By Katherine R. Sloan
When I became aware that the Met’s 2019 costume exhibit would be on the “Camp” aesthetic inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay I was very excited but not as curious as most because I felt like I’ve been in love with campy things my entire life (even before I knew what the word meant). Joan Crawford’s exaggerated red lips and eyebrows have always spoken volumes to me and, most of all, her earnest gaze in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) as she kept her old Hollywood glamour intact all the while shooting a decidedly B picture. According to Sontag, this would be an example of “naïve camp”—a “seriousness that fails.” One of the funniest examples of this from Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on “Camp” is, in conversation, a friend admitting that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
Having opened in May, the Metropolitan Costume Exhibit will be on view through the first week of September and is very apropos of June—Gay pride month and the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots. Camp is, of course, very close to the heart of the LGBTQ community as it is a celebration of beauty and is enjoyment in its purest form. It’s important to remember that Camp should be joyous. Sontag explains that “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.” One of the greatest examples of this and of “things being what they’re not” is a pale pink Christian Lacroix dress that resembles a tiered wedding cake complete with pleats and frills galore: is it a dress to wear or something decadent to eat? The garment is so exaggerated that the fact it transcends earnest beauty makes it all the more satisfying.
According to Sontag, “Not only is there a Camp vision, a Camp way of looking at things. Camp is as well a quality discoverable in objects and the behavior of persons. There are ‘campy’ movies, clothes, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings. . . . This distinction is important. True, the Camp eye has the power to transform experience. But not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder.” Some “Random examples of items which are part of the canon of Camp include Zuleika Dobson, Tiffany lamps, Scopitone films, The Brown Derby restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in LA, The Enquirer headlines and stories, Aubrey Beardsley drawings, Swan Lake, Bellini’s operas, Visconti’s direction of Salome and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, certain turn-of-the-century picture postcards, Schoedsack’s King Kong, the Cuban pop singer La Lupe, Lynd Ward’s novel in woodcuts, God’s Man, the old Flash Gordon comics, women’s clothes of the twenties (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses, etc.), the novels of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett and stag movies seen without lust.” I find that it’s helpful to know what, in 1964, was seen as campy by Sontag; it helps put everything else into context.
Andrew Bolton, curator of the costume exhibit, has a wonderful lecture on the Metropolitan Museum’s website so, if you cannot see the exhibit in person, I highly recommend listening to what he has to say. He stresses that the Camp ideal that the Met wanted to celebrate is all about “irony, humor, parody, theatricalization, excess, extravagance and exaggeration.” Firstly, the exhibit introduces the viewer to the origins of Camp and is called the Camp Beau Ideal: here you can revel in portraiture of King Louis XIV and his famous bisexual brother, Phillippe I, Duke of Orléans (fondly known as “Monsieur”). Phillippe I is dressed for his brother’s coronation in 1654: with long black curls, an ornate cape, white tights complete with a bow at the ankle and a background of red velvet fabric as he holds a bejeweled crown, this is a definite precursor to “Camp,” dandyism, over-the-top regality and just too much.
“Camping” was thought to be first used as a verb by Molière in a 17 th century comedic play called Scapin the Schemer and, according to Sontag, “to camp” is “A mode of seduction—one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more personal, for outsiders.” The exhibit also cites French diplomat Chevalier d’Éon as an inspiration for the early 18 th century camp aesthetic as he dressed in women’s clothing in order to infiltrate courts in Europe as a lady in waiting. According to Sontag’s essay, Camp’s “Soundest starting point seems to be the late 17 th and early 18 th century, because of that period’s extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry; its taste for the picturesque and the thrilling, its elegant conventions for representing instant feeling and the total presence of character—the epigram and the rhymed couplet (in words), the flourish (in gesture and in music).” Camp is all about gestures and flourishes, in music and otherwise.
Some of the most interesting aspects of the exhibit are the articles of clothing inspired by Oscar Wilde’s wardrobe—including a cloak emblazoned with golden peacocks and a velvet suit—as he was clearly one of the first great thinkers to truly embody the spirit of Camp with his epigrams, one of its “conscious ideologists” and “wits.” Of course, Camp has always been hugely important and widespread in the queer community. A witty and pithy remark of Wilde’s that would be considered campy, for example, is: “I can resist everything except temptation.” Wilde sort of became a living example of camp as an aesthete and a dandy.
The exhibit boasts a Jean-Paul Gaultier gown based on an 18 th century silhouette combined with a modern day men’s suit and tie. This conflation of masculine and feminine is a characteristic of the Camp aesthetic. There is a Gender without Genitals section of the exhibit that features young designers such as Palomo Spain and his non-binary clothing along with Thom Browne’s tuxedo-wedding dress. According to Sontag’s essay: “Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility—unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it—that goes by the cult name of ‘Camp.’” There’s an exquisite Vivienne Westwood gown from her 1995 “Vive la Cocette” collection that’s full-on 18 th century Marie Antoinette inspired complete with pastels, frills, lace and bows almost everywhere imaginable. Westwood’s exaggerated silhouettes with wide shoulders, padded hips and bottoms are, as the designer once said, made to reflect a fashion illustration. Westwood clearly has an interest in applying historical trends to modern ways of dressing. The dress on view looks like a Fragonard painting—complete with a young woman soaring through the air on a swing made of garlands.
