The Met’s Latest Costume Exhibit Spotlights the Many Meanings of Camp

BFA.com/Zach Hilty
The exhibit "Camp: Notes on Fashion"

“Camp [is] such a beautiful word, an important word,” said Gucci’s Alessandro Michele. “In just a few letters, it teaches us how to feel free.”

What do Balenciaga, Andy Warhol, Louis XIV, Bob Mackie and Judy Garland have in common? That’s one of the questions The Metropolitan Museum of Art is striving to answer with its latest Costume Institute exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” which opens to the public on Thursday, May 9 and runs through Sept. 8.

At Monday morning’s preview, The Metropolitan Museum of Art director Max Hollein said he enjoyed a bit of an epiphany during the planning of the exhibition, comprised of 250 objects that range from fashions often bright, bold and daring – by designers Jeremy Scott for Moschino, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Alexander McQueen – to a wide variety of art across seven curatorial departments. The exhibition explores camp through the ages, from the extravagance of the Court of Versailles to a crystal-encrusted costumes worn by Liberace and Cher.“I discovered that the idea of camp is a great leveler,” Hollein said. “In the end, maybe even the Met itself is camp.”   

Curator Andrew Bolton noted that the exhibition, based on Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” has been designed in two sections. In the galleries that visitors first encounter, “the corridors are narrow and the ceilings are low to create a feeling that’s deliberately claustrophobic to emphasize the secretive, clandestine nature of camp’s origins; effectively they serve as whispering galleries, both physically and metaphorically,” Bolton said, noting that later sections of the exhibition start to open up as camp moved more into mainstream society. Throughout the galleries, Garland can be heard singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” though it’s pointedly two different performances: from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz in the early galleries, and a concert performance just a month before her death in 1969 in the second segment of the exhibition.

The wow moment of “Camp: Notes on Fashion” is an expansive black-box room featuring two stories of fashion displays against backdrops in a rainbow of bright hues. In the center of the room is a selection of equally bold accessories, including a variety of hats; several were designed by milliner Stephen Jones, who also attended the Monday preview.

“I guess they’re all camp, but every hat I do is camp; it’s the way of the world,” said Jones, who created headpieces for Cardi B, Emily Blunt, Gigi Hadid and other stars to wear at Monday night's Met Gala. And why is now the right time for a camp exhibition? “Everything is so serious now in politics and money and power and religion, we all need a bit of fun,” Jones added. “The great thing about camp is that it puts a smile on the world, even in the most dire of situations.”

Gucci is the primary sponsor of “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” and at Monday’s preview, creative director Alessandro Michele also pointed to current events as the reason why the exhibition’s theme might be thought of as a much-needed antidote to the state of the world. “I appreciate people like Anna [Wintour] and Andrew [Bolton], visionaries who are casting a light on camp – it’s such a beautiful word, an important word. In just a few letters, it teaches us how to feel free,” Michele said. “It also sends a political message, the freedom of being who and what you want to be.”