The Perils and Pleasures of Institutionalizing “Camp” at The Met

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Art AND: Stephanie Williams

If you have never encountered the concept of camp before, but saw some of the pictures of what the glitterati were wearing to the Met Gala, you might be forgiven for thinking it had something to do with ruffles, feathers, and general absurdity in fashion. I think this was the result of stylists and designers skimming Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” and latching on to point 25: “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Naturally, camp is more complicated than that, and is not easily contained within the constraints of styling a celebrity for public consumption. Sontag herself created a sprawling and unwieldy definition in 58 points published in 1964 which inspired the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s current exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion.

When I first read Sontag’s text, her definition of camp was exciting to me since it celebrated an aesthetic that resisted all of the constraining ideologies of high modernism. Camp is about artifice, the acknowledgement that our everyday life is a kind of performance, it embraces kitsch, and it thumbs its nose at “good taste.” Sontag also explains that camp is a way of seeing the world: “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.” At its best, Camp: Notes on Fashion gives the visitor a bit of that camp vision, but in the Met’s hands that vision is a narrow one.

The exhibition roots camp in the Classical posture of contrapposto through a small bronze copy of the “Belvedere Antinous,” attributed to Pietro Tacca, that welcomes viewers to the pink-walled exhibition. This 17th-century citation of a classical Roman sculpture, which in turn was a copy of a Classical Greek sculpture, was owned by Louis XIV. It is flanked by a pair of male contrapposto mannequins in Vivienne Westwood tights with mirrored fig leaves from her Voyage to Cythera collection (A/W 1989–90) bringing a gender-bending punk voice to the conversation. A 1987 Robert Mapplethorpe photo of the marble Antinous links the contrapposto pose to a specifically queer aesthetic.

If you’ve taken an art history course that included any kind of Classical sculpture, you’ll remember contrapposto as a pose used to enliven the figure. Antinous, with his hip jutting to the left, his right knee slightly bent, appears casually posed with each shift of weight on one side balanced by a corresponding response on the other. Re-contextualizing this familiar pose of the nude male figure under the heading of camp, or more precisely the French verb se camper (“to posture boldly” according to the exhibition text), and linking it explicitly to a queer and a subcultural aesthetic is an exciting beginning to the exhibition.

Attributed to Pietro Tacca, “Belvedere Antinous,” ca. 1630

The opening galleries explore the role of the elaborate performative culture of the French court of Louis XIV. They also include stories that challenge viewers’ assumptions about rigid gender distinctions in the period, such as that of the Chevalier d’Eon who entered Louis XV’s ranks of spies as a man in 1756, and later lived as a woman. This leads to a strong section that pairs contemporary garments with historical figures who engaged with camp such as Ernest “Stella” Boulton and Frederick “Fanny” Park, a cross-dressing couple living in Victorian England. This section is significant since it introduces viewers to a queer history many are likely to be unaware of, and shows the stunning words and images that people like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley created, despite persecution and marginalization.

What is absent from this section, however, are the stories of people of color. Jonathan Square, creator of the multi-platform digital humanities project “Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom,” pointed to holidays and festivals such as Negro Election Day or Pinkster, in which enslaved people or free blacks dressed across class and race in camp performances that mocked those that enslaved and persecuted them—this role-play is the very essence of camp. Lena Waithe, in her Kerby Jean-Raymond zoot suit reading “Black Drag Queens Inventend [sic] Camp,” was right—but the story is even older than the statement suggests. Monica Miller’s book Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity explores some of this history and points to several other historical figures such as 18th-century former slave and celebrity dandy Julius Soubise, who would have been an enriching addition to the Met’s exhibition. The history of Harlem drag balls, especially The Hamilton Lodge ball which started in 1869, is also a significant omission from the exhibition. The only real reference to drag ball culture is the only video in the show, Malcolm McLaren’s music video for “Deep in Vogue” (1989) which features Willi Ninja, Aldonna Xtravaganza, and Adrian Xtravaganza voguing.

In spite of its critical exclusions, the first sections of the exhibition do succeed in showing that camp is a way of being, it is a performance. Portraits and photographs of figures like Oscar Wilde make that clear. The section asks viewers to engage with the text of Sontag’s essay and illuminates the idea that camp is often a form of creative misreading. Sontag’s text crawls around viewers’ heads on an LED strip above pink-walled cases with specific excerpts above the objects in the Met’s collection to which Sontag refers: a Tiffany lamp, a flapper dress, a chinoiserie porcelain confection from the 18th century, a portrait of Marie Antoinette, a Caravaggio painting, an art nouveau cabinet, a Dior dress. We encounter these familiar objects in a new light; as Sontag explained, camp is “the sensibility of failed seriousness.” The next brief section which focuses on the concepts of intentional and unintentional camp presents pairs of garments stripped of context. Thierry Mugler’s “Venus” dress (1995–96) benefits from being recently worn by Cardi B—an image viewers may be able to conjure on their own. Paul Poiret’s iconic “Sorbet” ensemble, on the other hand, needs the context of his Orientalist “Thousand and Second Night” Party, an act of performative branding, to be fully understood as camp.

The threads of creative misreading and performance are completely lost in the last and splashiest room of the exhibition—the one you have probably seen on Instagram. Here, within colorful cubbies, garments displayed on mannequins or mounts eliminate the performing bodies needed to animate their campiness. We are back to the flatter understanding of camp—tulle extravaganzas and TV-dinner cloaks. One-note designers like Jeremy Scott (Moschino’s creative director) dominate, while creatives like Thierry Mugler (a master of camp) and Patrick Kelly are literally marginalized in a second level of cubbies where only the broadest contours of their designs can be seen.

