In March 2018 the designer Rei Kawakubo held a Comme des Garçons show in Paris dedicated to the subject of camp, and sparked by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Ms. Kawakubo, who is famous for issuing one-sentence koans to elucidate her work (or make it even more mysterious), was rendered uncharacteristically verbose by the subject, sending out a multi-paragraph missive on the show beforehand.
It turns out she is not the only fashion figure tantalized, inspired and bamboozled by camp. Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, had introduced Ms. Kawakubo to the Sontag essay — which itself contains 58 different definitions of the term, and served to bring it from the underground into the mainstream — when he was creating an exhibition of the designer’s work.
Now the fruits of Mr. Bolton’s obsession are on view for all to see in “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” the latest iteration of the Met’s annual spring blockbuster fashion show. A subject that at first seems obvious, camp is a densely layered sensibility that encompasses (among other things) the revivifying and subversive power of the extreme, artificial, performative and pastiche, often challenges established norms of “good behavior” or “good taste” (feh! with the good taste) and is deeply intertwined with the history of queer culture.
A historical, cultural and sartorial journey traced in 250 objects, the show begins with the concept “se camper” (“to flaunt” or “to posture”), and exists formally in two parts. The first half evolves through four eras — Versailles, Oscar Wilde, Christopher Isherwood, Susan Sontag — which connect individuals and their camp points of view with their expression in written and decorative arts. Section two addresses the multiplicity of meanings of camp today, as illustrated by a multitude of looks straight from contemporary runways: feathered, Freudian, elegant and over-the-top.
It is grounded in the written word, bathed in Jordan almond shades, and proof that the more you consider camp, the more slippery, confounding and absorbing it becomes. Or so it became clear when Roberta Smith, The Times’s co-chief art critic, and I sat down to compare our own notes on “Camp.” These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
One of Viktor & Rolf’s “meme-bait tulle bombs” from the spring 2019 couture collection. CreditDolly Faibyshev for The New York Times
VANESSA FRIEDMAN In the weeks leading up to this show, I had endless debates with friends and colleagues about the meaning of “Camp,” always without a resolution. And I was hoping, perhaps delusionally, that I would come away from the exhibition with a clearer answer — at least as it applies to the current age.
ROBERTA SMITH I also had high hopes for this show, without quite knowing what I was hoping for. I reread Sontag, and by the end, despite her brilliance in identifying it, she makes camp seem fairly large and elastic — and it’s become only more so. Also there’s the issue of being outdated in terms of contemporary culture.
FREIDMAN The justification for doing this now, in an institution like the Met, seems to be that in periods of great divisions and dissent, camp, with its multiple interpretations and exaggerated aesthetic, rises to the fore. Camp also functions as a safe space for marginalized groups to engage in self-expression and cultural commentary. Yet I did not feel, looking at the clothes — even the Viktor & Rolf meme-bait tulle bombs that I just saw on the runway in January — that what I was seeing was a visual expression of this moment. Though I did get a sense of its place in a historical and artistic tradition.
SMITH What would Sontag have cited as camp today, when we seem to be up to our necks in it? Still, even before rereading “Notes on ‘Camp,’” a thumb-through of the show’s lavish if cumbersome catalog excited me. It raised two very art-specific ideas. First, that camp begins with the invention of the contrapposto pose — one hip thrust out, elbow cocked — in Greek sculpture, which seems brilliant, as well as apt because of the Greek acceptance of love between men. Second, there was the notion that the Pre-Raphaelite painters were camp — innocent or inadvertent camp, according to Sontag. This idea made me much more sympathetic to the excess and overt displays of skills of these artists, although I’m not sure how they would have taken it. So I expected the show to shake me up. But once beyond the historical material, it looked surprisingly predictable and not very coded, either.
FRIEDMAN Funny, I also thought the beginning was by far the most compelling section. I loved seeing that little bronze classical nude of Belvedere Antinous from 1630 (attributed to Pietro Tacca) in the entrance gallery with the Mapplethorpe photo of the marble Antinous from 1987, the Vivienne Westwood tights with the mirrored olive leaf over the crotch and the photograph from Hal Fischer’s 1977 “Gay Semiotics.” All of these male nudes have their elbows cocked out from one hip in that classic exaggerated pose of “se camper.” That, to me, was a powerful argument for camp as a cultural through-line.
