Camp: Notes on Fashion

The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful – Susan Sontag


It’s humor rooted in earnestness; it’s tacky but also glamorous; it’s exaggerated but just enough. It’s Auntie Mame, the Land of Oz, Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and a party at Jay Gatsby’s. These dichotomic and whimsical concepts can be united with one simple, four letter word in regards to fashion: camp. Camp is not tents and sleeping bags, but an idea that can incorporate all of these over-the-top notions into an order that makes fashionable sense. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newest exhibit Camp: Notes on Fashion explores the the idea of camp fashion in relation to art and history through more than 250 objects. Put on by the museum’s own Costume Institute, the annual exhibition always seeks to find the link between art and fashion as art, and has ties to the Met’s permanent collection. (I hope you remember my article on last year’s fashion exhibit, as it was one of my favorites to have seen and write!)

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The entrance to Camp: Notes on Fashion

Each year, the fashion exhibit attracts more and more guests to the Met. As a member of the museum, I was able to see the exhibit during morning hours, a special opportunity that invites us to see the current exhibits before the doors open to the general public at 10 am. If you are a member, seeing the exhibit this way with fewer crowds is definitely the way to go. If you aren’t a member, I would suggest getting to the museum before the doors opens so that you dont have to wait on a huge queue at the main doors or exhibit entrance! (by the time I left the exhibit, the line was down the long gallery!!!) The exhibit does not offer an audio guide, but docent tours are offered regularly with museum admission.

Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on ‘Camp’ “provides the framework for the exhibition, which examines how the elements of irony, humor, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, and exaggeration are expressed in fashion”. Fashion has been used as a medium for expression and celebration throughout history. Everything from levels of wealth, to culture, religion, individuality, taste, and so much more can be expressed through the clothes and items we wear. The exhibit brilliantly examines how camp fashion developed, and how camp fashion continues to be used for all forms of expression. You can watch an incredible short video of Costume Institute head and curator in charge, Andrew Bolton, speaking more about the exhibit here!

To be completely honest, I didn’t have much of an idea of what ‘camp’ fashion really was before I went to the exhibit. My small conception of camp was bright colors and exaggeration, which wasn’t wrong, but wasn’t totally complete either. My previous references had been mostly from reality shows about fashion, when a judge critiqued a contestant saying what they had done was “a bit too campy” – however, their connotation wasn’t really positive. This exhibit on the other hand, totally and completely celebrates what might be “too much” or “too extra”.

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Camp as an Adjective: Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, ensemble autumn/winter 1987-88 haute couture

As you enter into the exhibition space, you are greeted by an enourmous illuminated sign of the title: Camp (a camp-y element in itself!). The galleries have been divided by the different definitions and interpretations of camp throughout history, such as Camp Beau Ideal, Camp as a verb, Camp as an adjective, and Camp as a noun. These galleries provide historical references such as letters, musical lyrics, theatre scripts, and works of fine and decorative arts for viewers to further understand the etymology of Camp fashion. As the video mentions, each room is anchored by a hero or heroine such as Louis XIV, the Duke of Orléans, and Oscar Wilde to name a few. Of course, in these galleries are modern garments made by designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Erdem that have been inspired by the central figures and their stories.

As the exhibit moves into ‘Isherwoodian Camp’, the distinction between ‘high camp’ and ‘low camp’ is presented to us. Christopher Irsherwood in his 1954 novel The World in the Evening introduces camp as a dichotomy between these two concepts. For Isherwood, “high camp is the whole emotional basis of the ballet and of Baroque art, a sophisticated, connoisseur-like mode that prompts discussions of aesthetics or philosophy or almost anything”, and low camp as “an utterly debased form that is in queer circles and connotes ‘a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich'”. Basically, he regards high camp as more organic, natural, and effortless, as opposed to low camp which is essentially trying too hard. This segment wonderfully displays works and ensembles that show the impetus of highs and lows that Isherwood is describing.

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“Isherwoodian Camp”: Jean Paul Gaultier, Ensemble, spring/summer 1997

Moving along, we arrive into what I think is the most important section of the exhibit: ‘Sontagian Camp’. Susan Sontang’s Notes on Camp essay was published in the fall 1964 issue of the Partisan Review. Sontag was not the first to discuss camp fashion in a published work, but she was the first to discuss it as a more serious subject, and categorized Camp into fifty-eight notes.

