The Met's 'Camp: Notes on Fashion' exhibit sees margins move to the center

Within the walls of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a celebration of the brash, the bold and the flamboyant is in full swing at the Costume Institute’s 2019 exhibition on 'camp'.

Upon entering the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall, 'Camp: Notes on Fashion' expands beyond its name as it explores camp: a stylistic domain based on irony, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality and exaggeration.

Focused on the margins of the aesthetic world moving to the center, the institute’s curatorial team have created a timeline of 'camp' -- founded on its conceptual birth in the minds and lifestyles of some of history’s greatest dandies, drag pioneers, artists, and cultural thinkers  -- with a framework heavily influenced by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, "Notes on 'Camp'."

Backed by Italian fashion brand Gucci, with additional support from media giant Condé Nast, the exhibition’s fashion displays include recent designs from Gucci's creative director, Alessandro Michele, as well as other camp fashion influences from major fashion designers.

Packed within narrow, sugary pink corridors and inside a final, vast room of floor-to-ceiling displays, designs can be seen from Elsa Schiaparelli, Rei Kawakubo, Yves Saint Laurent, Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Erdem Moralıoğlu and the recent Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award-winner, Bob Mackie.

The exhibition is steeped in the exploration of the cultural pervasiveness of 'camp' and its evolution over time. While studying stylistic traditions like the “beau idéal” of the 19th century, chinoiserie and art nouveau, 'Camp: Notes on Fashion' highlights the lineage of 'camp' from patron saints, including Louis XIV, his brother Philippe I, Frederick Park and Ernest Bolton (also known as Fanny and Stella), Andy Warhol, Benny Ninja, Judy Garland and Oscar Wilde, among others.

Traversing a vast history of what Sontag defined as a “love of the unnatural; of artifice and exaggeration,” the exhibition affirms camp’s fundamental origins within the human spirit as an extravagant celebration of personal joy. The result, high-profile attendees agreed, was a profoundly meaningful and contemporary conclusion.

“[Camp] takes different meanings, it depends on the times,” Valentino’s creative director and upcoming Met speaker Pierpaolo Piccioli told FashionNetwork.com. “I think today camp is important because it’s about the freedom to be yourself. It’s a right that everyone must have.”

The latest exhibition comes in the significant wake of 2018’s theme, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which became the museum’s most popular exhibit in its history. While the two themes share a common thread of opulence, 2019’s theme is at once more inclusive, certainly more enigmatic, and ironically incorporates more room for failure - albeit a mysterious yet unmistakable kind of failure.

According to the Costume Institute’s head curator, Andrew Bolton, camp’s physical form is secondary to its cultural voice.

“There’s a huge fun behind camp,” Bolton told FashionNetwork.com. “Then there’s the political side...it’s inherently political; it’s part of queer culture from Victorian England on forward. There’s a tragedy in camp…[and] there is a generosity behind it. I think it morphs throughout time, when we need it, it’s there for us...Camp is inherently optimistic. The optimism is nice; we need that now.”

Marking the exhibit launch, the 'camp' theme was worked by celebrity attendees at The 2019 Met Gala, which took place the evening of May 6. The Gala's co-chairs Lady Gaga, Alessandro Michele, Harry Styles, Serena Williams, and Anna Wintour all arrived dressed 'camp' in honor of the exhibit's theme, with Styles dressed by Gucci and Wintour wearing Chanel. 

'Camp: Notes on Fashion' will be open to the public from May 9 through September 8 of 2019.

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