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.