What is camp?
That question is being tossed around with abandon, thanks to The Costume Institute’s soon-to-be opened exhibition “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art was abuzz with tourists, visitors and dawdlers Saturday afternoon, but the cordoned-off lower level swarmed with workers painting borders, operating cherry-pickers and polishing glass cases. Amidst the cacophony from machinery and a recording of Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Andrew Bolton stood silently with his eyes fixed upward on “the birdcage,” a rotating display of feathery designer dresses.
As the Wendy Yu curator in charge of The Costume Institute, Bolton is the head camp counselor, so to speak, and the reason why scores of fashion types are suddenly talking about what constitutes camp. “If people lend themselves to caricature, they tip over to camp. Buildings that are in postcards — Eiffel Tower, Big Ben — they’re camp. Also, postcards — there’s a camp element to it. What’s interesting is, it’s so subjective. That’s why it is difficult,” he said. “Camp is like sand. It falls through your hands. Just when you think you’ve got a rock out of it, it turns into sand again.”
As the world has become more polarized by different camps — political, stylistic and the like — is the reason why camp has reemerged. Considering how camp surfaced in the “deeply polarized” Sixties, in the Eighties and now again, Bolton said, “Camp is deeply political, actually, which is why it reflects and reacts to the zeitgeist….Camp is so much a part of our vocabulary now, which is why it is difficult to define. It had almost become invisible after its mainstreaming after [Susan] Sontag. With the assimilation of gay culture, there was a coincidental or corresponding assimilation of camp and the aesthetic of camp. But I do still think that at times when our cultures are sort of polarizing, it does bubble to the surface again.”
Giving some thought to what’s not camp, Bolton said, “It is such a subjective phenomenon that it bleeds over into every category. It bleeds into art, into theater, into music, movies, politics, sports. There needs to be a human element. If something does not have irony, that tends to make it not camp. There is always an ironical aspect of camp.”
Relying on Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” as a framework, The Costume Institute’s exhibition explores how fashion designers and artists have interpreted camp with about 250 objects to consider. Sontag’s 58 principles are highlighted with gallery text and her marked-up manuscript, and are illuminated like a news feed that runs around the border of a gallery. There is a lot to take in, due to the detailed references and information. The show opens to the public May 9 and will run through September 8.
While Sontag claimed that Nature isn’t camp, Bolton disagreed. “There’s nothing campier than pink flamingos. I think Nature is camp. In her mind, it’s not deliberate artifice. It’s Nature that’s created the artifice as opposed to a more conscious artifice. In that case, it’s more naïve camp.”
Standing in the prismic-colored cube-like gallery, Bolton said, “In here, it’s really looking at how camp has manifested itself in fashion. It’s deliberately inconclusive.”
Gesturing toward a sequined Moschino dress with a question mark and paraphrasing Fabio Cleto’s remark that “’Camp is a question mark whose line refuses to straighten up to an exclamation [mark],'” Bolton continues: “The meanings are constantly shifting depending on the times in which we’re living, depending on the individual. It’s part of the power and the poetry of camp. It’s easy to describe the elements of camp — artifice, exaggerations, theatricality, irony. It’s easy to pinpoint the characteristics, but to actually create a definition is difficult because of its all-inclusive nature.”
Whether Met-goers are going to realize they are passing by Camp Beau Ideal, Camp (V.), Camp (ADJ.), Camp (N.), Isherwoodian Camp, Sontagian Camp, Failed Seriousness, Camp Eye, Dandyism in the Age of Mass Culture and other subsections is a question mark in itself, but does it really matter? They will recognize a Thierry Mugler design worn by Cardi B at this year’s Grammy Awards. And at every turn, there are myriad explanations and interpretations of the term in print, with art and in fashion. An undercurrent of acceptance streams through. “Camp is inherently accepting. It tends not to be judgmental. There is an inherent magnanimity to camp. And it makes you smile. Going through the fashion here puts a smile on your face,” Bolton said. “People have often dismissed camp as something frivolous, trite and glib and it’s not at all. It’s inherently connected to culture and to politics. There is a seriousness behind it and I hope that people see that as well.”
Sculpture, paintings and drawings spanning from the 17th century to the present are interspersed near the entrance. For starters, Versailles is presented as a “camp Eden,” and how the royal courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV embraced the camper’s concept — “to posture boldly.” Camp first appeared in print in a 1671 Moliere comedy “The Impostures of Scapin,” as in, “Camp about on one leg. Put your hand on your hip. Wear a furious look. Strut about like a drama king.” The dandy’s role as a “camp ideal” and camp’s ties to the queer subcultures of Europe and the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries are also presented. Noting how camp defies grammatical boundaries, Bolton made the point that it is a verb, adjective and a noun, and wall text in the exhibition reminds visitors, too. “We’ve tried to articulate that to begin with in order to try to focus on how camp emerged through Louis XIV’s Versailles, the idea of theatricality, the changing meaning of it, how it was adopted by the gay underworld in Victorian England until it was entered into the [Oxford English] dictionary in 1909. The first part is deliberately serious in a way because camp is a seriousness that fails.”
