Camp: Notes on Fashion
Camp: Notes on Fashion was the 2019 high fashion art exhibition of the Anna Wintour Costume Center, a wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) which houses the collection of the Costume Institute.
The exhibit ran from May 8 through September 9, 2019, and was preceded by the Costume Institute Gala, an edition of the annual fundraising Met Gala benefiting the MMA's Costume Institute in New York City which is considered the fashion industry's biggest yearly event. It marks the opening of the annual fashion exhibit. Each year's gala celebrates the theme of that year's exhibition, and the exhibition sets the tone for the formal dress of the night, since guests are expected to choose their fashion to match the theme of the exhibit.
2018's exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” set The Met's all-time attendance record of 1.6 million visitors.
Costume Institute’s annual exhibits
Each year the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan museum starts off its new annual exhibition with a formal benefit dinner at the Met Gala. The 2019 Camp exhibition's public opening was preceded by the Costume Institute Gala on May 6, 2019. The co-chairs for the Gala were Lady Gaga, Alessandro Michele, Harry Styles, Serena Williams, and Anna Wintour. Past galas have seen celebrities wear outlandish and controversial outfits. Of the co-chairs, Lady Gaga is well known for embodying camp including her 2010 MTV Video Music Awards dress made of raw meat.
The Costume Institute's commercial success in 2018 proved to be a turning point for the Met, and more broadly, the art world. Often considered less serious an art form, fashion has been shown to be financially reliable. The Costume Institute's winning streak started in 2011, with “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” with over 650,000 visitors. That was topped in foot traffic by 2015's “China: Through the Looking Glass”, and 2016's “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.” The Costume Institute's 2018 exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” set The Met's all-time attendance record of 1.6 million visitors.
Background on 'Camp'
In Anna Wintour's Go Ask Anna, her weekly video series answering questions from fashion fans, she explained that Andrew Bolton, chief curator of the Costume Institute, chooses the theme, sometimes up to five years in advance. She also shared that her only advice was that the title of the show needed to be clear so “everybody understands it immediately”.
The theme from the exhibit was announced as the Gala theme October 9, 2018. Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, framed the exhibition around Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’”, which considers meanings and connotations of the word "camp". Her “influential” essay includes “58 points detailing the ways the concept of “camp” can be constructed.” It arguably brought camp into the mainstream, and made Sontag a literary celebrity. Sontag wrote, “Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
Bolton found Sontag's observations of camp, the “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration . . . style at the expense of content . . . the triumph of the epicene style”, “timely with what we are going through culturally and politically”. Bolton notes that ‘camp’ embraces elements including “irony, humor, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, excess, extravagance, nostalgia, and exaggeration”. He added that the theme is timely, and “very relevant to the cultural conversation to look at what is often dismissed as empty frivolity but can be actually a very sophisticated and powerful political tool, especially for marginalized cultures.” Bolton noted camp never lost its subversive element from the 1960s when the essay was written and used as a “private code primarily in the gay community”.
Bolton traced camp back to the French verb se camper, to strike an exaggerated pose, its origins in the flamboyant posturing of the French court under Louis XIV. Louis XIV himself consolidated power by compelling noblemen to spend their wealth at Versailles on fashions and jewelry to adorn themselves while taking part in elaborate, mandatory social dances and faux battles. His gay younger brother, Philippe I, duc d’Orléans, was “in many ways the paradigm of camp”, with his obsession with clothing and jewelry, and “besotted with his pretty male favorites”. “Camp became the “ultimate expression” of Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, who “devoted his life to dancing and dressing up and although he was married twice he was flamboyantly gay.””
Author Andy Medhurst notes the definition has changed throughout history, “It was first a French verb (“to flaunt” or “posture”), then an adjective with a gay connotation in the 18th century, and most recently, a noun to describe exaggerated gestures and actions.” Kareem Khubchandani, queer studies and performance studies professor at Tufts University, has said “Camp makes profane the things that are sacred and is a queer way of knowing.”
