Each year, on the first Monday of May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts a gala in order to raise money for the Met’s Costume Institute. The benefit – which acts as the institution’s main source of annual funding – welcomes the world’s most prestigious designers and A-list celebrities, who are required to dress to the theme of the spring exhibition, which this year is entitled Camp: Notes on Fashion.
While dressing for the so-called ‘Oscars of fashion’ always proves difficult, this year is especially so – the word ‘camp’ isn’t easily definable, offering up so many different forms of interpretation. But, that might just be the point.
The exhibition will explore the origins of the camp aesthetic through the framework of American writer, Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’, which, for the first time, attempted to explain the previously unaddressed phenomenon. Her words act as the narration of the exhibition, so, to truly understand the theme of the exhibition and as such, of the gala, it is important to look at how she attempted to define the word.
In her essay, Sontag defines the phenomenon of camp as a “sensibility” and went on to describe a sensibility as “one of the hardest things to talk about”. So, while almost impossible to explain, she labels camp in a number of ways, which does help to illustrate how she perceived it.
“[Camp is] the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.”
“[Camp is] the metaphor of life as theatre.”
“Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.”
“Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman’.”
“Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous.”
“The whole point of camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious.”
When Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator, spoke about the exhibition to press in Milan earlier this year, he reiterated Sontag’s point about the difficulty of defining the word and of explaining the concept and sensibility of camp.
“Like most four-letter words, camp invites debate,” he said. “But unlike most four-letter words, it evades definition. For this reason, the exhibition raises more questions than it answers.”
Dr. Royce Mahawatte, senior lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central Saint Martins, gave us a further insight into how difficult the word camp might be to translate into a dress code.
“It is a theme about a mode, a way of looking at reality, rather than at a place or period of history. It is rather abstract in a way. I think that designing camp is more challenging than it might appear at first.”
So, to try to illustrate how camp might look on the red carpet, it’s key to consider some of the camp icons that are featured in Sontag’s essay, throughout the exhibition and more generally in history.
In her essay, Sontag says: “For obvious reasons, the best examples that can be cited are movie stars.” She names; Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Jane Russell, Virginia Mayo, Steve Reeves, Victor Mature, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead and Edwige Feuillière.
When looking back over the most iconic moments of fashion history that could be described as camp, Mahawatte explains how we could see Queen Elizabeth I as one of the original camp icons.
“It would firstly, have to be, Queen Elizabeth I, starched ruff-farthingale, sumptuous fabrics and white lead paint flaking off her face. It’s the mix of political power, fashion and intensified beauty and youth.”