Monday, May 13, 2019

"Camp: Notes on Fashion" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute

"One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art." So said Oscar Wilde, the patron saint of Camp, which is being celebrated now in the new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute in New York City. For this eye-popping exhibition, Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge at the Costume Institute, was inspired by Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on Camp." In it, Sontag sets about to describe the sensibility called Camp, stating that a sensibility is different from an idea. "The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural and exaggeration," she says. "The way of Camp is not in terms of beauty but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization." She writes that fashion in particular has an affinity for Camp as Camp is a decorative art, "emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content." With this these thoughts in mind, Andrew Bolton presents Camp (I capitalize the word as Sontag did in her essay) with a dazzling range of bejeweled, be-feathered and extravagant clothes and accessories in the galleries at the Met. While it is hard to define Camp, I think the common thread is exaggerated style combined with an arch sense of humor. This show is one big delicious wad of pink bubble gum to chew over and enjoy.

The exhibit begins in small, low-ceilinged pink galleries, which explore Camp as a noun and a verb and an adjective. Audio overhead features the sound of a typewriter clacking out quotes about Camp and Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow."
Nothing says Camp like a dress made of feathers - this Balenciaga dress from 1966 was owned by Jayne Wrightsman – 

This elegant jacket by Schiaparelli features golden beaded hair running down its sleeve and a jeweled eyeball –

Around a couple of turns, the pink boudoir galleries give way to one large room filled with colorful double-decker squares that display more Camp clothes. In the center of the room a large square installation holds accessories.

Circus dresses by Manish Arora and Christian Francis Roth –

It's a dizzying effect and honestly it's hard to take in all of the clothes in the bright cubes, especially the ones in the top level of the super-glamorous "Hollywood Squares"-like design. Judy Garland sings "Over the Rainbow" in this gallery too, bringing a melancholy twinge to the happy mood of the colorful room.

As is tradition, at the press preview I attended the morning of the Met Gala, guests were ushered to the first floor Petrie Sculpture Court to hear remarks about the show. Max Hollein, the new Director of the Museum, welcomed guests and thanked "our Camp idol Anna Wintour," which made Anna, sitting in the first row, laugh. He noted, "Camp is the great democratiser" and "sees everything in quotation marks." Alessandro Michele, Creative Director at Gucci, which sponsored the show, gave his remarks in Italian. Curator Andrew Bolton described how the first, small, narrow boudoir-like galleries are like closets, which evoke the "secret, clandestine nature" of the origins of Camp. He pointed out that in the first galleries, the recording of Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" was from when she was 16, while in the last gallery, the recording was from a month before she passed away. Ultimately, he said Camp is "a mode of enjoyment. It puts a smile on our faces and a warm glow in our hearts.”

At a party recently I was sitting next to a fellow who had his knickers in a serious twist because he felt this show was "superficial." (These Costume Institute exhibits often elicit strong reactions and opinions.) I disagreed; I think it treats Camp very seriously and at the same time is a lot of fun to look at, as it should be. This summer, head up to "Camp"!