First Monday of May marks the global fashion calendar’s most important highlight. Since 1948, every year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has rolled out a red carpet for popular culture’s most celebrated names to attend a gala event leading up to an exhibition which celebrates fashion. The themes over the years have questioned and celebrated fashion’s zeitgeist, manifested in innovative red carpet creations. Last year’s theme, ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’ focused on fashion’s appropriation of religion. 2017 paid tribute to the work Rei Kawakubo; the year before that Claire Danes slipped into a glowing gown by Zac Posen, while Emma Watson wore a five-piece Calvin Klein Collection set made of recycled plastic bottles to keep with the theme ‘Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology’.
This year’s theme is ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’. Curators-in-Charge Andrew Bolton and Wendy Yu of The Costume Institute were inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on ‘Camp’, and the exhibit examines “how the elements of irony, humour, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, and exaggeration are expressed in fashion.” Besides the expected red carpet grandeur, more than 250 objects from the 17th century to the present form a part of the exhibition, and will explore the origins of ‘camp’ as an idea and how has it been reinterpreted over decades.
Sontag’s 1964 essay explains camp in its context using 58 premises. She writes “Camp taste has an affinity for certain arts rather than others. Clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Camp”. Needless to say, Sontag’s views were more anthropological than fashion inclined. So, creatively speaking, camp lends itself to how one expresses oneself. It is about being extravagant, unapologetic, and disrupting the stereotypes. “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers,” Sontag writes.
The term ‘camp’ appeared for the first time in the era of Louis the XIV, to denote high levels of decadence, almost perfection. The idea further travelled to Victorian England where camp officially became a part of queer subculture. However, according to Sontag it was Oscar Wilde who personified the tenets of camp; ‘Notes on Camp’ was dedicated to him.
Today, camp can be understood as an exhibition of irony, a melding of cultures, sexualities, ideas, and sensibilities with a sense of extravagance. Think Jeal Paul Gaultier’s introduction of street style on the Paris runways, or Vivienne Westwood’s idea of punk manifesting in her clothes. Jeremy Scott of Moschino explored camp by creating McDonald’s and Milk Chocolate logo emblazoned couture pieces – it’s like smirking at popular culture and high fashion. Then there are Viktor & Rolf, who used ironic slogans in their SS Haute Couture 2019 collection – ‘Less is more’ and ‘No photos please’ screamed their grand, voluminous tulle gowns.
Alessandro Michele of Gucci is another flag-bearer of camp; he is also the co-chair for this year’s Met Gala. From incorporating the Russian Balaclava and turbans in his collections to sending out models carrying severed heads and dragons, Michele’s ideas befit Sontag’s views that the ‘essence of camp is its love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration”.
Popular culture has also embraced the idea of the camp, drag being one of its most ubiquitous manifestations. With Chad Michaels impersonating Cher on RuPaul’s Drag Race or the late Sahara Davenport conjuring up Whitney Houston via her engaging performance, it all ties into camp.
The exhibit itself, which opens for public from May 9 to September 9, will feature the works of John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, Rei Kawakubo, Thierry Mugler, Virgil Abloh, Alexander McQueen and many more. The gala is being co-chaired by Lady Gaga, Alessandro Michele, Harry Styles, and Serena Williams.
One might conclude that today the idea of camp rests on one’s interpretation. It is how you understand it and incorporate in your consciousness. Can you just imagine the kind of designs that famed red carpet is going to see?