On Exhibit: At the Met, the garish glamour of camp

Exhibit traces history of the elusive style
People wander around the finale section of the exhibition “Camp: Notes on Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
People wander around the finale section of the exhibition “Camp: Notes on Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

“Camp: Notes on Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a stunning exhibition, at once glamorous and gaudy. 

Long before the Costume Institute’s exhibition was installed earlier this year, it caused some confusion; mostly because no one seemed to know exactly what “camp” meant. Major news outlets ran articles interviewing people in the fashion and entertainment industries about what the term meant to them, though even those explanations still left some questions about the term. During the Met Gala, the exhibition’s opening night, celebrities and stylists showed what they thought it meant (remember Katy Perry’s chandelier costume?) and even as people wander through “Camp: Notes on Fashion” today, there are still some looks of confusion.  

The exhibition, which includes 250 objects from paintings to full haute couture ensembles, is grounded by Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’ ” Published in 1964, it detailed the seemingly elusive idea of “camp.” “Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity, even among small urban cliques. . . . I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it,” Sontag writes in the opening paragraphs. 

Entering the exhibition, one is hit by a wave of solid pink. The word “Camp” is lit up along the vibrantly pink walls, where viewers are given a look into the past. From images of ancient Rome, where men stand arm akimbo, to portraits of Louis XIV in the same stance, the exhibition traces camp’s aesthetic heritage. It also traces its social heritage back to Victorian England with the story of Frederick “Fanny” Park and Ernest “Stella” Boulton,” who were arrested for cross-dressing and became these heroines of camp.

Throughout the exhibition “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays out overhead and the sound of a typewriter can be heard while selections of “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” run across a narrow screen in one room (people who didn’t read the essay before visiting the exhibition get a pass). 

Below the screen, a pink feathered dress with an extravagant pink satin bow (by Cristobal Balenciaga) echoes one line from Sontag’s essay: “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” 

While the dress probably doesn’t have three million feathers, it leads viewers on to the pieces that have that level of over-the-top glamor and gaudiness.
In another pink hallway, viewers are greeted by a ball of butterflies and purple ostrich feathers. Designed by Jeremy Scott (House of Moschino), the dress is purposefully and playfully over the top.  

At the end of that hallway, in the grand finale of the exhibition, there’s a dizzying assortment of looks, both eye level and well above that, reaching up to the high ceilings. 

It is too much, or, rather exactly how it should be. 

On the ground level, there’s a latex “meat dress” from Jeremy Scott, a black dress from Alexander McQueen with the neck and head of a swan winding its way around the front. 

Above there’s’ a bulbous dress made of rainbow-colored organza by Tomo Koizumi and a heavily layered pink tulle dress by Viktor & Rolf with “Less is More” scrawled across the center. 

In the middle of all this, “camp” accessories are encased in glass, with yellow, pink, purple and green backgrounds. A large swan headpiece made of ostrich feathers overpowers the mannequin’s head that it’s perched on. Handbags made to look like everyday items like an iron or garbage can are on display, along with shoes so fluffy the wearer’s foot must get lost in them.    

There’s so much to take in that people tend to hang around for a while and it’s almost as entertaining to watch others react to the exhibition as it is to experience it for yourself. 

Some ask one another “Do you get it?” Some are just delighted at the garish and alluring looks. Others cling to the label text, looking for an explanation for what they’re seeing. The latter are sometimes rewarded, as quotes from Sontag as well as Mark Booth, Fabio Cleto, Philip Core, and others are scattered throughout the exhibition.

The term “camp,” is defined over and over again through the text as well as over the loudspeaker, though many viewers probably walk away with their own definition and sense of the term. 

Sontag’s essay provides many definitions of the term with one of the strongest being: 

“Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation — not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy . . . Camp doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.”  

“Camp: Notes on Fashion” will be on exhibition in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Sept. 8. 
For more information visit metmuseum.org.

Categories: Art, Entertainment, Life and Arts


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