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What is ‘camp’? The Met’s Costume Institute explores the idea of camp through fashion.

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The organizers of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute admit they are a little worried that the title of their upcoming exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” might cause confusion. “Camp” could suggest a study of apparel for the great outdoors, a la L.L. Bean or REI. But in this case, what the organizers mean by “camp” is what essayist Susan Sontag in 1964 described as a particular sort of artifice, exaggeration and curiousness in fashion and design that functions as “a private code, a badge of identity even.”

Curator Andrew Bolton, who was inspired by the Sontag essay, explains that the sense of camp emerged in the 19th century as a secret code among gay men. It has existed ever since, but some periods are more fertile for camp than others, and those often coincide with times of political conflict and social unrest, in reaction against conformity. The 1930s were rich with camp and its sister, surrealism, and its star, Salvador Dalí; the 1960s toyed with gender roles and social position. Bolton notes that camp’s topsy-turvy unreality resonates broadly in popular culture today — sometimes hiding in plain sight, as with the popularity, say, of cross-dressing. Perhaps it’s driven in part by the current youthful rebellion against societal norms for gender and age. At a time when gender is a choice and “adulting” is sport, why not carry a teddy bear purse or wear a half-tuxedo, half-ball-gown to the Oscars, as actor Billy Porter did in February? “When you start looking at the world through camp eyes,” says Bolton, “you see it everywhere.”

For the Met’s “Camp” exhibit, which opens May 9, Bolton and his team have assembled interpretations of camp by designers and artists since the 17th century — encompassing sculpture, drawings and paintings — beginning with the French palace of Versailles and the royal courts of Louis XIV. Here are some of the pieces that will be on display:

Butterfly dress, Jeremy Scott for Moschino, spring/summer 2018 ready to wear, courtesy of Moschino.

Purple silk satin and embroidered purple ostrich feathers, polychrome printed paper butterflies, and wire.

“Camp [is] a third stream of taste, that encompasses the curious attraction that everyone — to some degree at least — has for the bizarre, the unnatural, the artificial and the blatantly outrageous.” — Thomas Meehan, 1965

“Jeremy is probably the king of camp,” says curator Andrew Bolton of designer Jeremy Scott, whose cult following has sprung from collections that have put carwashes, flaming ball gowns and Barbie dolls on the runway. “Jeremy is all about joy.”

When the dress walked Moschino’s runway in Milan, butterflies appeared to flutter around model Vanessa Moody, as though she were a garden of fragrant flowers. But the garden was a blatantly outrageous ball of purple ostrich feathers, to which the paper butterflies were attached by wires. “Camp has to be too much. Too many feathers. Too many butterflies,” Bolton says. “This is an excess of everything, really.”

Three dresses, Anna Sui, spring/summer 1994 ready to wear, courtesy of Anna Sui.

Dresses of white synthetic organza, embroidered cotton thread and clear iridescent paillettes; stoles of blue, pink and white synthetic plain weave and embroidered turkey down; headpieces of blue, pink and white turkey down, steel, brass and plastic.

“All [her] life, the camp person remains a naughty child checking [her] elders.” — Mark Booth, 1983

These three exuberant dresses “brought down the house,” Vogue reported, when they closed Anna Sui’s spring 1994 runway, modeled by Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista. Wearing marabou-trimmed tiaras and ruffled socks, each model carried a handbag covered in plaster to look like a cake. The ensemble will be placed in a section of the exhibition called “Second Childhood.”

“It looks like three girls going to a party,” Bolton says. “It’s camp: the idea of a grown woman wearing a baby-doll dress. What you’re doing is playacting.”

Flamingo cape, Bertrand Guyon for Schiaparelli, fall/winter haute couture 2018-2019, courtesy of Schiaparelli.

Cape of pieced pink and black wool double knit, and pink, gray, beige and mauve cashmere; jumpsuit of pink wool double knit; headpiece of beige and black leather and pink and black feathers.

“[Camp] is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed, the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” — Susan Sontag, 1964.

Curator Andrew Bolton takes issues with Susan Sontag’s argument that “nothing in nature can be campy.” “There’s nothing campier than a flamingo,” Bolton says. “When you look at it, it looks ridiculous.” Yet the garment’s construction reflects the height of handmade haute couture. The flamingos on the cape have been pieced and fitted together with colorful slices of double-knit wool and cashmere with a technique known as intarsia. That skillful artifice and exaggeration — so reflective of the primary theme of Sontag’s essay — reflects the essence of the fashion house of Schiaparelli. Founded in 1927, it was known for its founder’s love of the surreal. In fact, the surrealist Salvador Dalí was one of Elsa Schiaparelli’s best friends.

Cape ensemble, Alessandro Michele for Gucci, fall/winter 2016-17, courtesy of Gucci historical archive

Cape of light green, red and white wool broadcloth and black silk grosgrain pieced in trompe l’oeil fold and pleat motifs; sweater of light pink merino wool knit.

“The talent ... for making a virtue out of duplicity, is a mark of camp.” — Mark Booth, 1983

Trompe l’oeil is the double-entendre of fashion, tricking the eye with a rakish wink. In the case of this cape, the drama happens in fabric pieces that cartoonishly suggest folds and pleats where there are none, and in the colors, which are just off enough to feel moody, and in the faking of a bright lining exposed through a gust of nonexistent wind.

Though it’s playful, Alessandro Michele’s camp has a melancholy air. Bolton says he finds the work of Gucci’s breakout star designer to be unnerving. “With Alessandro, there’s a tragedy to” camp, Bolton says. “There’s a humanity to it. When you meet Alessandro, it’s like he’s lived many lives ... as a child.”

Heart coat, Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent, fall/winter 2016-2017 ready to wear, courtesy Lynn Ban

Red fox fur.

“That is the other side of camp ... the gaieté du coeur.” — Andrew Ross, 1988

Completely frivolous and another Paris show closer, this heart-shaped coat was also Hedi Slimane’s dramatic adieu to the house of Yves Saint Laurent. Out with a bang — the coat was received with gasps as it appeared on the runway.

It isn’t clear at all that Slimane intended the dyed-fur coat to be camp. The rest of the collection was a serious homage to the haute couture of the founder of the house.

“I don’t think he did” intend the coat to be camp, Bolton says of Slimane’s design. “Whether he was conscious or not, if he wasn’t, then it was a really good example of naive camp. Which Susan [Sontag] says is the best camp.”

Christina Binkley is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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