The 'Camp' exhibition
The exhibition is presented in the Met Fifth Avenue's Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall, and was underwritten by Gucci, whose creative director Alessandro Michele, said Sontag's essay “perfectly expresses what camp truly means to me: the unique ability of combining high art and pop culture.” The Metropolitan Museum's director, Max Hollein stated that, “Camp's disruptive nature and subversion of modern aesthetic values has often been trivialized, but this exhibition will reveal its profound influence on both high art and popular culture.” Sontag's essay is on display next to a photo of her and is part of the exhibition.
The exhibit, designed by the scenographer Jan Versweyveld, has 175 pieces of fashion including menswear, womenswear, and 75 sculptures, paintings and drawings relating to the theme. The pieces date back as early as the 1600s. The show is presented in two parts, starting with the origins of camp as a concept, with Sontag as a ghost narrator, Bolton finds camp in the Stonewall riots, and used in LGBTQ communities. The two sections are physically designed apart with the first section featuring “narrow corridors with low ceilings,” projecting a “clandestine underground” mood with Sontag “narrating in whispers.”
The exhibit then uses 100 examples from the 1960s onward to show how camp has become more mainstream by examples in the collections by Balenciaga, Prada and Vetements, as well as Gucci. Bolton aims to portray how ubiquitous the concept of camp is with this exhibit manifest. The second half's structural design “is an open piazza,” mirroring “mainstream acceptance”. In all, around 37 fashion designers are represented, with 175 fashion pieces. Also on display is a full-length portrait of Oscar Wilde, spokesman for aestheticism, in a frock coat.
As a soundtrack for the show, the camp anthem Judy Garland‘s “(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow”, her signature song from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, plays intermittently in both sections of the show. The Wizard of Oz version in the first section, and a recording shortly before her death plays in the second section. Garland is considered a gay icon. and her death (in London on June 22, 1969), and funeral held at the Frank Campbell Funeral Home in New York City, happened days before the Stonewall Riots took place although reports uphold that the riots were spontaneous and not related to her passing.[note 1]
The exhibition catalog was published in two volumes and also adheres to the camp theme with its pale pink casing, and an engraved quote from Oscar Wilde, on the book’s spine in gold: “One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.” The co-writers are Andrew Bolton, Karen Van Godtsenhoven, and Amanda Garfinkel. The catalog is in two chartreuse volumes of the history and modern applications of camp, including the full text of Susan Sontag‘s Notes on "Camp".
The first volume has scholar Fabio Cleto's comprehensive essay on camp followed by a visual history guide of camp sensibility. The second volume has an essay by Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu curator in charge of the Costume Institute, outlying inspirations and interpretations of camp for the exhibition. The second volume includes 160 images from photographer Johnny Dufort, each image is paired with a quote on camp.
- In the years since the riots occurred, the death of gay icon Judy Garland earlier in the week on June 22, 1969 has been attributed as a significant factor in the riots, but no participants in Saturday morning's demonstrations recall Garland's name being discussed. No print accounts of the riots by reliable sources cite Garland as a reason for the riot, although one sarcastic account by a heterosexual publication suggested it. (Carter, p. 260.) Although Sylvia Rivera recalls she was saddened and amazed by the turnout at Garland's funeral on Friday, June 27, she said that she did not feel like going out much but changed her mind later. (Duberman, pp. 190–191.) Bob Kohler used to talk to the homeless youth in Sheridan Square, and said, "When people talk about Judy Garland's death having anything much to do with the riot, that makes me crazy. The street kids faced death every day. They had nothing to lose. And they couldn't have cared less about Judy. We're talking about kids who were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Judy Garland was the middle-aged darling of the middle-class gays. I get upset about this because it trivializes the whole thing." (Deitcher, p. 72.)
- Carter, David, 1952- (2004). Stonewall : the riots that sparked the gay revolution (1st ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312200250. OCLC 54079526.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- The question of equality : lesbian and gay politics in America since Stonewall. Deitcher, David. New York: Scribner. 1995. ISBN 0684800306. OCLC 32346596.CS1 maint: others (link)
- Duberman, Martin B. (1993). Stonewall (First ed.). New York. ISBN 0525936025. OCLC 26854943.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Camp: Notes on Fashion.|
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