attires; swashbucklers in stage plays; contemporary athletic wear; traditional iconography of the dominatrix (especially in the fetishized costumes of women); paintings such as of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter; pulp-magazine covers; and various technologies depicting invincibility. The iconography in the costumes (letters, emblems, and such things as stars and stripes) often represent the socio-political realities they depict or are symbolic representations of their specific superhero abilities (such as stealth armors). The superheroes themselves have changed from their earlier boxy profiles to the more lissomely athletic over the years adapting to the aesthetic appeal of the time.

Fashion designers have always maintained that clothing transforms the body and plays a major role in the social construction of identity. It is one of the most visible markers of social status and serves to maintain or subvert structural boundaries. Superheroes exemplify this the most, because their costumes are explicitly designed to serve as a metaphors for identity, transcendent power, erotic spunk, heroism, politics and [American] patriotism (Superman’s costume, for instance, serves no other function); putting them above the law. Would one ever imagine superheroes testifying in court wearing their masks? (More on this later, when I write about The Law of Superheroes).

All one needs is a magical second skin to do the impossible, even if the skin itself possesses no real power. A large part of what we are is defined by our corporeal image. Designers work in the space that helps us create that image, and also unbeknown to us, they artfully transform us into metaphoric art. There is an element of fantasy in all of fashion that elevates it from commonplace to couture, and prosaic to poetry. Models on the ramp are hyperbolic impressions of reality who through exaggeration clue us in on what we will wear (which typically are subdued versions of their ensembles)! They share with superheroes, an obsessive preoccupation with the ‘ideal’ body, power of transformation (or the physical and societal agonies of transformation, such as with mutants), masking one’s identity with one’s purpose, and symbolizing ideas through visual and physical form!

I watched Tarantino’s Django Unchained again yesterday and fixated on Django’s badass costumes. Starting with that blue valet outfit, he came on every plantation scene dressed like a dandy. Costume is where you can visibly appreciate his freedom, especially when you think back to his slave days, when he was walking miles across an arid dessert, chained to the other slaves, none with a stitch on, and with iron shackles eating away at their ankles! To Django, costumes are a symbol of liberation.

And because it is a Spaghetti Western with black and german-immigrant leads, set before the Civil War, the film has two different kinds of period costumes and at least three or four different styles, each with a lot of symbolism. For instance, the valet outfit is inspired from Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of The Blue Boy, which was painted in retaliation to his rival’s statement about art: “It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colours;”

Ironically, for a Superhero exhibition, there were only two American designers included!

Here's a Youtube video of the curatorial talk about the exhibition.
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Fact / Fiction = Fraction

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Django Unchained (2012)


Tarantino's violence is of a particular personality that I happen to like. It's an aesthetic ultra-violence requiring a willing suspension of disbelief so that art and motif can coalesce with chimerical coherence. It is at once real and sensational, and unreal and provocative, and evokes many opposite and extreme emotions simultaneously. I find myself reacting instinctually to the action, and intelligently to the dialogues. It convinces me that the only place for all moral outrage is on cinema, where violence can be converted into beauty!

One way to judge a film would be to imagine it being played in two different scenarios, and see if the filmmakers intention comes in the way of our perception of the film.

In one scenario, Tarantino makes Django Unchained just to cater to his whim. He hires a large crew, orchestrates a carefully crafted blaxploitation spaghetti western film full of stunning cinematography, eclectic music, cathartic action scenes, and frequent laughs! When the film is made, he keeps it to himself, for his late-night viewing and doesn't show it to anyone (this assumes of course, that he has the wherewithal to afford this indulgence). In another scenario, he makes the same film available to the audience.

In the case of the former, his motive being the creation of art and self-gratification, there is less incentive to make a point about slavery, as much as set his story in those slavery times by happenstance or by reason of his fancy! It is purely a creative endeavor by a man who has a thought, a fantasy and grandiose talents, and is wanting to scratch an itch without feeling the need to share or impress!

In the case of the latter, he is more generous. He gratifies himself while also allowing us to indulge in his fantasy and create our own; he gives us our first iconic black hero (a lovelorn slave turned bounty hunter) in a spaghetti western. A black western hero is an unwonted induction made more stark by the fact that it is a western set in a deep southern plantation backdrop; and he uses this setting to make known the holocaust of black slavery from his distinctive, fictional point of view! If these are Tarantino's motives (as he claims they are), then the violence is just a plot device to dragoon us into a frame of mind needed to move the actual story along!

The historic inaccuracies, such as that the Klu Klux Klan was formed at least a decade after the period in which the film was set, or that there is no evidence of real Mandingo fighting, maybe irrelevant as factual history, but are necessary to the story! They are artistic liberties that serve as plot devices to make a point about the slave experience, which in reality was as brutal as the lies that Tarantino fabricated! And that is where he has a whip-hand over historians, in that he is allowed to be blatantly manipulative, and use grandiose falsehoods as tools to weave mysterious threads of truth and tell some form of the real story! But he also intentionally forces us to reflect on the times by sincerely recreating the physical ambience of those plantations! The result is a fine balance of the different tones and stories at play. This is true also for his other purposefully inaccurate, and fittingly misspelled film, Inglourious Basterds!
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