Revisiting Camp: The Met's 2019 Fashion Exhibit
By: Christina Corbisiero
Every year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts a gala to raise money for the Costume Institute, and celebrate the theme of the year. Pictures of celebrities posing on the steps of the famous museum are posted on social media platforms and are constantly reviewed to see if the guests actually followed the theme, and who are they wearing. The Met Gala is an iconic event of the year, but many people on the internet aren’t aware of what it’s for and see it as just another high society event. For us people who aren’t celebrities, the Met Gala has a whole different meaning; the start of the fashion exhibit.
I have been going to the Met Fashion Exhibit also known as the ‘Costume Exhibit’ since my freshman year of high school. In 2014, I started at a private school across the street from the museum and spent hours on end looking at art through my high school years. My introduction to the costume exhibit was ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’, which showcased high western fashion that has influences from China. After being mesmerized by the dresses and outfits designed by high-end designers such as Chanel, Dior, and Balenciaga. The following years I made it my goal to always going to the fashion exhibit, and succeeded and saw ‘Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology’ (2016), ‘Comme des Garcons: Art of the In-between’(2017), ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Image’ (2018), and my personal favorite ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’(2019).
Let’s talk about Camp. What is it? There’s no direct answer to that question because it’s a whole variety of things from eccentric literature to outfits. Susan Sontag tries to define Camp with her piece in 1964 ‘Notes on Camp’ which is a list of things that can be camp and what can’t be. It’s very confusing talking about this style because there’s no right answer about what could be camp, but many things don’t fall into the category. Sontag writes, “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style-but a particular kind of style. It’s the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not. The best example is in Art Nouveau, the most typical and fully developed Camp style”. She also writes 57 other notes about Camp, which shows that it can rarely be defined in a simple form. Her final note includes, Camp “is good because it’s awful...Of course, one can’t always say that”. So far, the example of Camp seems very cryptic, but the whole style is based on big ideas, lots of exaggeration, love for human nature, being a spectacle, and lots of flamboyant designs. Think dresses with lots of feathers. Judy Garland’s shoes in The Wizard of Oz. Objects so absurd, that they are seen as beautiful.
The exhibit included 175 pieces of fashion, along with 75 sculptures, drawings, and artifacts of writing. My personal favorite was the excerpt and original transcript of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde is the blueprint of being Camp, and Sontag’s piece is even dedicated to him. According to Vox, “ What makes Wilde camp, or perhaps more properly, a connoisseur of camp is that he processed nearly everything on the level of aesthetics — and all aesthetics are based in artifice”. An aspect of Camp and Oscar Wilde that Sontag doesn’t go in-depth about is the idea of queerness. When talking about Wilde, queerness is part of Camp because of his role as a gay man writing in the 19th century. His sexuality, although illegal at the time, is depicted through his literature, especially through Dorian Gray. The novel also shows his ideals of Camp, but also focuses on the beauty of the strange and eccentric elements of the world. Seeing the original transcript of the book was so awesome to me because it brought the book to life in a separate way than a movie could.
Camp is a hard style to master, but it’s a big deal for celebrities to match the theme of the Met Gala. Although it’s not set in stone to follow the theme of the fashion exhibit, it seems slightly rude to show up at an event as high-end and not respect the fashion being showcased. According to Insider, the celebrities that did Camp the best for the gala were Janelle Monae, Kacey Musgraves, and Lady Gaga (who wore four outfits put together and then undressed on the steps of the Met).
Why do I love the Met fashion exhibit? Why should people care about Camp? The Met is a beautiful place to go and is filled with artifacts from all over the world. Fashion is just another form of learning about the culture, except this is a material form. Yes, the outfits showed are high-end, but it showcases a period of time or style. Camp is a form so odd that people can’t fully explain what it is, but can define an item as it. In a world that’s so judgmental of how people dress, act, write, and style their hair and makeup; Camp has no boundaries, and I think it inspires more people to be confident in who they are. As someone from New York, I’ve seen people around me dress in so many ways; it’s fun to go to the yearly exhibit and find how different people and cultures have had a great influence on style and fashion.
The theme for 2020 for the Met Gala and Fashion Exhibit is ‘About Time: Fashion and Duration’, but unfortunately is delayed due to the pandemic. If you’re interested in getting into fashion, the history of the Costume Exhibits at the Met is a great place to start, and then definitely make the trip to see the latest one.