Annotating Camp: Notes on Fashion
In 1964, a 31-year-old Susan Sontag published what became her seminal ‘Notes on “Camp”’, a literal list of observations, considerations and descriptions trying to explain the titular amorphous concept. It became one of her most cited works of cultural criticism and the inspiration for 2019’s Costume Institute show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ‘Camp: Notes On Fashion’. As always, the famed gala opening event drew throngs of media attention, perhaps propelled even more so by the inherent extravagance of the theme. But both the red carpet and the exhibit itself revealed what happens when an industry hungry for intellectual clout and corporations likewise ravenous for the sheen of respectability fail to fully understand the subject at hand, jeopardizing meaningful scholarship in the process.
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To discuss where this show fumbles, one must first be tasked with defining what is and is not camp. It’s something Sontag herself was working out in her own head as she took her astute notes. What can be drawn from her work more or less, even if she doesn’t phrase it quite this way, is that camp is indefinable because it’s a sensibility more than an idea. It’s something which one can’t quite pin down. Its typical ingredients are usually a heady mix of excess, humor and artifice, among other things. But even that doesn’t quite encapsulate it. Perhaps Supreme Court Justice Potter’s famous opinion in the 1964 obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio––"I know it when I see it."––is the best alternative to a concrete definition. And this is where things start to go awry.
With no definitive guide, the curators cherry picked Sontag’s phrasing to include things from the museum’s holdings that truly had no business being included. As a noted historian who accompanied me on my first viewing mentioned, Sontag’s citing of women’s clothes from the 20s, specifically fringed and beaded dresses, doesn’t necessarily equal camp especially when the ever restrained Molyneux is chosen as the extant example. Just further down the same aisle is one of Elsa Schiaparelli's stunning embroidered jackets with a woman's profile and flaxen hair streaming down the right arm famously influenced by the Surrealist circle she traveled in. But is Surrealism camp? It’s a question that was not answered. The only possible means of connection could be its embrace of the strange, but even that seems like a stretch. Sontag also wrote, “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” The Met chose one of Balenciaga’s iconic feather-embroidered gowns to model this point though it too felt out of place for the reserve of its architectural shape. These three examples hint at a larger complication with the show: It fails to properly distinguish between what is merely over the top and what is camp. The latter certainly includes the former, but the inverse is not necessarily the case. Camp has an irreverent spirit that winks at the viewer rather than functioning as just an aesthetic showboat. But how the two differ is never explained.
What is perhaps most strange about this year’s exhibition is how, despite its theme, it seemed to shy away from the current political climate. It opens, quite rightly, with camp’s deep connection to gay culture stretching back to ancient times and all the way to Oscar Wilde and other more contemporary figures. Even Marlene Dietrich's ‘gender-bending’ tuxedo from the 1930 film ‘Morocco’ makes an appearance. But the interrelation was not kept resonant throughout. Camp came as a form of resistance by queer people to cultural norms, but the Met's exhibit does not explore that, even though this recognition is critical to the understanding of camp and therefore to audience engagement.
If magazines have advertorials, those somewhat sinister advertisements dressed up to look like proper editorial content, then we may now need to coin a related phrase for when patrons of museum scholarship use spaces of education as opportunities for product placement. It’s no secret that exhibitions of any scale require substantial sponsorship in nearly every instance––this is quite literally the reason for the Met Ball’s inception––but as fashion has joined the pop culture fold in new ways, companies both within and outside the industry have taken up the cause for less than benevolent reasons. And it shows. Take this year’s sponsor, Gucci.
Gucci is certainly over the top, even witty at times, and current creative director Alessandro Michele has done a serviceable job making the archaically gendered fashion business think about its engrained norms. While one or two of the brand’s objects on display did fit in thematically, most did not. A pair of platform sneakers with rainbow soles juxtaposed with Salvatore Ferragamo’s rainbow platform sandals being one and a logo-print ensemble being another. Indulgent, yes. Camp, no. The transparency in the attempt to make those objects fit when they did not was startling. Though the Instagram-friendly nature of the space, something the designers no doubt took into account when conceiving it, and the many events surrounding it may obscure this fact, these shows also produce texts that will assuredly become points of reference for future research. When brands attempt to shoehorn in their designs to gain notoriety or the seriousness a museum bestows, they also hinder a more thoughtful examination of fashion history because they have essentially purchased their place in it.
Fashion always tries to makes itself more or less serious than it needs to be––a creative inferiority complex only made worse by collaborations with fine artists that have popped up more frequently over the past couple of decades. It yearns for the kind of authority and cultural standing of fine art without recognizing that there are countless things outside of it that have just as much if not more impact on the world. Fashion––when genuine, made with purpose and imbued with an aesthetic philosophy––is more than enough. Great fashion is, whether it intends to be or not, an intellectual pursuit that seeks to understand human behavior, sexuality and society at large. You needn’t force it to be by framing it within the work of one of the 20th century’s greatest minds. ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ is an attempt to wrestle with that intellectualization, the power of the lavish, the cult of personality and the surprisingly wide-spread influence of queer life, but it never succeeds in accomplishing all with an even hand and it left me confused and dissatisfied. There’s always next year.