"Camp: Notes on Fashion" | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Matthew Bedard

Instead of a word, a phrase or a one liner that was normally deployed to describe her collections, Rei Kawakubo chose a lengthy email as a form and means of a one in a lifetime explanation that anchored the spirit of her fall-winter 2018 show in the philosophical thoughts stemming from Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’. “Susan Sontag wrote about a creative movement and sensibility, Camp.  I can really relate to this vision. Camp is not something horribly exaggerated, out of the ordinary, or in bad taste.  This collection came out of the feeling that, on the contrary, camp is really and truly something deep and new, and represents a value that we need.  For example, there are so many so-called styles such as punk that have lost their original rebel spirit today. I think camp can express something deeper, and give birth to progress.”  The collection Kawakubo showed certainly had all the exuberance shapes and excesses of materials all woven together with superlative clothe making techniques spanning different ages and traditions – all of that fitted perfectly with Sontag dictum that ‘camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgement.”

Fast forward about fifteen months to present day on a warm first Monday in May inside the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court, Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele spoke about the relevance of camp in today’s culture and chose a quote from Sontag - “Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture” – that defined not just the overall concept of the exhibition but the thrust of his work in rejuvenating the Gucci brand since 2015.  Irony, humor, parody, aestheticism, extravagance, excess, pastiche, duplicity, artificiality, theatricality, exaggeration, and naïveté – each either on their own or in mixed combinations – are the formal characteristics defining camp.  In other words, camp is a conduit for the development of modern fashion, a highway of sorts that allowed marginal ideas to mushroom and for those creators to gain acceptance and change society.    

The exhibition is divided into two different areas, one is an ante-chamber that dwelled on the etymology of the word camp through objects, paintings, clothes and accessories since the 17thcentury and the second explored to multi-dimension of camp’s expressive heritage in modern fashion. The French writer Molière first used the word ‘camp’ – se camper- in his 1671 three-act comedy Les Fourberies de Scapinwhere the famous playwright described how to pose correctly like a king – “Camp about on one leg. Put your hand on the hips. Wear a furious look.  Strut about like a drama king.”  A first edition copy of the book along with a small statuette rendition of Scapin was displayed inside a glass box along side some of the 17thcentury’s portraits of Louis XIV whose Versailles court was the Eden of camp where the theatricality of appearances was played out daily among the courtiers. Literature, visual arts and fashion all conjured to fathom the reality that became the spine to the camp aesthetics.  

A bronze statue of Antinous, the Emperor Hadrian’s lover and referenced in Wilde’s The Young King, in a sinuous contrapposto stand that represented the archetype of camp pose graced the main entrance to the exhibition.  In front of a black and white drawing of Monsieur le Chevalier de Lorraine, the lover of Phillipe de Lorraine-Armagnac, and an oil on canvas portrait painting of the Chevalier d’Éon – both were cross-dresser noblemen is the black silk faille corset dress/gabardine pant and white shirt and black tie men’s outfit from Jean-Paul Gaultier’s spring-summer 1998 haute couture collection that epitomized the merging of different centuries of sartorial practices. A Gucci olive synthetic fur jumper coat from resort 2019 and a black frock coat paired with white poplin shirt and black waistcoat from Gucci men’s spring-summer 2017 stood next to the photographs of Oscar Wilde posed as the dandy writer Beau Brummel wearing similar outfits. 

The text of Sontag’s 58 principles – two pages of her manuscript is on display with her portrait by Peter Hujar - permeated throughout the gallery texts with each numbered stanza dictum with a corresponding fashion look to remind audiences of the variety and impermanence definition of camp that was always evolving in different contexts among the total 250 objects and clothes within the exhibition.   A video installation on top of the wall of one gallery mimicking an actual typeset written of moving words and a host of designers recorded in their voice like Marc Jacobs voice over of the famous note # 25 - “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” To add to the visual effect, Judy Garland’s Somewhere over the Rainbow played softly in the gallery leading to the main section where notions of camp blossomed into highly creative fashion from a Jeremy Scott spandex jumpsuit with cut of ‘voguing’ figure that evoke Willi Ninja from fall-winter 2010-2011 to Tomo Koizumi’s colorful tulle circular strapless dress shown for fall-winter 2019-2020 in New York this past March.  

Designers across a wide spectrum are represented in the many sub categories – ‘Camp The Beau Ideal’, ‘Isherwoodian Camp’, ‘Sontagian Camp’, ‘Outrageous Aestheticism’, 

‘Gender without Genitals’, ‘A Second Childhood’, or ‘Historicism Viewed Historically’.  A Marjan Djodjov Pejoski feather swan short dress from Fall-Winter 2000-2001 famously worn by the musician Bjork stood in the ‘Being-As-Playing-A –Role’ segment while three current resort 2018 Gucci logo ensembles graced the ‘Dandyism in the Age of Mass Culture’ banner.  Martin Margiela’s recycled synthetic twill dress and refurbished trash hardware for his Artisanal fall 2008 and spring 2008 respectively and John Galliano’s paper dress from spring 2001 revealed the renewal of debris of glitz under the heading of ‘A Rediscovery of History of Waste.’  Two colorful giant synthetic organza and polychrome satin from the young Japanese designer Tomo Koizumi who showed his first fall collection in New York this past March to rave applause singlehandedly anchored the ‘Outrageous Aestheticism’ corner.  

“Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style - but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the "off," of things-being-what-they-are-not.” ‘Camp’ aesthetics break down hierarchy and structured thinking and espoused a spirit of greater openness in adopting a new way of creation and this process over time allowed for the acceptance and the normalization of marginal and underground social and cultural phenomenon in a process where the hidden now bloomed in daylight. Despite the propensity for arduous and intricate intellectual discourses to expurgate all possible explanations, at the end of the day, camp really is what one makes of the excesses and the exaggerated accouterment that is the creative fashion sensibility and spirit perhaps now mixed in with a little bit of normal everyday life.  

Although the exhibition covered a lot of grounds and touched upon multiple level of interpreting camp over the decades and even centuries, I wonder though why there was no representation of hip hop fashion, one the one hand, as the rap stars surely brought their excesses in their wardrobe and expose their love of pile them on over the top in clothes, in jewelry and in automobiles, and black drag queens like the Harlem Voguers and early media personality like Rupaul whose outrageous and fearless costumes were intrinsic to their being. Ghetto fabulous from the late 90’s sure was campy at least in the spirit of excess and exaggerations and so was the rise of the aesthetics promoted by the black drag queen acts. And in the era of inclusion and diversity in fashion and in society, why is it that the most powerful art institution in the world used only marble white mannequins to dress all of the chosen fashion from decorated leggings to elaborately made photo print embroidered dress?  It’s a point worth considering since at times audiences would like to at least see a reflection of themselves in the mirror or in this case within the display cases.  

Camp: Notes on Fashion will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall from May 9 – September 8, 2019.

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Photos by Long Nguyen