Fashion Takes on Camp


At the intersection of playful humor and intelligent wit, fashion finds camp. Bold and embellished, the aesthetic holds a range of distinctive, know-it-when-you-see-it forms. The theme of this year’s Met Gala and Costume Institute exhibition, this stylistic view is anchored by Susan Sontag’s groundbreaking 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” and its 58 essential principles that shifted the genre into broader culture. Sontag’s written framework guides the showcase—fittingly titled Camp: Notes on Fashion—with the theatrical mode on full display in 250 standout objects of style, alongside paintings, drawings, and sculptures representing camp’s fun, frivolity, and artful pastiche.

Opening May 9, 2019, the exhibit illuminates Sontag’s vision of camp as “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” highlighting looks from the 17th century through the present day. Organized in two parts, the show traces from camp’s once-niche place in social history to its current front-and-center relevance with initially narrow galleries that later open to accord contemporary understandings. “Camp is irony and generosity of spirit. It is a magnanimous concept,” Andrew Bolton tells CR. “I like that it has humor, and that there is always a little bit of an edge to it.”

From opulent beginnings in the Versailles courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV, camp and its excesses are revealed in the show’s first galleries, including examples of royal attire, as well as Karl Lagerfeld’s Versailles-influenced looks for Chanel in Fall/Winter 1987. Then, the dandy culture of Victorian times presents camp as an overstated femininity associated with gay culture. The section depicts famed cross-dressers Frederick Park and Ernest Bolton—known as Fanny and Stella—who were put on trial in 1870 for ladylike attire and camp displays of identity. In homage to these pioneers, decorative, patterned looks from Erdem’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection are also featured in modern contrast.

The early 1900s marked a cultural shift forward for camp. The word was acknowledged by Ware’s Dictionary in 1909, and embodied wholly by the notorious Oscar Wilde, so synonymous with camp’s styles and mannerisms that Sontag dedicated her famous essay to him. Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington’s portrait of Wilde in a dark frockcoat and Hyacinthe Rigaud’s majestic portrait of Louis XIV are exhibited alongside similar, dandy-esque pieces from Alessandro Michele’s Spring/Summer 2017 Gucci collection and Yves Saint Laurent’s jacket and waistcoat from Fall/Winter 1993 Couture.

As the 20th century moved ahead, camp evolved further towards the mainstream. The show continues with the literary example of Christopher Isherwood’s 1954 novel, The World in The Evening, which distinguishes the “high camp” of the ballet and baroque art from the “low camp” that is overdone but lacking a cultural base. A decade later, Sontag’s revolutionary essay contrasted naïve, unintentional camp and deliberate, conscious camp. These works shifted the sensibility from the private arena—and its covert associations—into larger culture.

The exhibition pays great tribute to Sontag with the original manuscript of “Notes on ‘Camp,’” alongside artworks mentioned in the writing, such as Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child (1480) from The Met collections. To give a visual feel for the essay, key “notes” are written along the gallery walls: “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style” and “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.” There are also filmic screen tests of Sontag taken by provocateur and artist Andy Warhol, memorializing her place in the camp arena.

As we move closer to today, we see how our plural culture embraces the aesthetic’s sophisticated use of humor, posturing, and indulgence. “One of the misperceptions about camp is that it prioritizes style over content. Camp can do that, but it is also inherently political,” explains Bolton. “In moments when our culture is polarized or unstable, camp comes to the fore to comment. It helps us understand the times in which we are living.”

A significant marker of contemporary culture, fashion designers are creators who push boundaries and imagine the unconventional. Their visions of style run the gamut of camp’s whimsy, irony, and insight. Examples of designer looks are shown in the final gallery with defining statements posted throughout the space: “Being-as-Playing-a-Role,” “Outrageous Aestheticism,” and “Things-Being-What-They-Are-Not.” Highlights include Virgil Abloh’s parody of the LBD printed with the words “Little Black Dress” for Off-White’s Pre-Fall 2018 collection, as well as Jeremy Scott’s flippant, butterfly-covered headdress and bodice for Moschino in Spring/Summer 2018. Marjan Pejowski’s cheeky impression of the “swan” style of feminine dress—with an actual swan as the dress—was made famous by musician Björk at the 73rd Academy Awards in 2001.

Printed pieces also take center stage in the exhibit, from Moschino’s ballerina-motif tulle dress for Fall/Winter 1989 to Marc Jacobs’ imaginative face-patterned coats and dresses for Spring/Summer 2016. There is also Jeremy Scott’s leg-embossed dress for Moschino and Thom Browne’s screen-printed blazer and skirt looks from the designers’ Spring/Summer 2017 collections. Bold ensembles, like a feathered wedding gown from Palomo Spain for Spring/Summer 2018, offer an exotic, beautiful version of traditional dress. The breadth of these styles demonstrates camp’s versatility—from more subtle statement-making to outright audacious—proving that the mode holds something for everyone.

“What is interesting to me about the show is that there is a great representation of younger designers who employ camp in such a different way,” says Bolton. “Camp is so much a part of our vocabulary, so much a part of the mainstream, that they create camp clothes in a very pure way, as opposed to the former generations of designers who do it more deliberately, because they are more conscious of what camp is and its applications.”

The answer to what camp is, is in fact, many things: artificial, frivolous, and excessive, but also witty, thoughtful, and poignant. What is exceptional and universal about the approach is its malleability. Camp exists within different ideals, at times mischievous and at times significant, unable to be fully pinned down as a concept. “The power of camp is that it is so elusive,” concludes Bolton. “When it comes to fashion—or rather when it comes to looking at fashion through a pair of camp spectacles—it’s all in the eye of the beholder.” For those who envision in camp, style is a kaleidoscope of possibility.

Camp: Notes on Fashion will be on view at The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from May 9, 2019 through September 8, 2019.


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