Secret Skin An Essay In Unitard Theory

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In his evocative essay, "Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory" in Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, Michael Chabon writes: "Superheroism is a kind of transvestism; our superdrag serves at once to obscure the exterior self that no longer defines us while betraying, with half-unconscious panache, the truth of the story we carry in our hearts, the story of our transformation, of our story's recommencement, of our rebirth into the world of adventure, of the story itself."

Judging from this book, that quotation could extend past superheroes to encompass the change in the way that popular culture perceives comics. Not only have comics become respectable to the literary establishment, not only have they become ripe for summer blockbuster franchises, they've become … cooler. Hip, popular, pretty people profess to like them. As such, sometimes it's easy to make the mistake that, because comics are in, comics fans are in. When I read Chabon's words, I think of comics fandom as Stephen King's Carrie, gratefully overjoyed to find out that she's the prom queen. Of course, the pretty people are poised with their bucket of pig's blood …

A book weighing in at three pounds with obscenely high production value (insert your own supermodel joke here) Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy has metal covers resembling a lunchbox, plastic sheets for paper, a $50 price tag and 285 color illustrations. The crème de la crème of designers are featured — Armani, Versace, Gaultier, etc. — in this companion to an exhibit being held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was launched with The Costume Institute's "party of the year," a celebrity-studded gala benefit. (The New York Times, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's press release, and Heidi MacDonald do not seem to mention what or whom the benefit is for. But I guess celebs are like superheroes in that it doesn't matter who they're saving as long as they look good doing it.)[1]

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, sponsored by Armani and Condé Nast, takes care to let us know, via Andrew Bolton, who wrote the introductory chapter essays and Preface for the book, that "[…] superheroes should not be underestimated. Their apparent triviality is the very thing that gives them the ability to address serious issues […]." For example, Bolton informs us that the superhero genre can be sexist, but then he reassures us that fashion, an old hand at battling villainous female fetishization, can conquer that by neutralizing and subverting (i.e. copying) the Catwoman costume from the second Tim Burton Batman movie.[2]

It's not surprising, though, when you realize that Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy is not an exhibit, or a book, about fashion inspired by superheroes; it's a fashion exhibit with the theme of "superhero" tacked on.[3] From

The theme of this year's gala – otherwise known as New York's "party of the year" – might have been suggested by the presence of Batman: "Superheroes – Fashion and Fantasy". The Costume Institute's curator-in-charge, Harold Koda, was on hand to explain the raison d'etre behind this year's theme […]. Recently, he said, there had been a surge in popularity of the superhero, something which had not been witnessed since America's "golden age" of comic books in the 1940's. He cited Hollywood's fascination with Batman, Superman and Spiderman [sic]. There were six new movies due out this summer, he said, including a new Batman and a filmic version of The Hulk.

Therefore Bolton spends much of his time trying to cover up the inclusion of the more tangentially or not-really-related- at-all- to-superhero-costume fashions by invoking the great and mighty word "postmodern" (trendier, even, than "Pop Art"). It's true that semiological interpretations of the fashions will vary from individual to individual (while looking at the same ensemble, I saw a cheeky nod to Spider-Man underoos, while my coworker saw the female model swathed in bondage-like trappings and silencing surgeon-like face mask). However, this prestigious project can at times come up with no greater insights than that spider webs are an inspiration for both Spider-Man's costume and this (admittedly stunning) Armani dress. Additionally, some of the garments are clever ideas poorly executed. For example, Naoki Takizawa's Spring/Summer 2001 collection apparently makes fun of grotesquely exaggerated musculature: but without context, I stared at the photograph of a purple corrugated number for a while and vaguely thought "Venetian blinds" before "washboard abs" was supplied.

It's also fairly evident that Thierry Mugler's 1992 motorcycle bustier, that I like as well (it should be familiar to anyone who's seen George Michael's "Too Funky" music video, which was directed by Mugler) is included because (1) Ghost Rider, whose head is a flaming skull, rides a motorcycle; (2) there was a 2007 Ghost Rider movie; (3) sexy women and motorcycles are hot. In the book, its inclusion is justified not once, but twice. De Monebello writes, "As Andrew Bolton has noted, ‘Fashion shares with the superhero an inherent metaphorical malleability that fuels its fascination with the idea and the ideal of the superhero.' Thus the visitor will not be surprised find the Thierry Mugler bustier, with its polychrome handlebars and sideview mirrors evoking Ghost Rider […]."

In other words, according to Bolton, the fashion world, narcissistically enough, is interested in things that remind it of itself. However, Bolton makes an interesting slippage: he goes beyond identifying superheroes with fashion models and superhero costumes with fashion to wrongly conflate them. Bolton definitely sounds like he's describing models rather than superheroes when writes: "As close to physical perfection as is physically attainable [emphasis mine], the superhero body is forever youthful and forever awe-inspiring." To be fair, Giorgio Armani, in his intro, gets it. He simply writes: "In fiction the metamorphosis is the province of the superhero, a character who symbolizes man's desire to go beyond the boundaries of mortal limitations. In this comic-book context, the superhero's ability to do so is always signified by a change of costume." Chabon makes this important distinction in his fruitful essay, which opens up the topic of superheroes and fashion for further study: "The superhero costume as drawn [emphasis his] disdains the customary relationship in the fashion world between sketch and garment. […] Above all, it is not waiting to find fulfillment as cloth draped as a body" (and, Chabon takes it further, look rather silly when they are).