Some of the pieces in the exhibit are undoubtedly modern and almost futuristic, such as Jean Paul Gaultier’s green gown that Linda Evangelista infamously wore on a catwalk while holding a hairdryer as it pumped air into the garment to amplify her bosom and buttocks. This over-the-top fun and exaggeration of the female form is a wonderful example of the Camp sensibility of enjoyment. There is also a PVC neon green jacket designed by Walter van Beirendonck for Wild and Lethal Trash (1996) that inflates with air to build muscles.
For those still unsure of what Camp is, Sontag lays it out for us: “To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Artifice is such an important part of the world of camp and is on full display at the Met: colorfully lit boxes present furry Céline pink pumps along with Philip Treacy fascinators. One of Treacy’s most notable hats simply called “Marilyn” (2003) is of Monroe’s face the way Andy Warhol saw her—in paint—with a single black crystal for a beauty mark. According to Sontag “One may compare Camp with much of Pop Art, which actually embodies an attitude that is related, but still very different. Pop Art is more flat and more dry, more serious, more detached, ultimately nihilistic.” Even though Camp is something entirely different, Andy Warhol’s 1964 screen tests of Susan Sontag can be seen on display at the exhibit—complete with Sontag in black cat eye sunglasses.
Two versions of Judy Garland singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” can be heard playing over the soundtrack of the Camp exhibit—one was recorded when Garland was 16 on the set of The Wizard of Oz and the other just months before she died. Another wonderful example of naïve camp is the Salvatore Ferragamo rainbow platforms that were designed in earnest in 1938. They are so completely over-the-top and colorful that they are simply overkill. What was considered to be unintentional camp in the 1930s is now incredibly fashionable and falls into the category of “deliberate camp” (this is evident with Gucci’s 2017 platform rainbow sneakers).
There is also a floor-length rainbow cape designed by Christopher Bailey for Burberry (2018-19) that is a wonderful example of something that Liberace may have worn today if he weren’t closeted. “Camp is a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous” and this can be seen with Jeremy Scott’s “paper doll” dress (2017): there are literally white tabs sticking out of the garment that makes it look like a cut-out ready for a little girl to play dress up with her illustrations of grown women. Another wonderful example of the Camp aesthetic is a woman wearing a baby doll dress: Anna Sui’s pale custard, baby blue and ballerina pink baby doll dresses from 1994 illustrate this point perfectly. With fur stoles and showgirl headpieces, these little dresses were inspired by nostalgia and the designer’s childhood.
“Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character.’ . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as ‘a camp,’ they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.” A sort of sophisticated example of this can be witnessed in the form of what Sontag literally meant when she said that “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Jane Wrightsman—a famous benefactor to the Met—wore a Balenciaga evening dress covered in pale peachy pink marabou feathers complete with a silk bow (1965-66). In praise of feathers, there are literally millions on display at the museum right now: it’s like a haute couture showgirl’s paradise complete with every color feather imaginable: ones that sort of lay like palms in the desert and tiny ones that stick out like antennae and float gaily with the slightest movement.
Sontag muses that Camp is really, above all, an appreciation of beauty, art and culture. In a way, Camp is life affirming. “The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. (Genet talks about this in Our Lady of the Flowers.) The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.” Some examples of what may make someone cheerful upon entering the exhibit include a pink Armani Privé dress covered in marabou feathers (2018), a 2019 haute couture tiered gown designed by Viktor & Rolf that is nine feet in diameter and emblazoned with the phrase “Less is More” in green cursive lettering and even more tiered gowns made entirely out of tulle by Giambattista Valli (2017-2018). These are some of the largest objects on display.
Of course, there’s lots of Jeremy Scott for Moschino at the museum as well, including a dress made of canary yellow feathers (something Lola at the Copacabana would simply go gaga over) as well as an explosion of feather and paper butterflies atop a mound of deep purple feathers (2018). A hat in the shape of a cauliflower complete with tiny white synthetic pearls and folds of green and yellow silk, satin and chiffon can be seen and enjoyed as a sort of fashionable piece of produce (Deirdre Hawken, 2013). There’s a suit covered in Gucci logos, a dollar bill dress by Jeremy Scott, Bjork’s infamous swan dress that she wore to the 2001 Academy Awards (designed Marjan Pejoski), a Marc Jacobs opera coat decorated with the visage of Maria Callas, a dress that’s styled to look like bouquet of flowers (Jeremy Scott for Moschino) and a Saint Laurent coat that resembles an over-sized fuzzy red heart. There’s a coat made of tinsel, purses in the shapes of an iron and garbage can (Moschino), a flamingo headdress (Schiaparelli Couture, fall 2018), a speedo embellished with Warhol’s banana, a Moschino cloak with golden arches to resemble the McDonald’s logo and purple sparkly cloven hoof shoes. All of these incredibly campy objects and garments are testaments to folly, fun and the enjoyment of, not just fashion and popular culture, but, life as we know it.