How "Camp" Succeeds Where Other Costume Institute Exhibits Have Fallen Short

This year the museum is giving wonderful exposure to many creative talents who are often overlooked.

Camp Exhibit
Photo: JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Please don’t cancel me for saying this, but can we all just lighten up for a minute?

The whole world has become so deadly serious in recent times, understandably so given how crappy recent times have been, that trying to have a little fun now and then is starting to feel like something morally depraved. Between the news alerts of imminent apocalypse and environmental calamities, I’m hesitant to open my big mouth or even venture that far outside my home for fear I will offend someone. I went for coffee the other morning and ran into a famous fashion designer, who shamed me for putting a plastic lid on my cup, although I suspect she failed to see the irony when she then climbed into an enormous SUV that had been idling on the curb, leaving a trail of spilled latte in her wake.

But who am I to judge? Everyone has become so sensitive that I had actually been dreading the opening on Monday of “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” the spring fashion exhibition from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Such an intentionally unserious subject seemed destined to be a lighting rod for criticism, particularly at an institution that has helped elevate the perception of fashion among the decorative arts to the point that it is now considered a subject worthy of scholarly pursuit. Rather than focus on a single designer or thematic style this year, the Met is displaying clothes that demonstrate “irony, humor, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, and exaggeration” — the general terms curator Andrew Bolton uses when talking about “camp” fashion. Can the Met take a joke?

Camp Exhibit
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In fact, it can. The exhibition, which takes its name from “Notes on ‘Camp’,” the 1964 essay by Susan Sontag that attempts to define the aesthetic boundaries of camp, is a pure joy, and I can say that without a trace of irony. With more than 250 objects on display, including not only fashion but paintings and sculptures and diaries, “Camp” does as much to illuminate the stubbornly elusive topic with dazzling visuals as does Sontag with her words. Impressively, it’s not a bore, either. From the opening galleries painted in a garish shade of cotton-candy pink, where three centuries of fashion are paired with paintings from Caravaggio to Paul Cadmus (next to a Jean Paul Gaultier sequined sailor suit, naturally) to a grand finale of more than 100 looks displayed over two levels in one very large room, “Camp” the exhibition serves much the same purpose as “camp” the aesthetic concept: It is education in the guise of entertainment.

Camp Exhibit

It probably helps that the subject is directly in the wheelhouse of Bolton, the British-born curator whose sense of wit is imminently on display here. Through wall text as well as recorded voices, visitors will pick up clues to the overaching history of camp, from its first known usage in Molière’s 1671 play “The Impostures of Scapin,” through its roots in French court society (the word itself is derived from the French verb “camper,” to flaunt or to posture). A vainly posed portrait of Louis XIV from the workshop of Hyacinthe Rigaud reminds us that camp long preceded the realm of RuPaul. Bolton takes special care to illustrate its important role in gay history as well, with unselfconscious inclusion of works from Oscar Wilde, whose personal style is in one display compared to recent work — a loden shawl-collared jacket with braided closures — by Alessandro Michele of Gucci. In another display, two mannequins wearing Victorian-inspired gowns from Erdem Moralioglu’s spring 2019 collection embrace in a pose that echoes that of two women seen in a photograph nearby. They are Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, who scandalized London in the 1860s living as the sisters Fanny and Stella.

“Camp” also succeeds where other Costume Institute exhibitions have at times fallen short by included myriad examples of independent designers who will be new to most Met audiences, giving wonderful exposure to many creative talents who are often overlooked, even by the fashion elite. Next to Erdem’s display is a black dress designed by William Dill-Russell, a rising star who has drawn attention for his non-binary fashion, that includes a collar made from the tatters of a century old dress, the rest of it made of nylon that can be wiped clean (as the designer pointed out to me, he had been wearing the dress himself before the Met requested it for the exhibition).

Camp Exhibit
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In one pink hallway, dresses of similar aesthetic are displayed side by side, never mind that you would never otherwise mention the designers’ names in the same sentence: Mary Katrantzou’s lampshade skirt next to a 1912 dress by Paul Poiret, Jeremy Scott’s purple feather and butterfly trimmed confection for Moschino next to a 1961 gown by Cristobal Balenciaga. And if your head is not spinning by this point, the final gallery is so over the top that it is inadvisable to take the whole thing in on one visit alone. Roughly 100 dresses are displayed in groups of one or two or three in two rows of vitrines that ring the dark square room, backlit in wonderful pastels. In the center, a display of wonderful hats, including a duo of flamingos by Stephen Jones that formed a headpiece for a Schiaparellicollection by Bertrand Guyon. There are so many marvelous pieces that it defies reason: Bjork’s swan dress from the Oscars, Hedi Slimane’s funny valentine heart fur coat for Saint Laurent (once won by Lady Gaga), Crocs by Balenciaga, a bedazzler by Bob Mackie, a catsuit by Walter Van Beirendonck illustrated with a drawing of the complete male anatomy, a Libertine bikini for guys with an embroidered banana on the crotch and a Chloé by Stella McCartney bikini for gals with the message “Keep your banana of my melons” on the bum. That combination alone is worthy of applause, the category being museum realness.

Over the years since Sontag published her essay, many writers have attempted to emulate her spirit by offering their own definitions of camp. Simon Doonan, in the Evening Standard, just published a hilarious take that he described as “bullet points on camp,” “made accessible for the age of attention deficit disorder.” In one, he says, “Camp transforms the grandiose into the mundane.”

But as “Camp,” the exhibition, demonstrates, the mundane can also become the grandiose. I’m specifically thinking of a dress by Jeremy Scott that appears to be made of slices of prosciutto.

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