Heady as all this may sound, Bolton, along with associate curator Karen Van Godtsenhoven and assistant curator Amanda Garfinkel, dove in without going overboard with the scholarly and more historical side. For starters, the first section has a bright pink interior. Looking at the world “through camp eyes,” Bolton said both Flash Gordon comics and Carvaggio paintings qualify. The Costume Institute team infused a healthy blast of humor, such as Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington’s 1884 portrait of Oscar Wilde in the “teapot” stance, an 1886 Wilde-penned teapot letter and a Wilde-shaped teapot. Eagle-eyed patrons will also find Wilde’s quip, “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.”
There are Tiffany tulip lamps, too, such as one in the Sontag section near Pierre-Louis Pierson’s salted paper prints from glass negatives with applied color. Easier to connect the dots is an Andy Warhol self-portrait; a series of screens playing his screen test with Sontag; Warhol’s Campbell’s soup silkscreen, and the 1967 polychrome printed paper “Souper” dress. Met-goers, who stop to read, will see another Sontagian note, “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful…”
Audio plays a secondary role throughout the exhibition. Garland’s first and last renditions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” are part of the background sounds. The “whispering” galleries in the first section include recordings of Rupert Everett reading Moliére’s “The Impostures of Scapin.” The tapping of a typewriter can be heard in the second gallery’s “echo chamber” along with words from Sontag, Cleto, Mark Booth, Philip Core and Karl Keller. Eighteen statements organize the designs, and designers’ definitions of camp can be heard in their own voices. John Galliano’s explanation was Garland. Get it?
As for the clothes, a 1912 Paul Poiret “Sorbet” evening ensemble is paired with a 2011 Mary Katrantzou polychrome printed top and velvet-trimmed, crystal-encrusted miniskirt. A small pink bow is perched atop the first look and aloft on the second. Stephen Jones handled the hats and headpieces and the milliner was climbing into displays to inspect his work late Saturday afternoon. Perfume bottles crowned a quartet of male mannequins. There’s a Mae West-worthy white silk satin and purple synthetic lace dress from Thierry Mugler’s 1992 spring collection, while Moschino’s Jeremy Scott was made for this show, as evidenced by his fall 2019 “TV Dinner” ensemble; a spring 2018 purple embroidered dress with ostrich feathers, printed feathers and paper butterflies, and a fall 2014 look emblazoned with McDonald’s arches. Heatherette’s “Hello Kitty” dress and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s teddy bear-adorned jacket belong together. Ditto for Michael Travi’s 1982 jumpsuit and jacket covered with crystals, bugle beads and pearls for the entertainer Liberace and Walter Van Beirendonck’s inflatable jacket designed to make the wearer look more muscular.
Gucci’s sponsorship of the exhibition appears to have its benefits, considering about 12 Gucci items are featured. (Condé Nast provided additional support.) Creations from about 75 designers are spotlighted, including Gianni Versace, Virgil Abloh for Off-White, Erdem Moralioglu, Viktor & Rolf, Thom Browne, Johnson Hartig, Bob Mackie, Elsa Schiaparelli and Brynn Taubensee. But the sweeping show includes such relative newcomers as Tomo Koizumi, Manish Arora, Romance Was Born, Ashish and Undercover. Going through the selections, which turned out to be about 170, Bolton said he would ask, “Is it too much? Are there too many sequins, too many ruffles, too many bows, because that’s what pushes it over the edge into camp?”Bolton said. “One of the things that I love about Susan’s essay is that she does sort of upend the hierarchy of the arts. So the people who cling desperately to the 19th-century hierarchy of the arts — camp is their biggest fear. There is an inherent democratic esprit to camp.”
Just as fashion is a business, so too is art. Bolton has become a rainmaker for The Met, merging those entities to rake in big crowds and more indirectly big bucks through the Met gala. Tonight’s co-chairs Lady Gaga, Alessandro Michele, Harry Styles, Serena Williams and Anna Wintour will be waiting for the photo-seeking guests to ascend the museum’s red-carpeted steps. But Bolton, by and large, is the reason they well may have asked their stylists, “Am I really going to wear this?”
Last year’s “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” became the Met’s all-time most visited exhibition, but Bolton said he doesn’t feel pressured to top that. “That was a surprise, I have to say. You never know how people are going to respond to an exhibition that you do. Ultimately, crowds or visitors create the success or failure of an exhibition. If it makes people think differently about camp or if it challenges their preconceptions and if people enjoy it, then I think it’s a success. If they don’t engage with it, then I think it’s a failure. It’s always a worry if people leave the exhibition not knowing more about camp than when they first walked in, then that’s my fault.”
His own measurement for the success of an exhibition boils down to “visitors — not numbers — more visitors’ reactions,” he said, adding that he will pass through the galleries, as opposed to tracking social media, which he is not connected to. “It’s mainly coming in and feeling the vibes, seeing how engaged people are with it, overhearing what people are saying and the museum does these surveys as well. It’s less numbers and more people’s reaction when they are in the exhibition.”
Then there the conversations that will continue. “You want to educate and inspire people about the subject that you are focusing on. But at the same time you want to leave things open-ended. What I tried to do is really the beginning of a discussion. With the exhibits, it’s never trying to be a definitive survey of something. This one, the difficult part was trying to contextualize camp historically, but also to make it how relevant it is now visible to people.”
Bolton added, “Fashion is inherently camp because of its performative aspect and its emphasis on artifice. Fashion carries so many messages. The role of a curator is to tease out those messages and make them legible to visitors. There are certain things I’m sure some people won’t think are camp because it is so subjective. It is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.”