A Rich First Half
SMITH To me, the first half has three distinct parts — a long opening section devoted to pre-Sontag historical material, Sontagian camp and what the Met calls “Failed Seriousness.” They pull you in different directions, and build anticipation before the letdown or onslaught of the second half. It starts out dense, carefully structured and richly textured. Cross references abound among paintings, prints, letters, books and photographs. Gender is very much up for grabs. I loved learning about the Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810), a French soldier and diplomat who lived openly as a woman in Britain, becoming something of a celebrity. The photographs and manuscripts pertaining to Wilde are also very affecting.
FRIEDMAN In those early rooms, I stumbled over the camp side of things as it related to fashion. For example, the intricate peacock-feathered Aubrey Beardsley cover illustration for the English edition of Wilde’s “Salomé” was juxtaposed with a gorgeous black cape by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen embroidered in brass bullion peacocks — which doesn’t strike me as particularly over-the-top or artificial. Maybe theatrical. I had the same questions in the Sontag room, where the blush pink ostrich-feathered Balenciaga dress donated by Jayne Wrightsman was paired with the Cecil Beaton 1966 portrait of Mrs. Wrightsman in the dress (which was a fabulous call and response).
So it is camp, presumably, because in Sontag’s time it was over-the-top. Which is useful for underscoring the fact that in different eras, what qualifies as extremism takes different shapes, but also adds to the general confusion; it’s implied, rather than overt, and tests the fall-back supposition that camp (like porn) is in the eye of the beholder: “I know it when I see it.” On the other hand, I thought the layering of Warhol’s screen-test videos of Sontag with the paper Campbell’s soup can dress and the Warhol Campbell’s soup can silk screen with the self-portrait of the artist was very effective.
SMITH I especially like the self-portrait of Warhol in finger-on-lips pose. The Sontagian camp gallery seems very much about sorting out camp, just like her essay. What is and isn’t camp becomes very ambiguous. There are wonderful things here, all selected from the Met’s collection. They represent — or actually are, since Sontag visited the museum regularly — the art, artifacts or design objects that Sontag mentioned in “Notes on ‘Camp.’”
About a dozen notes are emblazoned above the appropriate displays while the essay itself is flashed in a continual chyron “crawl” atop the displays, like an animated frieze, to the sound of typing. Sometimes it’s obvious, like the suit Schiaparelli designed with Jean Cocteau. The juxtaposition of Edgar Degas’s “Study of a Ballet Dancer” with two little pairs of porcelain ballet dancers seemed a camp moment unto itself. I’m not so sure about the lovely fennel-shaped Sèvres coffee service displayed in the Emile Gallé “Cow Parsley” Cabinet.
FRIEDMAN It was that contextualization I missed when we progressed to the second half. The multicolored sweetie box of the fashion section was where the sense of how these clothes reflect the artistic expression or political tenor around them seemed to have been abandoned. The Christopher Bailey faux shearling rainbow cape for Burberry, for example, is a reflection and celebration of (and Pledge of Allegiance to?) the L.B.G.T.Q. movement, and is part of a blossoming of challenges to old gender stereotypes. But it resides simply with the artist Philip Core’s quote about Camp being “the heroism of people not called upon to be heroes.” What happened to the connections between the garments and the world — whether of art or culture — in which they were created?
SMITH Well, they’re not there. With its double-decker vitrines, the show’s second half resembles a town square gone completely retail, a mecca for window-shoppers, except that the upper level can be hard to see. It’s also a spectacle in bubble, detached from reality — although a very wordy, noisy bubble, between the designers making statements about camp on the soundtrack and endless subject headings that turn every upstairs-downstairs combination into a separate category, and also a kind of illustration.
“Camp,” the show, struck me as the most idea-driven, Conceptual, intellectual exhibition theme the Costume Institute has ever used. In the end I felt I was looking mostly at fashion one-liners.
FRIEDMAN And it was not entirely clear to me whether the fashion served the quotations, or the quotations explained the fashion, or whether it depended on what you were seeing, and reading (and hearing — all those words being read aloud, plus Judy Garland’s final, cracked rendition of “Over the Rainbow” as an aural backdrop). My sense in a Costume Institute show is that the chosen garments have some extraordinary textile or artistic value. There are pieces like that here, like the Manish Arora “merry-go-round” skirt, with an actual carnival toy worked into its embroideries, and the Maison Martin Margiela Christmas tinsel coat. But Stella McCartney’s banana T-shirts for Chloé, or Virgil Abloh’s arched eyebrow little black dress with the words “little black dress”? I don’t know if they stand on their own.