This section displays many of the works of art that Sontag references in her Notes that belong to the Met’s permanent collection, such as Tiffany lamps, Meissen porcelain, portraiture, and photographs. On the glass divider between the viewers and the objects are a sampling of her notes above the objects they relate to. One of my favorites was a photo of Jane Wrightsman taken by Cecil Beaton, as she wears a couture feathered Balenciaga dress, next to the actual dress with Note 25 above it: “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers”.

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Songratian Camp: Left – Photo of Jayne Wrightsman taken by Cecil Beaton, 1966. Right – Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, Evening Dress, autumn/winter 1965-66 haute couture

One of the most important concepts that Sontag explores in Notes is the distinction between naïve camp and deliberate camp, which is presented in the ‘Failed Seriousness’ gallery. In this small but important gallery are side-by-side examples of garments that exemplify her distinctions that share a similar aesthetic; some of the more modern garments were directly insprired by the dresses they stand next to! In these galleries are incredible creations by Jeremy Scott, Thierry Mulger, Viktor & Rolf, Lanvin, Balenciaga, and Yves Saint Laurent. It was interesting to compare Sontag’s naïve and deliberate camp ideals to Isherwood’s high and low camp. From what I gathered, naïve camp and high camp are more similar in that they are more pure and organic creations, while deliberate camp and low camp are over exaggerated and trying a bit too hard.

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‘Failed Seriousness’: Left – Naïve Camp: Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, evening ensemble, autumn/winter 1961-62 haute couture. Right – Deliberate Camp: Jeremy Scott for House of Moschino, ensemble spring/summer 2018
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‘Failed Seriousness’: Left – Cristobol Balaciaga for House of Balenciaga, Evening Dress, 1951. Right – Thierry Mulger for House of Mugler, “Venus” ensemble, autumn/winter 1995-96 houte couture

Until this point of the exhibit, we have been learning about the origins, histories, contexts, and orders of camp. As we arrive into the second half of the exhibit, we enter into the main exhibition room called ‘Camp Eye’ which displays pieces created after Notes was published. In the all-black room, the subsidiary branches of Camp are presented around the space on two levels. Each color that illuminates the alcoves correlates to a certain theme that the fashions are meant to express. In yellow, “Outrageous Aestheticism” highlights poofy tulled creations by Giambattista Valli and Tomo Koizumi, the garments in “Playing-as/Playing-a-Role” were inspired by the ballet and theatre are set in green, and in bubblegum-pink “Dandyism in the Age of Mass Culture” shows ensembles that are emblazoned with designer monograms from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel. Other themes in ‘Camp Eye’ explore Camp through the lenses of “A Second Childhood”, “The Psychopathology of Affluence”, “Gender without Genitals”, and “The Mode of Enjoyment” just to name a few.

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The ‘Camp Eye’ gallery
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‘Camp Eye’: Marjan Djodjov Pejoski, dress, autumn/winter 2000-01

In the middle of the room are accessories in display cases colored and lit to their corresponding themes presented around the room. Pieces like a necklace and earrings shaped to look like a faucet and fixtures from Chanel, or a headdress in the form of flamingos, and who could forget the platform studded crocs that Balenciaga came out with last summer?

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‘Camp Eye’: Demna Gvasalia for House of Balenciaga, shoes, spring/summer 2018
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‘Camp Eye’: Stephen Jones for House of Schiaparelli, fall/winter 2018–19 haute couture

As I left the exhibit and walked through the bubblegum-pink colored gift shop, I began wondering what my own definitions of Camp are. Is Camp of today always intentional? Is it mostly unwearable in the average persons everyday life? Where could I find Camp themes as I go through my life each day? There were some items (in a dream world) I could totally see myself wearing under the right circumstances (looking at you Giambattista Valli and vintage Balenciaga). Then there were other pieces I saw, giggled at, and said “never in a million years”. I would say that a great majority of exhibits put on seek to answer a question, like “what was the impact of this artist”, “how did this history come to be” – and so on. For this exhibit, Camp was thoroughly explored, but there wasn’t one clear answer, definition, or conclusion that the exhibit made. I think a lot of the intrigue of this exhibit because the question of “what is camp” is ultimately left up to the visitor to decide!

As I walked down the grand staircase on my way out, one funny quote popped into my mind as I was recapping my visit: “why be basic when you can be extra?”

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Outfit details: Express t-shirt and jeans, H&M jacket, Adidas sneakers.

2 thoughts on “Camp: Notes on Fashion

  1. this really opened my eyes to Camp! Especially the levels and contexts of Camp! I have a new appreciation for it as an art form!

  2. Wow! What a great recap of this exhibit. Thank you for this informational piece as I will soon be visiting the Met. The titles of the individual exhibits are so intriguing. I can’t wait to be amused AND inspired.

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