Trying to define the aesthetic known as camp is like trying to domesticate a feral squirrel. Part of the problem is that camp often gives mixed signals. To wit: Camp usually seems to be targeting gay men of a certain age — or addled 5-year-olds. Camp can’t always make up its mind whether it wants to exhort or to adorn. Like a high-end Japanese toilet, camp can come off as very, very serious — but also as if its every function and button is screaming “celebration!”
“Camp: Notes on Fashion,” the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, is themed after writer Susan Sontag’s 1964 Partisan Review article, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” in which she codified camp as a kind of “failed seriousness” that traffics in a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” In turn, this year’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute benefit — aka the star-studded, $35,000-a-ticket Met Gala — is, as is the custom, themed after the Costume Institute exhibition.
When word came down earlier this year that the deceased Sontag — the priestess of high-minded public intellectualism and, to some, that pursuit’s attendant sanctimony — was essentially the animating force behind a party being hosted by Anna Wintour, Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, Serena Williams and Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, it was great fun to imagine how various celebrities might try to present their more scholarly and Sontag-like sides at the May 6th ball. One imagined Nicki Minaj anointing her hair with Sontag’s signature skunk-streak of white or a Jonas brother monologuing about how he spent the mid-’90s putting on impromptu productions of “Waiting for Godot” in war-torn Sarajevo. (Spoiler alert: Neither came to pass.)
But the Costume Institute show’s more important mandate is to try to contextualize camp by showing how it has intersected with both fashion and the larger culture. Although “Camp: Notes on Fashion” opens with classical sculptures of men that illustrate the 19th century concept of the beau ideal, the show suggests that the first instance of camp is probably from Molière’s 1671 play “The Impostures of Scapin,” about the posturing and schemes of the wily commedia dell’arte character Scapin.
Then, via paintings and clothing, the exhibition, continuing through Sept. 8, follows the rough timeline of camp that Sontag outlined in her essay: Goaded on by the 18th century fascination with artifice, camp turned inward in the 19th century with the art-for-art’s-sake ethos of aestheticism before bursting into technicolor peacock status with the life and work of Oscar Wilde.
What’s particularly interesting here is that Sontag’s essay, its references ranging among Aubrey Beardsley drawings, Flash Gordon comics and “Swan Lake,” cites just two examples of clothing that she found to be campy: “womens clothing of the ’20s,” and “a woman walking around in a dress of three million feathers.” The exhibition’s central room contains items from the Met that Sontag mentioned in her essay (she was a frequent visitor), some of which may strike museum-goers as not campy at all: a beige, beaded 1925 Molyneux silk georgette flapper dress; a Tiffany lamp; two men’s evening suits in navy wool. “The Great Gatsby” must have been Sontag’s Vegas.
The exhibition’s showpiece is its large, exhilarating, final room, full of dresses and candy colors and mayhem, presented in a two-tiered series of cubicles reminiscent of the “Hollywood Squares” set. We see clothing made of pennies, Christmas tinsel, mirrors, Hello Kitty dolls, teddy bears and plastic bananas; there are clothes meant to look like a TV dinner, a garbage can, a Budweiser, a swan that has died on its wearer, cauliflower, slices of luncheon meat, a shower head. (It’s like being trapped in Lady Gaga’s closet with 300 strangers and their smartphones.) If the recording of Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” throughout the show seems slightly different in this room, it’s because the version playing in the earlier rooms was recorded when Judy was 16, while the version at the end of the show was recorded just months before Judy overdosed. Bring the kids.
It’s this last room that answers one’s nagging question about the camp aesthetic. Namely: In a post-Stonewall, post-gay marriage world, does camp, a longtime wink-wink among marginalized gays, whiff slightly of mothballs? Sontag wrote that camp was instrumental to gays’ “integration into society” because it was a “solvent of morality” that “sponsors playfulness” while it also “neutralizes moral indignation.” It would be lovely to think that the signs of increased tolerance of homosexuality in the world had done away with the moral indignation that inspired generations of wits to don feather boas and refer to everyone in the room as “Mary.” But it would also be naive. Look at the legions of young fans of Gaga or “RuPaul’s Drag Race” or the Ryan Murphy filmography who have found succor and hope within those three particular bales of cotton candy.
Or look again at the “Camp” exhibition’s last room. A section labeled “Gender Without Genitals” includes Marc Jacobs’ “Freudian Slip” dress — a men’s evening suit in front that, in the back, turns into something like a white wedding dress — as well as two gender-blurring black evening suits by Thom Browne. Here camp and its covert campaign of subversion feel wonderfully urgent and necessary: the gap-toothed fife player in the march toward “nonbinary.”
Drag underwent a similar trajectory. At a certain point in the late 1990s, drag could be said to have lost its proverbial juice. Maybe it was when the second drag restaurant opened in your neighborhood, or maybe when photos emerged of New York City’s then-mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, performing drag at a charity dinner. Drag, it appeared, was the new mime.
But whenever the mainstream co-opts a subversive art form, that art form’s power doesn’t go extinct, it simply shifts to another locus. The late 1990s, after all, was also when people started to take notice of the comedian and actor Eddie Izzard, who, though he sleeps with women, sometimes wears lipstick or women’s high heels with his otherwise traditionally male wardrobe. (Izzard refers to himself as "a straight transvestite, or male lesbian.”) To watch Izzard do stand-up was to be unsettled, fascinated. Drag had got its bite back.