By  on October 23, 2007

NEW YORK — Superman flying into the Metropolitan Museum, Spider-Man climbing its walls and the Flash racing up its steps to make the world a safer place?

Not quite, but the Costume Institute's spring exhibit, "Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy," will offer a nod to those comic superstars and others with a conceptual take on the relationship between them and fashion.

The exhibit, open May 7 to Sept. 1, will officially kick off on May 5 with the traditional Costume Institute gala benefit. Giorgio Armani will serve as the night's honorary chair, with co-chairs George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour.

"In recent years, superheroes have reemerged in the forefront of popular culture, both through the renaissance of iconic comic book characters and also through iconic living individuals who have inspired us by their achievements," Armani said. "It therefore struck me as a thoroughly modern and original theme for the Metropolitan Museum's next Costume Institute exhibition, which will, I feel, appeal to a broad audience.

"I am also naturally delighted that my friends Julia Roberts and George Clooney, modern-day icons in their own right, have agreed to participate as co-chairs for the gala dinner," he continued.

Armani is underwriting the exhibit, with additional support from Condé Nast.

The show will feature about 70 ensembles, from movie costumes to couture looks and high-performance apparel, but the curators are not planning to go down the literal route.

Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute, who is putting the exhibit together with the support of curator in charge Harold Koda, said the idea came to him five years ago.

"Originally, it was based on clothing that provided wearers with superhuman powers and that quite literally extended the natural abilities of the human body," he said. "But over the years, we became more interested in the superheroes as a metaphor for sex, power and politics. We felt it would be more interesting to explore the metaphorical associations between the superhero and fashion."

Designers and brands on show will include Jean Paul Gaultier, Martin Margiela, Balenciaga, Armani, Pierre Cardin, Alexander McQueen, Gareth Pugh, Rudi Gernreich, Nike and Speedo. Some of the pieces will be more obviously drawn from superhero vocabulary, while others will be metaphoric. For instance, there will be a Bernhard Willhelm dress emblazoned with a red and yellow "S" emblem, a John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture corset and bikini bottom from the 2001 Wonder Woman collection, a Thierry Mugler motorcycle bustier with handlebars and side view mirrors and Hussein Chalayan's Airplane dress with battery-operated aerodynamic movable flaps.The ensembles will be arranged by each specific superhero, with the corresponding outfit setting the tone for each theme. Among them, Superman and Spider-Man serve for "The Graphic Body" theme, with the curators using the "S" chevron to explore designer logos; Batman and Catwoman and their tight PVC looks embody "The Fetishistic Body," while Wonder Woman's red, white and blue ensemble represents "The Patriotic Body." Other themes are "The Aerodynamic Body," "The Mechatronic Body," "The Mutant Body" and "The Postmodern Body."

"Another theme is 'The Phallic Body,'" Bolton explained, of the Hulk-related looks. "In our eyes, Hulk makes an effective metaphor for male potency. When soft, flabby Bruce Banner gets excited, he swells clothing-wise, there will be inflatable garments that emphasize an exaggerated musculature."

Koda added: "We're discovering that the evolution of the superhero also relates to an increasingly conceptualized approach by fashion designers. The easiest to understand is the Hulk. It's not green big suits, but dealing with the idea of clothing that expands on the silhouette."

Michael Chabon, author of the superhero-themed novel "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," will write the introduction to the show's accompanying book, which is being published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.

"The ideas or themes that inherently are part of the superhero vocabulary are identical to the fashion vocabulary," Bolton said. "There is this idea that this superhero is transformed into a new person through fashion, which is really what fashion is about."

Bolton and Koda have their own ideas for the types of attire they hope for at the big benefit gala.

"When you look at Margiela's spring collection, it's the minimalist superheroes," Bolton said. "It's all beiges, but catsuits and capes. It's a really wonderful nod to the superhero. I am hoping people will look at the iconography and play on that."

Koda, for his part, is anticipating "lots of bodysuits with big overskirts and capes. And there's 'The Fetish Body' [theme], so I am hoping for lots of those."

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