Camp Notes on Fashion: One Exhibition with Good Substance

By Jen


It was over a month and a half that we sat down to tweet about the first Monday in May, the utterly famous Met Gala. And yet I cannot believe that it took me so long to write about it, even more, when I already visited the exhibition and we showed you all about on Instagram (if you haven't seen it, go to our profile and look for the highlighted story called Camp). However, because we still have until September 8th and we know there are people planning to come to New York for the summer (or not, but you still want the tea), we bring you a more in-depth review. 

Like you already know, Camp: Notes on Fashion is the 2019 exhibition that corresponds with the annual exhibition developed by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or MET, as we like to call it. Among other topics, the exhibition has explored the work of Schiaparelli and Prada, Charles James and Alexander McQueen, as well as more broad subjects such as the application of technology in fashion or, like with the record-breaking most ambitious exhibition in the museum's history, the catholic imagination. For this year, the MET and its team of curators (directed by the famous Andrew Bolton) decided that this year's exhibition theme would be Camp, with the essay Notes on Fashion essay, by Susan Sontag, as a starting point. Camp: Notes on Fashion is the museum's perspective that studies the artifice and the exaggeration of this aesthetic to translate it to the garments, and for the first time, makes a total hit of translating all of this academic theory into the museum.

Left: Balenciaga, 1952. Right: Thierry Mugler Haute Couture, 1995

In our post of last year's exhibition, Heavenly Bodies, we talked about how one's perspective can change thanks to preparation and careful study. When Melissa and I visited our first MET exhibition, Manus Ex Machina in 2016, we spent hours admiring the exquisite quality of the pieces, the intricate work of the garments and how related they were to the theme. We were not concerned about logistic aspects, lighting, the insights from the curatorial labor, mostly because we were unable to identify them. For last year, after a year of a master in Fashion Studies, everything changes, and that translated into our review, which was not the most positive for an exhibition that aimed to be mainstream and lost all the substance and seriousness. With Camp, the experience was completely different.

The entrance of the exhibit: Pink Camp.
The first thing to say about Camp is that is the first time in a long time that the museum chooses a topic highly talked and studied in academia as the key bone of the exhibition, something that I cannot remember happening before (I can't find evidence of this). The closest to a cultural exploration has been China Through the Looking Glass and that exhibition was highly criticized, and please let's not talk about Heavenly Bodies because I will lose it: an exhibition that the Vatican pretty much bought into being all about the Catholic Church and ended up being a bunch of pieces that did not make much sense together.

With Camp, the tone was set lower (a complete irony, given the theme), but it was a smart move because the theme is not exactly suitable for masses. The exhibition is located in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery, in the west wing od the museum, and it's an explosion of exaggeration, just like Camp preaches. However, given the theoretical weight of the concept, ample illustration was required. And the MET certainly delivered. The design of the exhibition starts with a strong clarification: Sontag did not invent Camp (there are people thinking she did) nor was this a concept that was born close to the essay that sustains the exhibit. In big blocks of text that are absolutely worth reading, the museum explains the transition and transformation of the concept, from the Century 2 BC.

Representation of Frederick 'Fanny' Park and Ernest 'Stella'
Boulton, who got confiscated 'drag costumes' in 1870


Camp, according to what is explained along the way, is a concept that was defined in the 20th century but has much deeper roots. The team at the Costume Institute placed this origin in the concept of the Beau Ideal, in the 19th century, when the first notions of the masculine ideal were starting to spread and this developed in the ideas of love between men and the exaggerated poses of the gender's aesthetic. The exhibition starts then to divide into four different sections: ´Camp as a as an aesthetic for French royalty (men who used the expression 'Se Camper' as an instruction to pose in an over-the-top way), the link between the idea of Camp and homosexuality (exploring gay authors such as Oscar Wilde and dressing 'him' in Camp); the concepts of High and Low Camp from Christopher Isherwood and, finally, the notes by Sontag. In the last section of these 'galleries' with information, the museum picked notes of the essay and linked them with pieces of the exhibition, from different eras and from the universe of clothing and interior decoration.