I couldn’t help but wonder, Carrie Bradshaw-style, was this exhibition an ad for Jeremy Scott and Moschino? I’m not alone, as critic Roberta Smith noted the same thing.

Above: Patrick Kelly, “Ensemble,” autumn/winter 1986-87

Both Mugler and Kelly deserve better representation here, as do their theatrical runway shows which would have really shown what camp can be about on a high fashion runway. Interestingly, the pieces by these designers allude to brilliant camp performers notably absent otherwise: Mae West and Josephine Baker. A costume for Liberace (by Michael Travis), a tuxedo owned by Marlene Dietrich (by Knize), a fruit-filled headdress worn by Carmen Miranda, and a fabulous ensemble by Bob Mackie were some of the few other garments that at least evoked performers—that is, for a viewer who knows enough. These garments were completely decontextualized and the performers who wore them were barely noted in the label text.

The Mackie costume was made for Cher, but she gets no mention at all in the label. Is this tuxedo the one worn by Dietrich in that extraordinary camp scene in Morocco or from her personal wardrobe? The exhibition won’t tell you. The most ghostly presence is Judy Garland, whose performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” can be heard throughout the show, but who we never actually see (though we do see the rainbow platforms Ferragamo designed for her in 1938). These spectral presences point to other performers who should have been part of this exhibition: Carol Channing, Madonna, Divine, John Waters, Bootsy Collins, Pat Cleveland, Grace Jones, and Lil Kim, to name just a few. The exclusion of these performers and drag queens means that this exhibition remains one dominated by a mostly male and mostly white group of high-end fashion designers despite the fact that camp is a style and taste that emerges from the margins.

Where the show does succeed, however, is in getting visitors to recognize that camp is all around us.

The act of creative misreading, finding camp in history or every day life, and the performative experiments which constitute camp as an action are significant because they are enacted by those on the periphery as a way of challenging the status quo. As Richard Dyer explained in his 1976 essay “It’s Being so Camp as Keeps us Going,” camp emerges directly from the marginalized experience of gay men and can be a powerful tool in exposing the falseness of the hegemonic heteronormative narratives we are all fed. It can provide a sense of belonging and community for a persecuted group who speak the same language.

Dyer also crucially points out the potential problems with camp, the ways that it can exclude through its use of coded language and images, and can reinforce sexist representations of women: “Looked at in this way, the camp sensibility is very much a product of our oppression. And, inevitably, it is scarred by that oppression.” The multiple voices heard in the final gallery, as well as the short snips of text from different thinkers, contribute to a sense that camp doesn’t have a fixed definition and isn’t entirely liberatory. 

Brazilian Turban worn by Carmen Miranda, 1940

In the end though, the dominance of colorful clothes on lifeless mannequins deflates some of the power of this narrative. As a capital-A art museum the Met displays fashion as art, which to me is one of the most boring ways to treat it. Patrick Kelly’s Autumn/Winter 1986–87 ode to Josephine Baker (who was, like himself, an African American artist who found success in Paris) is so much more exciting when you see the photograph of the brilliant model Pat Cleveland dancing its banana skirt down the runway with her arms covered in Alexander Calder-inspired wire bracelets. In its far-away green cubby, we can’t appreciate the construction of Kelly’s garment, nor the element of camp which happens in the wearing of it. By treating these garments as sculptures, and autonomous works that can stand alone, so many of the most interesting stories to be told in this exhibition are only accessible to an audience that already knows them—reinforcing camp’s exclusivity.  

Where the show does succeed, however, is in getting visitors to recognize that camp is all around us. As I browsed around the rest of the museum the day I visited, I stumbled upon an old favorite, Florine Stettheimer’s four-painting Cathedrals series. Stettheimer’s work is so incredibly camp! It’s full of pastel colors, flowers, and decorative flourishes. It’s hard to believe she wasn’t part of the exhibition, though there was a kind of joy in spotting satirical images of artists, curators, and critics in contrapposto poses in her painting “Cathedrals of Art (1942).” I found myself laughing at the failed seriousness of Umberto Boccioni’s Futurist sculpture “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” trying so hard to represent movement and yet its feet are trapped in blocks of bronze. Since Futurism was a machismo proto-Fascist movement, this camp appropriation seemed particularly apt.

The challenge with camp is that it isn’t really an aesthetic that is created by a single artist or creator—which is how the Met tends to treat fashion. Neither fashion nor camp works like that. Camp aesthetics are created by designers in collaboration with wearers and visual culture at large—sometimes willfully, sometimes not (see Dapper Dan). While much of the fashion collected by the Met won’t be worn anywhere but on a runway (or perhaps the Met Gala), the truly revealing stories about fashion happen well beyond the bounds of beautiful dresses in glass cases. What this exhibition does succeed at, however, is showing the visitor how to look at the world through a camp lens, and that’s not nothing.

Camp: Notes on Fashion is on view at The Met through September 8.

Photos by the author.

Victoria Rose Pass is a specialist in Visual Culture, particularly in areas of design and fashion. Her research considers the history of fashion culture in the 20th century and focuses specifically on issues of gender and race. Her work can be found in two recent co-edited books, Women’s Magazines in Print and New Media with Noliwe Rooks and Ayana Weekley (Routledge, 2016) and Design History Beyond the Canon with Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler and Christopher Wilson (Bloomsbury, 2019), as well as on her Instagram.

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