Fashion and Comic Books… Is This The End?

Many comic book readers often lament the lack of mainstream acceptance of comic books. They want comics to be received among general society as film or television is, and the fans to not be shunted off into a corner along with Trekkies and D&D players. And while I don’t think comics and its fans are ghettoized quite as much as some do, it’s hard to deny that there is a hierarchy of media acceptance and comics are not near the top.

Certainly things have changed much in the last 8 years as blockbuster superhero movies have changed the landscape of what is acceptable by general society as cool. Strides have definitely been made, and on a pure anecdotal level I have encountered nothing but positive reactions from all but the most vapid of creatures when they have found out about what it is I do.

The question I am pondering tonight is, is there such a thing as too much acceptance?

To wit, right at this very moment, and until September 1, there is an exhibition running at The Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York City entitled Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. In the invitation to become a member of the museum that I received, the exhibition is described thusly:

This exhibition will explore the symbolic and metaphorical associations between fashion and the superhero. Featuring movie costumes, avant-garde haute couture, and high-performance sportswear, it will reveal how the superhero serves as the ultimate metaphor for fashion and its ability to empower and transform the human body. Objects will be organized thematically around particular superheroes, whose movie costumes and superpowers will be catalysts for the discussion of key concepts of superhero-ism and their expression in fashion.

Now, on the surface that’s fine. On the surface I have no problem with this exhibition. I have no problem with fashion; I like fashion. I like being, on the rare occasion, fashionable. After college I worked at a New York City cable station that did a lot of fashion industry coverage and it was a lot of fun.

Check out this coverage that NBC’s Today Show did of the exhibit and the high society party for the opening. I just get a weird feeling from all of this. It almost feels like high society is slumming; kind of like they are doing all of this with a wink that says look how ridiculous this all is. Clearly they are capitalizing on the current popularity of superhero movies to get people to come to the museum, and that’s fine, I have no problem with that, but I can’t help but shake this feeling that there is some sort of joke going on and it’s on comics.

If it’s not all a joke then perhaps this is the point in time that people will look back on and say this is the moment that fashion killed the superhero. When Anna Wintour throws an ultra-A list party celebrating superhero costumes, it might just be that superheroes are effectively over. It might just be that the mainstream acceptance of comic books that so many crave will be the very thing that kills it. Am I being overly dramatic? Possibly. Probably. I just think that once the medium that you love becomes a flight of fancy for the rich and powerful a certain amount of marginalization comes into play.

All of this is not to say that I don’t find the exhibit interesting, I do. I will definitely go check it out before it closes and I’m sure there will be some interesting creations on display. I just feel like I will be eying the people around me, wondering about their motivations.

Can superheroes be taken seriously if their symbols are on display on the catwalk? Or do I have it completely backwards, and is this the ultimate form of being accepted by popular culture? Does the Superman dress mean that fashionistas have given the four color heroes their seal of approval? Or will this all be forgotten once September 2nd comes around and the exhibition ends?

You know what? I probably just need to sit back, relax, and enjoy this. I probably just need to go to the exhibition and not worry about if the other people who are there with me (or even those behind the show) think that comic books and superheroes are stupid. Nathan Crowley is the creative consultant on the show and he is the production designer on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and he probably doesn’t think this is all stupid.

As I have written this piece I have been trying to sort out my feelings on this exhibition and I think that my wariness has more to do with the high society parties and the glitterati proclaiming their love of Wonder Woman and Catwoman. It all comes off as very… I don’t want to say phony, because it’s such a loaded word, but it comes off to me as opportunistic slumming. It seems like comic book superheroes are hot right now and people are using them to express a pop cultural credibility that they would otherwise lack.  There is no understanding of the importance of superheroes as modern day myths and their impact on our culture.  And that’s not to say that people who read comic book or like superheroes need to fully understand everything about them to pass muster with me, I just kind of feel like the long suffering fan of a sports team watching all the bandwagon fans, clad in pink versions of the team’s jersey, pouring into the stadium once that team starts winning.

Wow, this has been therapeutic. I feel much less venom now than I did when I first saw the reports on this exhibition and the associated parties! Didn’t expect that to happen. In fact, I think it’s time to hit The Met and see all of this for myself. It actually looks kind of cool.


