It’s exaggerated. It’s extravagant. It’s over-the-top. It’s camp—the subject of The Costume Institute’s spring 2019 exhibition. And it’s an aesthetic that’s at once ubiquitous and hard to pinpoint.
The idea of camp dates to 17th-century France, when the term “se camper” (“to flaunt”) was used by and around the French royal court. (“Camp about on one leg,” wrote Molière in 1671. “Strut like a comedy-king!”) Conveying a certain extravagance and theatricality, the verb seems perfectly suited to the era of Louis XIV. Camp assumed different (if no less flamboyant) connotations in Victorian England, when it came to be associated with queer subculture—and above all, with the peerless Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). A dictionary of 1909 defined camp as “actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis used chiefly by persons of exceptional want of character,” adding a subversive thrill for those who embraced the attitude.
In 1964, Susan Sontag’s (1933–2004) influential essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” thrust the idea of camp into the mainstream. Via 58 “notes,” Sontag proposed various lenses through which to consider the aesthetic, writing that camp is “a seriousness that fails,” a “love of the unnatural,” “a comic vision of the world.” It is Sontag’s ideas that inform the structure of The Met’s Camp: Notes on Fashion.
Featuring paintings, written manuscripts, decorative-art objects, film clips, and other contextual objects from The Met collection and lenders, the first half of the show considers the evolution of the camp aesthetic. Ensembles by Jean Paul Gaultier, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, Jeremy Scott, and other fashion leaders illustrate how such thinkers have interpreted the history of camp, offering homages that range from outrageous to tongue-in-cheek (often simultaneously).
The over-the-top-ness that is so essential to camp comes alive in the showstopping second half of the exhibition. Candy-colored cubbies (designed in conjunction with theater scenographer Jan Versweyveld) contain designs that run the gamut of Sontagian ideas. Visitors can take in ensembles informed by childlike wonder, which use mass culture as high fashion, which contain sequins by the thousand, and oh-so-very much more.
Just outside the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall (and at store.metmuseum.org), The Met Store presents its own interpretations of camp. Our assortment of apparel, jewelry, and other fun gifts echoes several of the themes of the exhibition. With the hope of fooling the eye, we offer delightfully deceptive pieces that celebrate the irony-loving and just plain fun aspects of camp. We’ve created a pattern of very bright, very artificial flowers to adorn accessories, channeling the joy of the aesthetic.
We’ve taken symbols associated with camp—including lips, pink flamingos, hearts, and other vivid emblems—and covered bags, tees, scarves, and other pieces with them; we’ve even created an original bandana pattern using these fun motifs. We’ve emblazoned mugs, sweatshirts, totes, pouches, and more with rainbows and quotes from Oscar Wilde, saluting the irrepressible, irresistible spirit of camp. As you might imagine, we had a lot of fun with this.
Camp: Notes on Fashion is open now through September 8 at The Met Fifth Avenue. Visit store.metmuseum.org to shop products inspired by the exhibition, as well as the Camp Collection, featuring designer exclusives.