fashion

Met exhibition explores history of 'camp' fashion

Updated 7th May 2019
MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 22: General view of the Press Event for The Costume Institute's spring 2019 exhibition "Camp: Notes on Fashion" on February 22, 2019 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Met exhibition explores history of 'camp' fashion
Written by Stacey Lastoe, CNNNew York
From Harry Styles' lace jumpsuit to Katy Perry's life-size chandelier gown, the 2019 Met Gala's "camp" theme invited an array of exaggerated, extravagant looks to its red carpet.
And inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art's galleries, the accompanying exhibition, "Camp: Notes on Fashion," expounded the theme further, defining "camp" through more than 250 objects.
Camp is a puffy-sleeved robe decorated like a can of Budweiser, elevating a mainstream beer to something fanciful and imaginative. It's an adult's second childhood, as seen through a bright peach suit decorated with choo-choo trains, smiling lions and grinning suns. It's a polychrome silk satin ensemble by Richard Quinn that at once looks old-fashioned and chic.
A Budweiser-inspired outfit designed by Jeremy Scott of Moschino.
A Budweiser-inspired outfit designed by Jeremy Scott of Moschino. Credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
These exhibits, and others, explore how camp fashion has embraced, repurposed and reimagined popular -- or "low" -- culture. As writer Umberto Eco explains (in a window display for the aforementioned Richard Quinn design), it "transforms what was ugly yesterday into today's object of aesthetic pleasure."
The exhibition features the "swan dress" famously worn by Bjork to the 2001 Oscars.
The exhibition features the "swan dress" famously worn by Bjork to the 2001 Oscars. Credit: Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo ©Johnny Dufort, 2019
In her 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'" (which inspired the exhibition's name), Susan Sontag -- the first person to explore the subject in depth -- makes few explicit references to fashion. Nonetheless, she explicitly states that fashion is one of the arts that "camp taste has an affinity" for.
Camp was, for Sontag, not an idea, but a "sensibility" characterized by "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration." (The ultimate camp statement is, she writes, "it's good because it's awful.") And Sontag's codification does more than support the Met's theme. It upholds and dutifully explains it.
Vistitors explore the Costume Institute's exhibition "Camp: Notes on Fashion."
Vistitors explore the Costume Institute's exhibition "Camp: Notes on Fashion." Credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Camp's wide reach is evident in the variety of items on display. Exhibits range from a print of Andy Warhol's famous "Campbell's Soup Cans" to a cauliflower-inspired headpiece by the couture milliner, Deirdre Hawken.
Elsewhere, a beige-and-pink Moschino jacquard print dress heaves with lace and a big silk bow, while sequined T-shirts by British designer Ashish Gupta boast all-caps statements like, "You are much lovelier than you think," and "Fall in love and be more tender."
Outfits on display at the Costume Institute.
Outfits on display at the Costume Institute. Credit: Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museumof Art, BFA.com/Zach Hilty
The latter is a warm and fuzzy inclusion, perfectly aligned with curator Andrew Bolton's assessment that the "purpose of camp is to put a smile on our faces and a warm glow in our hearts," as he put it during the press preview. These T-shirts, like many of the predominantly post-1970s items on display, feel accessible -- a version of something already hanging in your closet.
The Met's director, Max Hollein, said that once the theme had been decided, his team couldn't escape examples of it, both in and outside the museum. Indeed, to see camp portrayed in life -- as a verb, adjective and noun -- one need only look around.