25 June 2019

Camp: Notes on Fashion

We had noted this ‘dissonant aesthetic’ ourselves and recorded it as one of the trends at the last edition of the Salone del Mobile.Milano. It pays homage to an accentuated aestheticism, the gentle genius of formal provocation, that good taste for kitsch and for happy, brightly coloured excess. It has now been definitively consecrated by one of the most keenly awaited exhibitions on the New York (if not the international) scene. This year’s Costume Institute exhibition at the MET, Metropolitan Museum in New York, is entitled Camp: Notes on Fashion. It is a retrospective that explores “the origins of camp’s exuberant aesthetic and how the sensibility evolved from a place of marginality to become an important influence on mainstream culture.”

This trend, style or taste, which could come under the heading of ‘not contemporary’, was outlined in a brief essay by Susan Sontag in 1964, informed by the figurative meaning of the word ‘camp’, i.e. “a style or mode of personal or creative expression that is absurdly exaggerated and often fuses elements of high and popular culture”, suggesting that “the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Since then, the meaning of the word has evolved over time, and it is fair to say that nowadays it indicates a deliberate, conscious and sophisticated harnessing of ostentation, exaggeration and theatricality in art, in fashion, in design, in behaviour and even in politics.

To illustrate this phenomenon, Camp: Notes on Fashion is showcasing 250 pieces of clothing, sculpture, painting and drawing that range from the 17th century to the present day. The exhibition traces these steps with an opening section illustrating the origins of camp, from Versailles - presented as a “camp Eden” - to the dandy as a camp figure, up to the subcultures of the 20th century. The second part is devoted to camp in fashion and the elements of humour, irony, pastiche and artifice that Sontag described as markers of the style.

Andrew Bolton, curator of the exhibition, had this to say: “We are going through an extreme camp moment, and it felt very relevant to the cultural conversation to look at what is often dismissed as empty frivolity but can be actually a very sophisticated and powerful tool, especially for marginalised cultures. Whether it’s pop camp, queer camp, high camp or political camp – Trump is a very camp figure – I think it’s very timely.”

The list of fashion designers whose work is exhibited goes on forever: Virgil Abloh, Giorgio Armani, Manis Arora, Ashish, Christopher Bailey, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Prada, Thom Browne, John Galliano, Nicolas Ghesquière, Jean Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Christian Lacroix, Alessandro Michele, Erdem Moralioglu, Franco Moschino, Karl Lagerfeld, Gianni Versace, Vivienne Westwood and many, many more.

To end with an apostille on design, what characterises this sensibility where furnishing is concerned? Without a doubt, the tendency to ‘cram’ designs and products with decoration, colours, textures, figures and a healthy dose of humour, irony and theatricality. Complexity in the form of mix and match to the nth degree. Basically, to borrow from Bauhaus (which is celebrating its centenary in 2019), more is more, less is a bore (Iris Apfel).

Camp: Notes on Fashion

9th May – 8th September 2019

MET, Metropolitan Museum di New York
1000 Fifth Avenue, New York


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