Camp: Notes on Fashion

BEFITTING THE GIDDY opulence of “Camp: Notes on Fashion”—the Costume Institute’s summer exhibition as well as this year’s theme for the Met Gala, the blue-chip celebrity do of the year—this catalogue is an haute objet unto itself. Its two volumes are bound in soft celadon covers and separately strapped to either side of a pale-pink faux-leather album, all embossed in gold. The first book offers a series of essays that attempt to grasp the slippery semiotics of Camp, tracing the evolution of its use and appearance as verb (derived from the French se camper, “to flaunt,” which first pops up in a Molière play), adjective (in the late nineteenth century), and noun (at the dawn of the twentieth); a roving introduction by scholar Fabio Cleto tracks the queer histories that produced this chimerical aesthetic’s cultural codes. Also included is Susan Sontag’s iconoclastic classic of 1964, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” her somber intellectualization posited here as one of the two camps of Camp; the other is founded on Christopher Isherwood’s expert parsing of its highs and lows in his 1954 novel The World in the Evening.

From left: Look from Bertrand Guyon for House of Schiaparelli’s Fall/Winter 2018–19 haute couture collection. Look from Alessandro Michele for Gucci’s Fall/Winter 2016–17 collection. Courtesy of Schiaparelli/The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Photos: © Johnny Dufort

A red-fox fur coat cut in the shape of a heart. A gown of ostrich feathers and paper butterflies that whorls around the wearer to make her look as though she’s standing in the eye of a swarm. According to the Costume Institute’s curator in charge, Andrew Bolton—and contrary to Sontag’s oft-quoted dictum—speaking about Camp isn’t what betrays it; defining it too rigidly does. The catalogue’s second volume presents the wide array of largely couture fashions featured in the show, all of which possess a fantastical sort of glamour. Bolton glosses his selection with twenty “utterances” on the subject, each meant to describe one of Camp’s many, and sometimes contrary, dimensions: “Failed Seriousness,” “A Mode of Aestheticism,” “Theatricalization of Experience.” A Philip Treacy fascinator constructed of canvas and printed paper to look like a head-top circus? “A Second Childhood.” Björk’s infamous swan dress designed by Marjan Pejoski? “Theatricalization of Experience.” House of Moschino’s floor-length cape in synthetic satin printed to resemble a Budweiser label? “Cultural Slumming.”

Slumming? Such snobbery seems out of step with the delirious spirit of Camp, and completists hoping to catch a glimpse of, say, one of Jack Smith’s paste jewels, or the cardboard pasties from Mike Kuchar’s Sins of the Fleshapoids, or Leigh Bowery’s toilet seat ruff might feel a bit cheesed—but this is High Met, after all. Better to buff your talons on the fact that those Camp visionaries knew that a spotlight is not the same as dazzle—and that star quality can never be bought or sold.