At The Met Costume Institute – Summer Camp

Text by Mary Gregory,  Photos by Adel Gorgy

“Camp is the Dada of the disco crowd.” – Joyce Haber

“Camp is tongue-in-cheek.” – Sasha Torres

“Camp transforms what was ugly yesterday into today’s object of aesthetic pleasure.” – Umberto Eco

“Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.” –Susan Sontag

“Camp is Carmen Miranda.” – Philip Core

With over 250 works including fashions by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Thom Browne, Christian Dior, Salvatore Ferragamo, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Bob Mackie, Thierry Mugler, Yves Saint Laurent, Elsa Schiaparelli and more, one might expect elegant gowns and smart chic. But instead, the Met Costume Institute’s newest deep dive into fashion trends takes us to Camp. Not summer camp, or camp Weeki Wachee (though those might well qualify as camp with a capital “C”), but Camp as a form of humorous, self-affirming, norm-challenging, often over-the-top style. 

Bjork’s Swan Dress by Marjan Pejoski

Bjork’s (in)famous Oscar swan dress is there. So are costumes for Cher and Liberace. So are 17th century etchings from Versailles (the court of Louis XIV was tres Camp) and a section devoted to Oscar Wilde, gender and dress in Victorian England. The show offers plenty of historical notes to think about, grounding the exhibition before it takes off into frivolity. There’s a paper dress with Warholesque Campbell’s soup cans printed on it. Paper dresses were a thing for about a month in the 1960s. Freedom from laundry!  Disposable!  Only $5! And, now we know, Camp. 

A paper dress with a work by Warhol

What makes something Camp is fluid and idiosyncratic. Susan Sontag, the great critic, essayist, filmmaker and writer took a crack at defining it in 1964. “Notes on Camp” was her first major work published, and it’s the inspiration and foundation of the exhibition. “The essence of Camp,” Sontag wrote “is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric – something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques…To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it.”  

Manish Arora’s “merry-go-round” skirt, from 2009
Swan headpiece by Giles Deacon and Stephen Jones and a view of Camp’s main gallery

The  show, with walls covered in bubble gum pink, is filled with dresses, gowns, jumpsuits, capes, hats and shoes (including mink-covered). The main gallery features stacked boxes filled with fluorescent colors, recalling store windows, the “Hollywood Squares” TV show set, or the windows in Amsterdam’s red light district. Whatever they are, they’re entirely unnatural – pure artifice – and therefore Camp. On display is a Viktor & Rolf upside-down evening gown, tapered in the wrong places, flouncy in other wrong places. There’s a wearable baby blue Tiffany pouch by Vaquera, a Jeremy Scott ensemble that looks like a cross between a bird’s nest and an Easter basket, as well as his playful dress with paper doll tabs attached, and Virgil Abloh’s little black dress with the words “Little Black Dress” written on it. Stephen Jones’ headdresses are a highlight. The British milliner also capped mannequins for “China: Through the Looking Glass,” “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, ” and other exhibitions.  

Jeremy Scott designs for Moschino
“Camp is dandyism in the age of mass culture.” – Susan Sontag

High art and low come together creating a kind of fun/funny fusion. Jeremy Scott’s Moschino designs incorporate Budweiser and McDonald’s logos. Another Scott Moschino piece recreates a TV dinner tray with silver lame edges and quilted mashed potatoes, peas and carrots in front, with a train of meat loaf and gravy trailing behind. A standout was Christopher Bailey’s faux fur cape for Burberry, replicating a rainbow flag. Here, something meaningful was made more so, elevated by being refashioned as a richly luxurious item. 

Christopher Bailey’s faux fur cape for Burberry
A jumpsuit fashioned after Vogue covers 

Vitrines like those in jewelry stores allow close viewing of feathered hats, funky footwear, and comical purses. But before you laugh and move on, notice the incredible workmanship, materials and design. These did, after all, make it to the Met.  A case in point was a stunningly crafted Deidre Hawken “Cauliflower” hat in silk and chiffon studded with hundreds of tiny pearl beads suggesting the white bumpy texture of the vegetable.

“Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” – Susan Sontag

The exhibition, curated by Andrew Bolton, with Karen Van Godtsenhoven and Amanda Garfinkel, never tells us what Camp is. They let others do that, with spoken text playing in the background (along with Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow). What they do explain, in the wall texts, is how Camp evolved, and why it’s worthy of consideration. “It is no coincidence that Camp resurfaces during moments of social, political, and economic instability—when society is polarized—because, despite its mainstreaming, it has never lost its power to subvert and to challenge the status quo.”

Top photo: An ensemble worn by Cher is on view in the Met’s Camp: Notes on Fashion