Camp is a style that is artificial, passionate, and serious
September 1, 2019 Christina Strawbridge
What is camp fashion? It’s not something you would find in the forest or around a campfire.
The Metropolitan Art MuseumCostume Institute’s newest exhibit tries to establish the connection. Camp: Notes on Fashionis this year’s offeringand was inspired by author Susan Sontag’s 1964 “Notes on ‘Camp,’” a 58-point essay which she dedicated to Oscar Wilde, the 19th century poet and playwright. Camp “is not a natural mode of sensibility,” she wrote. “The essence … is its love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration.”
Camp is artificial, passionate, and serious, Sontag writes. Camp is Art Nouveau objects, Greta Garbo, Warner Brothers musicals and Mae West. The flamingo pink walled exhibit features 250 items and begins with a combined history and grammar lesson. The term “camp” was first used in the 17th Century as a French verb “se camper,” which means to flaunt. In the 1671 Molière play, “Scapin the Schemer” the character Scapin tells a fellow servant to “Camp about on one leg. Put your hand on your hip. Wear a furious look. Strut about like a drama king.”
The second part of the lesson moves us from the verb to the adjective, “campish,” which had gay connotations in the 19th century, and then to the noun, where camp first enters a Victorian dictionary in 1909, defined as “actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis influenced from the French.”
The exhibit has brought together the camp pioneers from Louis XVI, Oscar Wilde, Bjork and Lady Gaga and placed them in glass vignettes stacked high in the main room of the exhibit. Unfortunately, it was somewhat difficult to see the second-story designs, but the effect was the Brady Bunch meets Haute Couture, all while Judy Garland belts out Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
There he was in his glory, Louis XIV in his official portrait with one leg in front, hand on hip, modeling his massive royal cloak, along with silk stockings and red-heeled shoes. Long live the drama king!
Sontag wrote that camp was Swan Lake, so the famous swan dress worn to the Academy Awards in 2001 by Bjork, with the bird’s long neck curving over her shoulder is prominently displayed along with Gaga’s unforgettable 2010 raw meat dress, which is, thankfully, a nonmeat replica in the exhibit.
FromJohn Galliano, there are dresses that look like newspaper clippings and packing tape. Since the Palace of Versailles is seen as “a sort of camp (Garden of) Eden,” there’s a section of Versailles-style gowns by designers like Franco Moschinoand Vivienne Westwood.
Some of my favorites were the Mugler vintage dress worn by Cardi B at the 2019 Grammy Awards and pieces by Moroccan designerJean-Charles de Castelbajac, famed for dressing Madonna and Helena Christensen in primary colors through the 1990s. He is known as a maximalist, sending model Vanessa Paradis down a runway in a coat made of stuffed Snoopys.
How can you have a camp fashion exhibit without Richie Rich? The 1990s club kid’s Hello Kitty dress, (which he designed way before the Japanese icon hit the West) is the ultimate connection of fashion and camp. “I’ve been camp since I came out of the womb,” he said. “There is no such thing as too much camp, I want more sequins!
Camp: Notes on Fashion runs until September 8, 2019 at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York City. If you can’t make the exhibit come meet Richie Rich and his version of “Camp” at Benicia Fashion Runway where he will headline the Runway Show on Saturday night, September 28, 2019. This article appears in the September 2019 issue of Benicia Magazine.