Oscar Wilde, photographed by Napoleon Sabony, 1882. Recreation of costumes
with a faux fur jacket by Gucci.

The notions of high and low camp, by Isherwood, frame the 'queer'
aesthetic in the group of low camp, and the sailor as a symbol of that aesthetic, in the 1940s.
Sontag had to be there, of course.
In the links with the notes by Sontag, there's place for the literal: "Camp is a woman walking in a dress with a thousand feathers". The dress is Balenciaga, fall 1965

After a concept with an important weight that, I insist, is totally worth reading, the exhibition goes to a big hall with more Camp quotes in which we can see, among others, the vintage Mugler that Cardi B wore at the Grammys, and this all leads to the main gallery of the exhibition: a hall with multicolored 'windows' that offer a very psychedelic vision of the space, nothing more camp. In there, the designs were group into "18 premises that communicate aspects of the camp sensitivity", each garment with a quote or explanation of why they're associated in each group. In there, we find designs by Moschino (both from Franco Moschino and Jeremy Scott, who found the perfect niche to be praised), Burberry, Paul Poiret, Mary Katranzou and Bob Mackie, among many others, all echoing the theatrics and expression of camp, with designs so flamboyant like the famous flamingo head that is the image of the ads (from Bertran Guyond for Schiaparelli), the swan dress that Bjork made famous, designed by Marjan Pejoski (which by the way was in very poor condition, and indication that the conservation team found it an even worst state) and some others less mainstream designers such as Walter van Beirendonck, Belgium, Michael Travis, American or Manish Arora, Indian.


General views of the main hall.
Left: Mary Katranzou, spring 2011. Right: Paul Poiret, 1912

Left: Walter van Beirendonck, fall 2001. Right: Commes des
Garcons, spring 2018
That very balanced mix of known names and more independent designers is one of the aspects that, in my opinion, nurture the content of Notes on Fashion. Last year we criticized this aspect because it felt like the mainstream replica of New York Fashion Week without a logical explanation, but this time they gave it a better order, a more serious tone and they made sense of most of the designers in the exhibit, which is a notion flexible and malleable enough to make very little off-limits.


The Camp sensibility is one that is alive in the double sense in which things can be seen", says this section, with 'optical illusion' dress by de Chloé, fall 1983 (left) and Gucci, resort 2018 (right)

Romance Was Born (Australia), spring 2015

Design by Bob Mackie, Cher's longtime costume designer
Now, when I say some of the designers were justified... that's when my first complaint comes because many names still have not too many reasons to be there. Last year, for one of my classes, I was part of a field trip to the archive of the Costume Institute and talked to the conservators, who showed us some of the pieces that would be part of this year's exhibition (we couldn't take photos for obvious reasons). They did not say anything but almost everything was Gucci, which made me think that they already had a topic in mind (Vanessa Friedman has said that Andrew Bolton is "obsessed with Camp) and they just looked for pieces that fit. No big deal, one might say, but then months after that, when the museum announced the theme, it was also announced that Gucci was going to be the sponsor and that Alessandro Michele would be one of the co-chairs. It was as if Gucci was buying its own exhibition like Dolce & Gabbana did last year. Just to be clear, I'm not implying that Gucci does not fit into the concept of Camp, but it would be interesting to ask whether we would've seen as much of the brand if it wasn't due to its financial involvement here. Of course, it is naive to think that these contributions are not the angular piece of these type of exhibitions, but it certainly places a shadow on the real motifs of it.

Deirdre Hawken, 'Cauliflower', 2013

Yep, this Gucci loafer is also camp (according to the MET)
And there you go... long, but that is my only complaint about Camp. The exhibition is thoroughly curated, with a mix of 'unknown' exciting designers, and a sample of the most extravagant that fashion has to offer. It has color, couture, independent design and good design of the spaces (although the music is still too loud), but most importantly: Camp has substance. As fashion enthusiasts, academics or not, it is important that we address the importance of any fashion project based on the seriousness of the sources, facts, and history. There are those who think this is boring, and this exhibition proves them wrong. This year, the MET showed us that you can craft a project with weight, color and shine to appeal all types of audiences.

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