  1. You’re 100% right when you said these people are taking advantage of the popularity of recent superhero movies to get people to come to the museum. I wouldn’t take this too seriously or take any of it to heart — you’re also right about these people jumping on the bandwagon.

    You gotta look at the type of people who we are talking about — "fashionistas", I think was your word. These are people who live with thier heads up thier own asses, they feel like something that 95% of the worlds population thinks is meaningless (fashion) is THE most important thing in life.

    Any group or people who can say something like: "it will reveal how the superhero serves as the ultimate metaphor for fashion" can’t be taken seriously. That’s the funniest thing I have read all day.

    Good luck to them though … if it brings some more people to comic books — cool. 

  2. This was a fantastic article. Really got me thinking, and after watching those links I think I’ve arrived at the same conclusion. Half of me thinks this is great and anything that promotes comics to the mainstream is a good thing, the other half wonders if these people are sniggering behind our backs.

    For example, I’m a big Batman fan, and if there was a fashion show with a Bats theme I’d be wondering if it was because they genuinely thought it was an interesting theme to explore, or if they simply thought putting the bat logo on high fashion was ‘cute’. That would piss me off. It’s not cute, there’s a genuine reason why he chose a bat! I know… it’s just a character in a book, so in a way it’s silly to get caught up like that. But I don’t care, it means something to me.

    Truth is, comic movies are huge business, and this fashion show probably wouldn’t be happening if the likes of Edward Norton, Christian Bale, Liv Tyler and Gwyneth Paltrow weren’t in these films. Not too sure we’d have got this show in the Spawn days.

    Tell you what, if it turns out to be patronising, then we’ll put on our own fashion show as revenge, or make Grant Morrison write a book with Kate Moss as the hero. 

  3. Great article, Conor, and your "opportunistic slumming" seems to be spot on.  On the other hand, I’m intrigued enough to now get out there and see the exhibition for myself.  I suspect that this will pass quickly and quietly, probably right after the next comic book movie (Hulk?) fails to live up to box office expectations.

  4. I’d imagine that, to the pretensious Sex and the City reject, all of this is just kitsch. Fashionistas love tweaking the kitsch.

    The problem with things that are in fashion is that eventually they fall out of fashion. This could be a sign that the medium has gained acceptance in this country, or it could just be a fad again.

  5. Before clicking on the links I thought that the coverage would have much in common with the "Biff Bam Pow" school of news coverage but there were few jokes at the expense of the superheroes.  If anything, some of the fashions were ridiculed like in the Wonder Woman room.  I’m willing to believe that the superhero love was sincere.  Geez, one of the co-chairs was willing to play Batman in a nipple suit.


  6. Fashion and Comics, two of my favorite things.. 🙂

    God I wish this started while I was there..

  7. Like Connor I am also conflicted about this.  Part of me thinks that these people may have been to "ashamed" before to admit that they were fans of comic books.  The other part of me is saying that they are jumping on the band wagon and that they will never "get it".  This whole situation lends credit to my bullshit theory.  For example when they do the interviews with the actors and actresses in a comic book movie most of them say they used to read the character as a child and that they have always been fans and have been eagerly waiting for the opportunity to play their favorite character, which ironically they are.  To most , but not all, of this I call bullshit.

  8. This is not a new trend to the fashion world; I remember seeing some of the pictures from the Met web site in magazines years ago. And as someone who loves fashion and comics I’m excited to go see this exhibit. The New York Times also has some pictures.

  9. Living with someone who is as into fashion as I am in to comic books, I can understand the trepidation, but at the same time I think it’s a little premature.

    Jimski is right that part of it is the kitsch value that fashion loves. Why do you think they sell Superman t-shirts along with re-creations of old rock t-shirts at places like Urban Outfitters. It is simply kitsch. Most of the people who buy a Superman t-shirt will have never read a Superman comic at the same time as never seen Bon Jovi, but they feel that iconography that goes along with those t-shirts could fit in outfits they put together.

    Secondly, comics have appeared in art exhibits before. Mel Ramos embraced superheroes in his pop art work and although it isn’t widely accepted as great, this work is still sought after.

    I feel that this exhibit is a good thing for comics. It reinforces how the work of people who create comics and superheroes has artistic merit. This is just focusing on a different aspect of the art form that hasn’t been explored in an exhibit before. It’s relatabililty to an industry that doesn’t seem like it could be related is a fascinating aspect of it.

