Met exhibition explores history of 'camp' fashion

'It's good because it's awful'

By Stacey Lastoe, CNN
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Gwen Stefani, Jeremy Scott, Bella Hadid, Stella Maxwell, Maluma, Sarah Paulson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Denek K, and Violet Chachki attend The 2019 Met Gala "Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion" at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2019, in New…

(CNN) - From Harry Styles' lace jumpsuit to Katy Perry's life-size chandelier gown, the 2019 Met Gala's "camp" theme invited an array of exaggerated, extravagant looks to its red carpet.

And inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art's galleries, the accompanying exhibition, "Camp: Notes on Fashion," expounded the theme further, defining "camp" through more than 250 objects.

Camp is a puffy-sleeved robe decorated like a can of Budweiser, elevating a mainstream beer to something fanciful and imaginative. It's an adult's second childhood, as seen through a bright peach suit decorated with choo-choo trains, smiling lions and grinning suns. It's a polychrome silk satin ensemble by Richard Quinn that at once looks old-fashioned and chic.

These exhibits, and others, explore how camp fashion has embraced, repurposed and reimagined popular -- or "low" -- culture. As writer Umberto Eco explains (in a window display for the aforementioned Richard Quinn design), it "transforms what was ugly yesterday into today's object of aesthetic pleasure."

In her 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'" (which inspired the exhibition's name), Susan Sontag -- the first person to explore the subject in depth -- makes few explicit references to fashion. Nonetheless, she explicitly states that fashion is one of the arts that "camp taste has an affinity" for.

Camp was, for Sontag, not an idea, but a "sensibility" characterized by "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration." (The ultimate camp statement is, she writes, "it's good because it's awful.") And Sontag's codification does more than support the Met's theme. It upholds and dutifully explains it.

Camp's wide reach is evident in the variety of items on display. Exhibits range from a print of Andy Warhol's famous "Campbell's Soup Cans" to a cauliflower-inspired headpiece by the couture milliner, Deirdre Hawken.

Elsewhere, a beige-and-pink Moschino jacquard print dress heaves with lace and a big silk bow, while sequined T-shirts by British designer Ashish Gupta boast all-caps statements like, "You are much lovelier than you think," and "Fall in love and be more tender."

The latter is a warm and fuzzy inclusion, perfectly aligned with curator Andrew Bolton's assessment that the "purpose of camp is to put a smile on our faces and a warm glow in our hearts," as he put it during the press preview. These T-shirts, like many of the predominantly post-1970s items on display, feel accessible -- a version of something already hanging in your closet.

The Met's director, Max Hollein, said that once the theme had been decided, his team couldn't escape examples of it, both in and outside the museum. Indeed, to see camp portrayed in life -- as a verb, adjective and noun -- one need only look around.

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