The Met’s Camp: Notes on Fashion Exhibition Review

This summer I attended the Met’s Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition. The hype surrounding this annual exhibition is initially generated from the Met Gala held in May, which officially celebrates its opening and is considered one of the most important fashion events of the year. After seeing pictures of models, celebrities and designers processing up the famous museum stairs, I was excited to see such eccentric and elaborate outfits in person. I was also looking forward to gaining a deeper understanding of the term ‘camp’ which I recognized had a deeper meaning and history than I was aware of.

Camp was based off of Susan Sontag’s 1964 “Notes on Camp,” which brought the term into mainstream culture. Likewise to Sontag, the curators of the museum sought to explore the various connotations of the word and its affect upon culture and fashion. Camp is a term often synonymous with LGBT culture, however it can refer to anything theatrical, artificial, excessive, effeminate and much more. Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, states that the aim of the exhibition was to generate more questions than answers, as camp is incredibly difficult to define. Through basing the exhibition around Sontag’s essay, I found that it gave the audience a lens in which to view the objects and items of clothing. In the first room, Sontag’s “58 principles of camp” is outlined and details how terms such as nostalgia, irony, pastiche and parody are used to describe camp. I thought that this was a great way to prepare the viewers for the sensory overload of what was to come.

Two mannequins in exhibition, one wearing a purple, fluffy ensemble with butterflies. The other wearing a black dress.

Jeremy Scott (American, born 1975) for House of Moschino (Italian, founded 1983). Ensemble, spring/summer 2018. Courtesy of Moschino. Author’s own image.

Camp was divided into two sections, with the first looking at the origins of camp and the second showing how it is reflected in fashion. I thought the chronological theme was extremely helpful in enhancing the viewer’s understanding of how the camp sensibility has pervaded throughout history and into modern day culture. Bolton argues that the reemergence of camp in the present decade is not surprising as it comes about during periods of social, economic and political change. This in turn led me to think about how certain exhibitions are chosen by curators during the time when the public imagination needs them most.

The visitor is immediately confronted by the bright pink walls of the exhibition, which welcomes them into the loud and excessive world of the camp aesthetic.

The first room details how camp came about in order to challenge conventional notions of beauty, through adopting a daring and bold style. In the first few rooms, objects from Versailles, Louis XIV and Oscar Wilde show how an increasingly theatrical style developed, which valued the nineteenth century ideal of male beauty. This emphasizes how camp is found not just in fashion, but also in a variety of other forms that span different centuries and geographies.

I thought that the most impressive room of the exhibition was a vast space filled with varying glass cases that contained different examples of camp clothing. The indefinable nature of camp is exhibited by the voice-over of a variety of quotes in this room, which are narrated by different celebrities and important figures; for example, Phoebe Philo for Céline recounts a quote by Mark Booth that “Camp is mock luxurious.”

Dark exhibition room with two levels of colorful boxes with mannequins.

View of the “Camp: Notes On Fashion” Exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC. Author’s own image.

Camp is defined by artifice and exaggeration, to do with style and not content that is expressed in fashion through colour, patterns, shapes, ornament and materials. Below are some pictures from my visit that I thought captured this:

Mannequin wearing black dress with pink bow wrapped around the waist.

Jeremy Scott (American, born 1975) for House of Moschino (Italian, founded 1983). Dress, spring/summer 2017. Courtesy of Moschino. Author’s own image.

Mannequin wearing a tight body suit with covers of Vogue magazine printed on the fabric.

Sequined Vogue–Sequined “Vogue Magazine” Jumpsuit from Gianni Versace S/S 1991. Author’s own image.

Mannequin wearing light pink dress with layers of tulle.

Gown from Giambattista Valli Haute Couture. Author’s own image.

Overall, I found that the representation of camp within fashion was one of excess, which was shown through the overload of sequins, bows and feathers on the items. The exhibition was an immersive one, asking the viewer to consider their own conceptions of camp and how this can be challenged. I thought that the curators successfully showed how camp is present in our culture and everyday lives as it embraces both high art, popular culture and a variety of other opposing features.

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