"Reality-based" fashion-themed programs such as America's Next Top Model and Project Runway may have turned, ahem, some of us into armchair fashionistas, but at their best, they manage to provoke thought with a challenge while having fun with it, at the same time exposing the nuts and bolts that go into illusion (one thing that fashion and superhero costumes have in common that this book could have addressed: the art of package-management in skintight apparel). Rather than having essays that state that superheroes and fashion are worth taking seriously because they evoke social and cultural issues, it would have been wonderful if the fashion designers could have simply taken the superhero designs more seriously. It would have been thrilling to see what the designers, putting their best Alexander McQueen heels forward, could do if they created an original ensemble, garment, or even just sketches specifically inspired by superheroes for this exhibit and book. It would be fascinating to hear from the designers themselves why some superhero costumes and logos work — like Gil Kane's enduring Green Lantern costume, elements of which I imagine resonate with far more people than the ever-shifting secret identities of the character itself — and others don't.

Chabon has his biases — for example, he writes: "In part, then, this disappointing air of saggy trouser seats […] may be the result of imaginative indolence, the sort that would permit a grown man to tell himself he will find gratification in walking the exhibition floor wearing […] a rubber Venom mask complete with punched-out eyeholes and flopping rubber bockwurst of a tongue" — but at least he humanely suggests that superherodom is out of the reach of everyone, while Bolton wants to pull off the fashion hat trick of making transformation seem available — for the right price — while ensuring that it still remains in the province of the right people. (As of "press time," via Heidi MacDonald's The Beat, I just found out that the exhibit prohibits superhero-costumed museum-goers.) I bet Carrie felt pretty hopeful when she put on that prom dress. A little pig's blood-accessorizing, and Carrie did "transform." The thing to remember, though, is that makeovers can go wrong.


[1] Of course, if it's a fundraiser for The Costume Institute itself, then it's more properly a rent party ...
[2] Now neutralizing and subverting Catwoman's costumes is something that Ed Brubaker and Eric Shanower did brilliantly enough to be granted the last word on the matter in "Why Holly Isn't Dead" in Catwoman: Secret Files & Origins #1. Even the more family-oriented The Incredibles did a pretty good job of deconstructing superhero costumes.

Image credits

Cover: ©2008 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Designed by Abbot Miller and Johnschen Kudos, Pentagram

Catwoman: Christian Dior Haute Couture by John Galliano Spring/Summer 2001, courtesy of Chris Moore

Abs: Issey Miyake by Naoki Takizawa Spring/Summer 2001, courtesy of FirstVIEW

Brubaker: From "Why Holly Isn't Dead," written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Eric Shanower, in Catwoman: Secret Files & Origins #1. [©2002 DC Comics]

Kristy Valenti currently works for The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Uncharted Territory is © Kristy Valenti, 2010



Michael Chabon is a nice guy. I made sure I knew how to pronounce his name (“Cha” as in Shea Stadium, “bon” as in Jovi) before having dinner with him. And about ten other faculty members and university students before his lecture across campus. He sat opposite me, as a way of avoiding the more central seat he probably should have taken. He’s a little shy, but less soft-spoken behind a podium.

I asked him about his script for Spider-Man 2 (in my defense, McSweeney’s had recently posted it), but he said, and then repeated twice, that his only interest in screenwriting was the family health benefits he received through the writer’s guild.

I didn’t ask him about his article, “Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory,” a handout I photocopy for students in my Superheroes course. I was, thankfully, not yet drafting my secret history of the genre, so his smile did not tighten the way my wife’s used to before she imposed a five-minute limit on any conversational gambit involving muscle-stretched spandex.

Michael will forgive me if I sometimes imagine I’m still in conversation with him. He tells me in the New Yorker: “There were costumed crime-fighters before Superman (the Phantom, Zorro), but only as there were pop quartets before the Beatles. Superman invented and exhausted his genre in a single bound.”

It’s a pithy summary of conventional wisdom, one I took on faith when I sketched my first timeline. Aside from the Shadow and a few other pulp heroes of the 30’s, there’s just Zorro a decade earlier, and the Scarlet Pimpernel a decade and half before that.

I wasn’t expecting an answer (from anyone, let alone my imaginary Michael) when I asked about the gaps. I assumed I’d never heard of any roaring twenties superheroes because the roaring twenties were roaring through other genres. Same for the fifteen years between Baroness Orczy’s flowery Pimpernel and Johnston McCulley’s Z-slashing imitation.

Actually, Michael, the first three decades of the century were awash with masked and superpowered do-gooders. My latest rough count: forty. The number doubles with the horde of “mystery men” who crawl from under The Shadow’s cloak plus the Pimpernel’s garden of predecessors, some known, others lost in the mulch of crumbled penny-dreadfuls.

Eighty. About the number who attended Chabon’s lecture. Not a stadium crowd, but the Beatles couldn’t have filled Shea when they started either. Jerry Siegel and Jim Shuster may be comic book’s Lennon and McCartney, but their Superman was Elvis. He rose so high in his genre because his genre was already there to applaud him.

That’s the story I’m writing. Not a tight little screenplay, but a sprawling mini-series with a dozen subplots and a cast of hundreds. If there’s a superhero writer’s guild, I want the family health benefits too.

Tags: Baroness Orczy, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Johnston McCulley, Michael Chabon, Scarlet Pimpernel, Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory, Superman, Zorro

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