Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy
Superman goes too close to the sun, which oversaturates his cells and cuts his life to a few days. But, in these last days leading up to his death, he is most fascinating. The radiation triples his strength and curiosity, and unleashes his inner Coco Chanel (or E). He develops a fancy for fashion, and goes native with his costume design.
On his first date with Lois Lane on her birthday, he wears a costume inspired by traditional Kryptonian formal wear, and gifts her a costume he wove using indestructible thread and a serum that gives her superpowers for 24 hours. They have a role-playing date that almost turns into a foursome with Samson and Atlas. It will make you wonder what in the Ultrasphinx’s name this sequence is all about. But there’s little sense to roleplaying and pretense to begin with. Logic is highly irrelevant here.
Superman fights Solaris in a white suit that filters out solar radiation. It proves to be ineffective, but more importantly, it tells us that he always fancied wearing a fencing suit and looks spiffy in it.
When he shows Lois to a room full of artifacts, she remarks that she didn’t know he collected modern art; to which he responds, “Actually, I do, but this is the armory”; an armory full of incredibly destructive weapons including some that can hurt him. The point to note here is that Superman collects modern art. The tour of his armory feels like peeking into a museum’s vault and seeing one-of-a-kind objects locked from public view.
Superman’s creative side alone makes the story interesting. But, what makes it the best Superman story ever, is that everyone takes a U-turn in it. Everyone is a runway model strutting down to the end of the ramp, posing, turning back, and walking out.
Clark Kent reveals to Lois Lane that he is Superman. Now, you would think, Lois Lane who likes Clark Kent and loves Superman would be happy to reconcile the mild-mannered human and the strapping superhero as one person, but she instead, goes one hundred percent psycho and deludes herself into thinking Superman is in fact an evil human-harvesting nut-job who wants to impregnate her to create a race of super-children; so she attempts to kill him with Kryptonite. All the years of her adulation for Superman is reduced to distrust in a very peripeteian, existential way. Aristotle calls this Anagnorisis, where a character makes a discovery about someone that leads to love or hate, or in this case Hamartia, or accidental wrongdoing.
Throughout the story, Superman preaches humanity, empathy and forgiveness, that he was taught by his Earth parents. First, he preaches “humanity” to Lex Luthor after he poisons him; then he preaches “humanity” to his Krypton kins, Bar-El and Lilo after they tear down the statue of his parents and make plans to take over Earth; But, when Solaris destroys Sun-eater, his cute pet, Superman flies off the handle! He pummels Solaris, drags him down to Earth, and when he begs for mercy, Superman says “I don’t think I have any left!” and delivers a deadly blow both to Solaris and to “humanity”. U-turn!
Lex Luthor hates Superman because next to his “sickening inhuman perfection” even Lex Luthor’s greatness is overshadowed. Lex Luthor flaunts his “real muscle” to Clark Kent, that he takes pride in as not being is a “gift of alien biochemistry”. But, in the end, he consumes the 24-hour super-power serum that he steals from Superman, and waxes lyrical about being able to see the world as Superman does. “The fundamental forces are yoked by consciousness. Everything’s connected. Everyone.” And then, in that moment of revelation, he agrees with Superman that if saving the world mattered to him, he could have done so years ago.
In the end, when Superman dies and literally becomes one with the Sun, Lex Luthor calls Dr. Quintum and makes a literal confession, “Forgive me, doctor, for I have sinned.” (allusively referring to a previous scene where he ridicules the Padre who blesses him before his execution. “...may the Lord, in his love and mercy, help you” “Get away from me, Padre. You stink of the irrational”), and shares Superman’s genetic code that he reverse-engineered from the super-serum that can replicate him. “But, of course, it will require an ovum from a healthy human woman.” U-turn becomes :O-turn!
By now, I suspect nothing is healthy about a pigeon-feeding Lois Lane, who looks positively non compos mentis, as she assures herself that Superman is fixing the Sun. But, it’s decided that it’s she who will bear the next generation of Superhumans, and that’s that!
There are others in the story who made U-turns as well.
Solaris partners with Lex Luthor, because he wants to eat the Earth’s sun and replace it in the sky. But, he chooses to betray Lex Luthor before Lex Luthor has a chance to betray him. That double-crossing Sun of a Gun!
Robot 7, who loyally serves Superman in his secret pad, malfunctions when Solaris overrides his program, making him steal the super-serum for Luthor. But, in the end Solaris sacrifices himself to atone for betraying Superman.
Bar-El rebuffs Superman for disguising his greatness and “cavorting with the apes as one of their own” and ‘showing no dignity”. But, when both Bar-El and Lilo are saved by Superman, Bar-El says “Kal-El, son of Krypton, I am proud to call you my kin. Our greatness lives on in you.” U!
The whole story is a homily on truth. After all the years that Lois Lane spent trying to prove that Clark Kent was Superman, when he unceremoniously rips his shirt to reveal his blue unitard with the legit S-symbol and all, she plays Evey Hammond to Superman’s V. Why did he lie? Why he did he reveal his truth? And V says “...artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie, but because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” As we find out, the truth about herself was so not all that it’s cracked up to me!
Superman’s truth on the other hand, is that he is Clark Kent. He is Kal-el. He is Superman.
But, as Lex Luthor teases Clark Kent, does the farmbody with brains and integrity, become “a parody of a man, a dullard, a cripple” when Superman is around? Or as Bar-el points out, has Superman always been the son of Jor-el, “a weak man”, “an ineffectual dreamer”, and therefore, has Kal-el also always been Clark Kent!
Lex Luthor who does not believe in truth, says “there are alternatives to truth, justice and all the other things you can't weigh or measure. To every abstract notion [Superman] personifies.” He says there are alternatives to what one can do with powers, other than help. We learn in this story, that pne can make indestructible costumes and collect modern art from all over the universe, and have Sun-eaters as pets!
(I recommend watching the movie and reading the book, for the artwork)
Sooraya Qadir (Dust) is a young Afghan Sunni Muslim mutant, with Sandman-like powers. She is rescued by Wolverine from slave trade in Afghanistan and brought to X-Mansion for training. She wears the abaya and niqab and observes traditional Islamic etiquette.
She is one of those characters who plays a prominent role in New X-Men and Young X-Men series, and saves the day on many occasions; still, most of the conversation around her is about her defending her faith-based choices; One wonders what motivated the writers to think up her character, in an otherwise secular series.
Most of this dialogue on Islamic faith is intriguing for several reasons.
One, because it happens over many volumes. Sooraya to everyone is a muslim before she is a mutant.
Two, because Sooraya's character was conceived right after 9/11.
Three, because it adds a new slant to the dialogue about hypersexualization and objectification of female superheroes in comics.
Four, because, in a world where mutants are misunderstood and discriminated against by humans, this discussion seems a bit captious.
Five, because the comic offers little information about the beliefs of other X-Men characters' from other parts of the world that are specific to their culture!
Six, because her faith is presented as being restrictive, and she as being one-dimensional, which is lamentable given she is an adolescent girl!
Seven, because it makes me deliberate on the similarity between the typical superhero costume and the hijab in relation to both secret and self-evident identities, visual iconography and symbolism!
The good news is, we now have another perky hijabi superhero in a more real, non-X-men universe! Qahera, an Eqyptian superwoman, fights misogyny, Islamophobia, and offers her own brand of droll humor.
I recommend using the Index to navigate through the Qahera comic strips and FAQs!
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.