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A walk through The Met's ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’

camp
Lady Gaga, pictured at the 2019 Met Gala, has built her professional aesthetic around camp.

“Are you gagging? Because I’m gagging.”

Although these words were not directed toward me, pretty much the same thought crossed my mind as I entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” The main exhibit is stunning — two rows of color-blocked display spaces lined an all-black interior, and in each, an iconic piece or set from the likes of Moschino, Christian Dior and Jean Paul Gaultier, or from private collections.

Each spring, the Metropolitan Museum’s annual Met Gala showcases some of the most noteworthy and daring looks in fashion, and the theme typically aligns with the Costume Institute’s annual exhibition. Accordingly, this year’s theme was camp. The Gala saw outlandish ensembles that many agreed best captured the theme, including Janelle Monae’s stacked hat dress, or Billy Porter, who was literally carried onto the red carpet à la Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra.” Others, including Kim K’s “wet look” and Harry Styles’ jumpsuit, were decidedly boring. But to conclude who pulled off the theme, one has to answer the question on everyone’s mind: What is camp?

The Met’s exhibition closely follows Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” — the work that arguably put camp on the map. The exhibit traces the etymology of the term through historic objects, art and manuscripts. Sontag defines camp as “a certain mode of aestheticism … [camp] is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization,” which is to say, camp possesses an inherent “sensibility” that is easy to spot but difficult to articulate. Camp revels in the excesses of capitalism and simultaneously subverts them; its over-the-top nature refashions bad taste into good art. The best camp is rarely intentional — it possesses a sartorial artificiality, yet it is not contrived. It is exaggerated and ardent, yet serious in nature. “Camp” has become imbued in nearly every facet of pop-culture, including film, television, theatre, music and fashion, and it is difficult to imagine a space in art where camp cannot exist.

In her essay, Sontag creates a distinction between naïve and deliberate camp — in other words, calculated and unintentional manifestations of camp. For Sontag, “camp which knows itself to be camp is usually less satisfying.” For camp to be naïve or “pure,” it must possess a seriousness to it that ultimately fails. It is self-indulgent but never self-aware of its campiness.

The Met’s exhibit is itself divided into both deliberate and naïve camp, beginning with less conspicuous examples of camp. The first part of the exhibit examines queer subcultures of Europe and the Unites States that explored homosexuality through camp in 19th and 20th centuries. Then, the exhibit moves onto examples of deliberate camp with the aforementioned room housing designer garments that seek to encapsulate the aesthetic qualities of camp. The exhibit succeeds in balancing instances of deliberate and naïve camp and allows visitors to decide for themselves which they deem most effective.

For example, the exhibit features dresses by Moschino and Vivienne Westwood that emulate the style of the frilly and over-the-top gowns of the 19th century — the designs play with pastiche, emphasizing the theatrical aesthetics of the period. But later in the exhibit, authentic 19th century dresses from European aristocracy are on display to highlight Sontag’s distinction between deliberate and naïve camp.

The displays of quirky couture outfits is admittedly beautiful, as the designs contain an immaculate attention to detail, and together, are a visual delight to behold. But, for me, the naïveté is more satisfying — the gaudy and lavish fashions of the time incite an intrigue and sincere earnestness that cannot be so easily replicated.  

About halfway in, the exhibit offers another camp (if you will) on camp. In his 1954 novel “The World in the Evening,” Christopher Isherwood presents his own dichotomy: high and low camp. High camp, for Isherwood, is more fundamental; its sensibilities are more sophisticated, like that of opera or Baroque art. Isherwood’s interpretation places value in high camp over low camp, which he cites as a “completely debased form” due to its associations with queer circles.

Camp cannot be separated from queerness; as such, camp cannot exist as a purely apolitical entity. Although Sontag’s piece examines androgyny as an aspect of camp sensibility, her essay minimizes and depoliticizes camp’s connotations with homosexuality. The term started as slang within gay sailor communities in Britain, and stems from the French verb se camper — “to pose” or “to flaunt.” Since, the term has expanded in its usage to theatre and drag. But as queer culture is increasingly commodified, predominantly white and heterosexual institutions have started to assimilate and appropriate attributes of camp.

The exhibit does well in tracing camp’s origins in queer marginality. However, like Sontag’s essay, the exhibition glosses over race in favor of class or gender identifiers. Even though camp is rooted in over-the-top expressivity, it is often viewed through a lens of whiteness. Lists of history’s campiest pop-culture icons are quick to name Liza Minnelli, Cher and Lady Gaga, but black and queer artists’ contributions to the camp canon — save for maybe RuPaul Charles — are noticeably absent. The camp sensibility in black culture can be traced from black Vaudevillian acts in the 1920s to drag queen ball culture in the 1980s, as depicted in the documentary “Paris is Burning.” The emergence of hip-hop brought about flashy aesthetics, exaggerated masculinity and redefined luxury. At the gala, Lena Waithe’s jacket emblazoned with the phrase “Black drag queens inventend [sic] camp” made headlines for reminding mostly-white attendees of the impact of black artists and personalities.

On the exhibit itself, “Camp: Notes on Fashion” does a decent job of tracing the origins of camp and including beautiful and well-curated historical and contemporary examples of camp. Although structured around Sontag’s essay, the exhibit does not favor naïve camp over deliberate camp (or vice versa). As for the Met Gala, it seems unfair to boil camp down to eccentric haute couture. Perhaps because the theme was so deliberate, so self-aware, no one could have truly embodied “camp.” But of the attendees who made honest attempts, those who were most educated on its history were perhaps the most successful. 

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