Also, I can’t help but find it strange that Thierry Mugler, who is one of fashion’s supreme camp designers by any definition, has only two dresses in the show (including the Venus-emerging-from-the-half-shell creation Cardi B wore to the Grammys). It makes me wonder about the criteria. Though, obviously, that Moschino TV dinner dress from the most recent collection makes sense.
SMITH And there is an undue amount of Moschino. I counted 15 dresses and ensembles. Most are by Jeremy Scott and are consistently heavy-handed — especially the monstrous TV dinner dress. The one exception is Mr. Scott’s prosciutto dress, which we both liked. It was a simple sheath in a show where simplicity was scarce and, true to its name, it sheathed the body perfectly — latex imitating prosciutto masquerading as silk jersey.
FRIEDMAN What I do appreciate, though, is that Mr. Bolton included a number of new names in the show, so it wasn’t only the usual suspects: Tomo Koizumi’s crazy ruffled confections, for example, and Vaquera’s play on the Tiffany blue packaging. And for wit, you can’t really beat Marc Jacobs’s Freudian slip dress — the little white frock with Freud’s portrait on the body.
SMITH I loved the Koizumi — at least the lower-level one. Its pile of organza in rainbow colors seemed like the Neo-Expressionist response to the LeWittean order of Christopher Bailey’s rainbow cape.
Fashion on Fashion
FRIEDMAN In some ways, I thought the “Failed Seriousness” area — the corridor that serves as the connecting passage from the show’s first half to the second — was the tightest, most coherent part of the whole show. But that is partly because it was so narrowly construed: fashion talking to itself. So the Yves Saint Laurent column dress with the big pink fanny bow (which is, indeed, ridiculous; who wants a giant bow on their bottom?) goes perfectly with the Scott-for-Moschino paper doll version of the same; the Lanvin-Castillo lilac ruffled-bustle dress that gets turned upside down, literally, by Viktor & Rolf. You can absolutely see how an idea that didn’t quite come off got transmogrified into a successful camp ideal. Yet that tightening is, also, to me, where the exhibition starts to lose steam, because as it physically narrows it also conceptually narrows, and as you point out, becomes all about fashion.
SMITH As a person from an increasingly inclusive art world, I was struck by how few designers of color were present. And I thought there would be something that RuPaul once wore — at the very least. As a non-fashion person, my problem with most of the garments in the final gallery is that so many of them look so useless. The roots of camp are in subversion and opposition. But here, it’s seen only within the rarefied context of high-end fashion, of extremely expensive clothes that will be worn only a few times if at all, before being given to some museum. I wanted more street. I was expecting to see something by Miguel Adrover, who made dresses out of Burberry raincoats and a miniskirt out of a Louis Vuitton purse. His work was disruptive on so many levels in terms of business and creativity. Less disruptive but also camp would have been Stephen Sprouse’s Louis Vuitton bags, or maybe Takashi Murakami’s.
FRIEDMAN That didn’t bother me so much, speaking as a fashion person. (Though I also would have loved some Adrover.) I’m used to the fact that some pieces function as expressions of pure ideas, and then later get translated into what people wear. And there are concept clothes in the final section that specifically exemplify the idea of affluence, excess and waste — whether it’s Mr. Scott’s money dress or the plastic bag ball gown by Moschino, or the logo-strewn Guccis. Because there is no context other than quotations (“Camp is BIG business”), we lose the idea that those clothes were both a humorously subversive but pointed comment on current consumer habits while at the same time feeding or even exploiting them. Yet by the time you exit the show, between figures of Cher and Liberace and their most crazily encrusted garments, you’ve almost forgotten about the beginning, and surrendered to camp-as-costume.
SMITH Mr. Bolton’s previous exhibitions for Rei Kawakubo, “China: Through the Looking Glass” and “Manus x Machina” are among his greatest. He and his curatorial efforts are by now fixtures in the worlds of art and fashion. There aren’t many curators who year after year show us their thoughts — and research! — on fashion history in a way that is at once so focused and proscribed and yet so open-ended. “Camp” may be the most conflicted show he’s done in a while, but it has real substance. Even if you have moments of hating it, as I think we both do, you’re very engaged throughout.
FRIEDMAN Mr. Bolton has a habit of toggling between big, thematic shows and smaller, more personal deep-dives into the work of a designer, and I feel like this resides somewhere between the two forms. What it really reveals is that camp itself is such a giant, elusive concept, it can’t really be satisfyingly contained in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor galleries. But I’ll give him this: After you go through those doors, you don’t stop thinking about it. It sticks with you and niggles in the brain.
Camp: Notes on Fashion
Through Sept. 8 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.