The Metropolitan Museum Of Art Sets Up ‘Camp’

Photo by Randy Brooke

I don’t know about you, but at this point, I feel as though I am a bona fide expert on Camp having read countless articles devoted to it. But that didn’t detract from this morning’s press preview, which took place just around the same time the world found out that Meghan Markle has given birth to a baby boy.

Thom Browne
Photo: Marilyn Kirschner

Among those who showed up to take in the exhibition were Simon Doonan, Thom Browne (who has a number of designs in the exhibition and who told me he has made outfits for “a number of guests tonight”). Also Jeremy Scott, Stephen Jones, Richie Rich, Anna Sui, Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, and Zandra Rhodes whose shocking pink hair definitely qualifies her as Camp.

Anna Wintour may not have shocking pink hair, but she also qualifies as Camp. This was alluded to by Max Hollein, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art during his welcoming address. Mr. Hollein actually referred to the Conde Nast Artistic Director and Vogue editor-in-chief as being a perfect example of “extraordinary Camp.” Anyone who is instantly recognizable from a quickly drawn caricature with a few strokes definitely qualities in my book.

Simon Doonan

Next up was Gucci’s Creative Director Alessandro. Michele (Gucci has underwritten the exhibit with additional support provided by Conde Nast.) There are about a dozen Gucci ensembles in the exhibition. Because Alessandro only speaks Italian, there was a translator on hand (guests were provided with transcribers through which to listen).

The designer enthused about the exhibition and acknowledged that it holds something of the DNA of what he’s been doing. He repeatedly emphasized the word “freedom” (as in creative freedom, freedom to be who you are) as he spoke of the beauty of Camp.

From Left Andrew Bolton, Max Hollein, Anna Wintour, and Alessandro Michele
Photo: Laurel Marcus

Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge, The Costume Institute, spoke the longest. Among the highlights of his address:

“Since we announced the exhibition in September the two most common questions I’ve been asked are “Why did we choose ‘Camp’ as a theme?” and “What is Camp” The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward. We’re experiencing a resurgence of Camp- not just in fashion but in culture in general.”

“Camp tends to come to the fore during moments of social and political instability- when our society is deeply polarized. The 1960s was one such moment, as were the 1980’s and so too are the times in which we’re living. Camp is by its very nature subversive. It reacts with and against public tastes, confronting and challenging the status quo.”

“As for what is Camp? That is more difficult to answer. The cultural historian Andre Medhurst once said that “trying to define Camp is like attempting to sit in the corner of a circular room.” Its elusiveness translates into a virtually limitless corpus of references.”

“Examples spring from any time and any place, and from all aspects of life, including art, film, music, sports, and of course, politics. As Mark Booth mentions in his “Encyclopedia of Camp”published in 1984, examples of Camp are both infinite and inexhaustible. In fact, the principle of endless listing may well be Camp’s definitive characteristic.”

“In her essay, Sontag presents an opposition between naïve Camp and deliberate Camp. She considers naïve Camp to be unconscious and unintentional and deliberate Camp to be calculated and manufactured. For Sontag, the essential element of naïve Camp is “a seriousness that fails.” This concept is explored in a gallery that serves as a bridge between the first and second parts of the exhibition.”

On display are examples of fashions that epitomize naïve Camp juxtaposed with examples that exemplify deliberate Camp. Introducing the selection is Ferragamo’s iconic “Rainbow” sandal designed for Judy Garland alongside a shoe with a multi-colored platform by Alessandro Michele for Gucci.”

“Sontag only offers two examples of fashion in her essay- “women’s clothes of the twenties” and “a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” However, she asserts that camp “has an affinity for certain arts rather than others,” citing fashion as an example.”

In the second part of the exhibition, we explore this affinity through a selection of 130 fashions and accessories that date from the 1980s to the present. They’re organized under eighteen statements that communicate key aspects of the camp sensibility as articulated by Sontag as well as other scholars of camp criticism that came afterward.”

“Within these groupings, each ensemble is accompanied by a comment that speaks to the multifaceted nature of Camp. These comments are spoken aloud by the designers in the exhibition, giving the impression of an echo chamber. While experienced as a cacophony, they underscore the fact that Camp is a site of debate rather than a consensus.

Every few minutes, the comments are interrupted by Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow.” In the first part of the show, we play the version she sang in The Wizard of Oz. While in the second we play a version she sang only months before she passed away from an overdose of barbiturates.”

“At her funeral, the actor James Mason commented: “Judy’s great gift was that she could wring tears out of hearts of rock. She gave so richly and so generously that there’s no currency in which to repay her.”

Mason’s comments point to the essential spirit of Camp- its generosity and munificence. As Sontag observed in her essay: “Camp is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation- not judgment.” In the end, the ultimate purpose of Camp is to put a smile on our faces and a warm glow in our hearts.”

Wendy Yu
Photo: Marilyn Kirschner

When I asked Andrew if he thought there was anything that could have gone too far, been too much, or too over the top for this exhibit, or in retrospect, anything he should have left out because it was so outrageous, he smiled and said no. “Actually, what we have here is “tasteful Camp.”

Sharon Hurwitz & Laurel Marcus
Photo: Marilyn Kirschner

Good taste or bad taste, the theme inspired a number of attendees at this morning’s press preview in their choice of dress. Two women (our own Laurel Marcus and Sharon Hurwitz), each wore a Jeremy Scott for Moschino design. But of course, all eyes are on the red carpet for the Met Gala tonight, which promises to be the most outrageous and over the top ever. So much so, that hordes of onlookers began setting up Camp on 5th Avenue directly across from The Metropolitan Museum of Art early this morning. Stay tuned!

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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