‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ opens at The Met’s Costume Institute
Trying to define what exactly is camp, the theme of The Met Museum’s annually anticipated Costume Institute showcase, is as confounding as trying to hit a moving target. Fluid, subjective and elusive, the idea of camp has morphed countless times since the term first made its way into an English dictionary, back in 1909.
Originally defined as ‘actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis. Probably from the French. Used chiefly by persons of exceptional want of character,’ the subversive beginnings of the term have since given way to a combination of extravagance, fantasy, hedonism, subculture and ornamentation – all of which have been well-represented in the exhibition ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’, which opens at the museum tomorrow, is named after the title of Susan Sontag’s seminal essay 1964, which dissected the term, and included the estimation camp was based on ‘unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration’.
In fact, it seems like everything these days, given contemporary pop culture’s attraction to visual and emotional excess, can be considered a little camp. ‘[Camp’s] elusiveness translates into a virtually limitless accordance of references. Examples spring from anytime and any place, and all aspects of life including art, film, music, sports and of course, politics,’ explains the Costume Institute’s curator Andrew Bolton. To wit, in a book about camp, authored by Mark Booth in 1984, Booth lists a wide-ranging group of figures, including Alexander the Great, Coco Chanel, David Hockney, Mick Jagger, john Singer Sargent and Better Midler as bastions of camp.
‘Camp tends to come to the fore during moments of social and political instability, when our society is deeply polarized,’ Bolton adds. ‘The 1960s was one such moment, as were the 1980s, and so too the times in which we live in. Camp is by its nature subversive. It reacts with and against public opinion, confronting and challenging the status quo.’
The Costume Institute’s effort in articulating the idea of camp to a contemporary audience is presented in two parts. The exhibition features a set designed by theatre scenographer Jan Versweyveld, whose past work includes David Bowie’s Lazarus and Broadway productions like Network and A View to Kill.
At the forefront, visitors walk through an all-pink series of intimate corridors and galleries, deliberately so to reference the classical and clandestine nature of being camp back during its 17th century Versailles origins. Opening with a circular gallery space that references classical welcome parlors, to the selection of historical sculptures, drawings and paintings, displayed in specially alcoves and pedestals, the level of spatial detail subtly takes visitors back in time without being overly literal. Interspersed with these are complementary examples of contemporary fashion – Rococo-esque Chanel haute couture from 1987, a 1998 Jean-Paul Gaultier mash-up of a black 18th-century taffeta gown with trimmed men’s trousers underneath, and a 2019 brown and black fur Gucci smoking jacket trimmed with white cord, that echoes one worn by Oscar Wilde in an 1887 photograph by Napoleon Sarony.
The latter half of the show showcases camp in all its multi-faceted wonder. Here, Versweyveld envisioned a house for all the different iterations of camp. ‘It’s like a mirror of human behavior,’ he describes. ‘[The set design] provides one big world where all these different styles of camp can live together.’ Extravagant tulle confections by Giambattista Vallii, jewel-encrusted gowns by Bob Mackie, a feathered flamingo headpiece by Schiaparelli and a Marc Jacobs cape printed with a recurring motif of Maria Callas all inhabit their own chambers with various pastel-hued backdrops.
Rather than deep-diving into what camp actually means, ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ merely provides a taste of all that it can be. Instead of coming across as a final judgment, being camp in the institution’s eyes is a celebration of creativity, expression, fantasy and freedom – all of which we could do well to hold on to, now more so than ever. §