    Now, whether or not this will bring new fans to comics is doubtful. Whether or not this will give comics more respectability to the public is debatable. The problem I think lies in the hands of how the media portrays the exhibit. The Today show piece was awful and treated is as a joke. I would hope that real art journalist will not dismiss this exhibit as quickly as the Today show did.

  10. Did those designers have to pay royalties? Are they getting cease and desist letters from DC?

  11. It’s a little late for cease and desist letters.  These kind of big ticket events don’t happen in a vacuum.  I’m sure they worked with all the companies – both comics and film – in the proper legal way.

  12. I think overall, it’s a bit of an emotional overreaction.  But I do know what you mean on some level.  I remember at nycc eva mendes was asked if she read comics now.  She replied, "Fuck yes!" or something equally as enthusaistic.  When followed up by asking what she read or who she liked… she threw off the question.  "Interesting," I think.  "I see how it is."  But it was about this time that the guy sitting next to me who I’d been chatting with in line leaned over and whispered to me, "You know she’s fresh out of rehab."  And just like that I was pulled from my annoyance with the realization that, these people (and not ALL celebs, but those who play the game.) are just on another level of ridiculous then the rest of us.  It’s all a flight of fancy.  I don’t think they’re making fun, they’re just riding the wave.  And luckily because of licensing issues we aren’t even going to see the usual fallout to the generic fashion market.

  13. i don’t think anyone should be upset by this. It’s like the ifanboys have said before; the readers don’t own these characters or icons. And fuck it, if non-readers want to use superheroes as a motif thats fine. Mlost people think superheroes are retarded, they might be right. BUT remember superheroes are a genre not a medium, comics are more than wolverine crossing over with the fucking hulk

    having said that the website seems very surfacey, it’s like they have created themes for te exhibition after the designs were finished.

  14. I think comics should embrace the fashion world and incorporate those ideas onto the comics.  Most superheroes really could use a makeover.

     When was the underwear over tights look ever in fashion?  Apart from my house, I mean.

  15. Wow, I’m pretty surprised at how defensive the iFanbase is about this. The very nature of the Fashion Industry is to pick up on what resonates with people at certain time, place, and/or cultural moment. Therefore, by definition, this exhibit IS a cultural apporpriation of comic book motifs and themes; it’s not any different from what fashion has done in the past.

    This should not be misconstrued as an attempt by the Fashion Industry to "degrade" or otherwise "demean" the value of comic books and comic book culture. And besides that, why should people care? After comics have had their fashion moment, they’re still going to exist for you to enjoy. No one is saying that comic books are going away anytime soon as a result of this.

    As others have said, this a fantastic blending of two of my interests and I think that they approach the material very intellligently (i.e. the ideas of fashion as a method of transforming the body to an ideal, the same way that "ordinairy" civilians transform into superheroes).

  16. Conor, this was a really good, really interesting piece. I get where you’re coming from. But I don’t think you have anything to worry about. High fashion and celebrity fashion culture is not influential enough to really have any lasting effect, bad or good, on how people view comic books. Comic book culture is much more powerful and widespread and consistent, I think. Movies are changing how people view comic books, but I don’t think a show at the Met will do much, one way or the other. It’s important to remember that fashion is, by its very nature, faddish. Comic books are "in fashion" for now, and will quickly disappear from that world in a few weeks.

    And in any case, the show is terrible–I saw it last weekend. First of all, I’ve never seen a bigger sell-out show at the Met. The content and rationalization for the show is weak and amateurish. Much of it reads like a college term paper, and some of it doesn’t even make sense. The best part about it is a wall display that has nothing to do with fashion, but instead has glass boxes holding a number of the most famous comic books ever published (Action Comics #1, first appearance of Spiderman, This Man This Monster, etc.) THAT is cool to see.

  17. Wow. Conor, you described this conflicted feeling toward comics entering mainstream perfectly. I defintely agree with you. I saw the link to the exhibit, at least that’s serious. The clip is ok. I don’t think it was offensive. Overall, a fantastic article.

  18. they feel like something that 95% of the worlds population thinks is meaningless (fashion) is THE most important thing in life.

    Can’t the exact same thing be said about comic book fans?