A Frou-Frou Fluff Of Feathers At New York’s Met Ball
Curator Andrew Bolton channels Susan Sontag to define the allure of ‘camp’
Cardi B needed a team of ten to help carry the train of the dress that Thom Browne designed for her to wear to the Met Gala celebrating the launch of the new exhibition, 'Camp: Notes on Fashion'
Can there still be ‘camp’ in a world where anything goes – from transgender to merged sexual identities – at least in Western society and especially in America?
What is camp anyway, apart from the name of the current exhibition at the Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art? Curator Andrew Bolton, who was inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’, claims, “We are experiencing a resurgence of camp – not just in fashion, but in general. Camp tends to come to the fore during moments of social and political instability, when our society is deeply polarised. The 1960s were one such moment, as were the 1980s – and so too are the times in which we are living.”
From left, a line-up of Valentino worn by models Adut Akech and Naomi Campbell; the Creative Director of Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli; actresses Joan Collins (dressed as her 'Alexis Carrington' alter ego from the Eighties hit TV show, Dallas ) and Julianne Moore; record producer Mark Ronson and Swedish singer Lykke Li; Chinese singer Lay Zhang; and the Chief of the Valentino Fashion Group, Stefano Sassi
In the broader display space of the exhibition, the clickety-clack of a typewriter tapping out Sontag’s words introduces a splendid display of feathery dresses. Raised to an upper level near the ceiling, they seem like a cluster of exotic birds.
Susan Sontag photographed in 1975 by Peter Hujar (Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel
Gallery, San Francisco; purchase by the Alfred Stieglitz Society)
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART / PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER HUJAR © 1987 THE PETER HUJAR ARCHIVE
The American writer and political activist might never have imagined that her work would frame the most enormous examples of fluff that I have ever seen mounting the staircase of the Met. For the fund-raising evening Gala, the stairs were pretty in pink and guests entered the museum to a high-rise display of floral flamingos filling the grand entrance hall.
“I think camp is a very individual sense of self expression,” said Anna Wintour, who greeted guests at the top of the stairs, along with Lady Gaga, who, by the time I walked up, had already changed her outfit four times.
Wearing the final of four outfit changes for the 2019 Met Gala's 'pink carpet', Lady Gaga parades in Brandon Maxwell, trailing a wagon of Stetsons behind her
Yet even the intellectual and hyper-articulate Bolton found it difficult to express just what is – or perhaps was – the essence of camp.
Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
“It’s easier to describe the characteristics more than define it,” the curator said. “You can see it as theatricality and extravagance; I think it’s easier to do that. But I do feel that it’s political. I think people often mistake it for something that is just frivolous or has no meaning, but it has so much meaning. And Punk always comes up and bubbles to the surface when we need it the most.”
Yara Shahidi, Janelle Monáe and Lupita Nyong'o at the Met Gala 2019
Alessandro Michele, Creative Director of Gucci – who wore a scarlet satin jester’s jacket while his friend Jared Leto carried a model of his own severed head as inspired by a Gucci show – spoke out about his vision of camp as political.
Salma Hayek and Jared Leto, both wearing Gucci
“I was so proud to be part of the project because it’s such a political world,” said Michele, whose Gucci company was a major sponsor of the event.
“It’s not just the way you look,” he continued. “From when I was a little guy, I tried to be free. And the way you look is a piece of your freedom. There is something very political inside. My Granny was always saying, ‘You are such a special kid, but the way you look is sometimes a problem.’ But I think it’s a beautiful problem, in that we can now express who we are and appreciate that in the way we look.”
From left, Donatella Versace, Jennifer Lopez, Kylie Jenner and Kendall Jenner, all wearing Atelier Versace
Gay pride seems to dominate the opening area of the exhibition. While at the Gala there were plenty of theatrically dressed party males, flaunting their sexual orientations on the stairway, there were many more women at the opening event who were showing off in the usual breast-and-leg revealing way.
Bella Hadid and Katy Perry, both wearing Moschino by Jeremy Scott
‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’, as Sontag defined it, was “a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers”. Both sexes followed her theme, with the aesthete Hamish Bowles, Editor-at-Large for American Vogue, in a multicoloured frou-frou feathered robe by John Galliano for Maison Margiela.
Vogue USA's European Editor-at-Large, Hamish Bowles, in a flurry of feathers by John Galliano for Maison Margiela
Yet the exhibition starts with a focus on nearly-naked males, as in Vivienne Westwood’s men’s leggings in ‘nude synthetic knit’ from her ‘Britain Must Go Pagan’ collection from Autumn/Winter 1987. Other contributors to the naked male include Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1987 presentation of an ancient marble figure clutching the folds of a curtain.
An installation from the new exhibition, 'Camp: Notes on Fashion' at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
A flamingo headdress by Bertrand Guyon for Schiaparelli, Autumn/Winter 2017 at the 'Camp: Notes on Fashion' exhibition at the Met
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
Along with evermore nudes (including Hal Fischer’s 1977 photo series, ‘Gay Semiotics’) are other potential versions of camp. Lead player is Louis XIV, with his shapely, shiny stockinged legs and red ribboned dancing shoes that appear from under a flouncy padded coat.
No man on the Met stairway put on such a show. But it was dubious to define as camp this historic figure, among several other fancifully dressed royal princes. However, the curator has dug out the Chevalier d’Éon – a cross-dressing 18th-century nobleman.
Wearing Moschino, from left, Gwen Stefani, Bella Hadid, Stella Maxwell, Katy Perry, Maluma, Sarah Paulson, Tracee Ellis Ross and Denek Kania with Moschino's Creative Director, Jeremy Scott
The presentations of obviously gay camp styles dominate the narrow and pokey early corridors of the show. Then, that particular vision ends with a pair of cross-dressers whose ‘drag wardrobe’ was confiscated by the police in 1870. The show then moves beyond “the type of frock coat worn by Oscar Wilde” (and made by Gucci in 2017).
From left, Serena Williams, HarryStyles, Alessandro Michele, Lady Gaga and Anna Wintour at the Met Gala 2019
With the installation of Sontag’s typewriter, the exhibition takes a more intriguing turn. She located the origin of camp in the late 17th and early 18th century, “because of that period’s extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry; its taste for the picturesque and the thrilling”.
Cher gave a surprise performance at this year's Met Gala to celebrate the opening of the 'Camp' exhibition
According to Bolton, Sontag framed “an unmistakably modern sensibility that reflected the revolutionary impact of the 1860s and the challenge it brought to the intellectual establishment by popular culture”.
Some of the juxtapositions seem tenuous. Why place a Balenciaga purple dress from 1961 beside a 2018 Jeremy Scott for Moschino dress, smothered with butterflies? But the stage costumes of Liberace, the ultimate camp performer, dazzle among the 175 pieces in the show.
Camp, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. Let’s hope that the surreal sight of the weird and wonderful outfits worn for the Met Gala will be shown on film as an extra artefact for the exhibition. Top prize to Pose star, Billy Porter, arriving at the pink carpet event with his golden wings stretched above a chaise carried by six glamorous, bare-chested flunkeys.
‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ is at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 8 September 2019 (www.metmuseum.org)