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Sontagian Revulsion: My Notes on “Camp” at the Metropolitan Museum

The Metropolitan Museum’s Camp: Notes on Fashion installation, which opened today (to Sept. 8), begins promisingly with a deep dive into the early history of camp, including the derivation of that designation as an aesthetic category (first known usage: Molière‘s “The Impostures of Scapin”).

But its sprawling, diffuse finale embodies the “camp” worldview at its worst—superficially attention-grabbing and frustratingly unenlightening. The 250-object display ultimately depresses rather than impresses, as it devolves into a parody of a museum exhibition, personified by this odd couple:

Left: Walter Van Beirendonck, Ensemble, 2009
Right: Vivienne Westwood, Ensemble, 1989-90
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

According to the label for the bodysuit on the left, the design printed on the spandex is “a trompe l’oeil male body motif.” But I seriously doubt any eye is “tromped” by this puerile anatomical sketch.

It’s hard to imagine a museum show more tone-deaf and off-key in these dysfunctional, disturbing times than the Met’s “Camp” romp. Top it off with the unseemly self-promotional excesses at the accompanying Met Gala—the annual Wintour Wonderland benefiting the museum’s fashion-design department (aka Costume Institute)—and you’ve crossed the line from insensitive to offensive.

The display repeats the most exasperating mistake of Heavenly Bodies—the Costume Institute’s previous extravaganza—by installing large numbers of garments high above eye level, where no one who is seriously interested in fashion design can properly peruse them.

The glowing vitrines in this dark room, intended to be the grand finale, create an eye-catching but empty “wow” effect. Unless you’ve brought binoculars, there’s no way you can get a good look at the finery on the upper level:

Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of the Met’s Costume Institute, being interviewed at the center of the press scrum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Also impossible to see properly, even at eye level, is this famous Caravaggio from the Met’s collection, reinterpreted as a camp progenitor in an introductory section of the show:

Caravaggio, “The Musicians,” 1597
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In the context of the show’s misfires, Susan Sontag‘s words in her seminal 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp'” (the original manuscript of which is on display at the Met) gain new relevance:

No one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw the contours of it, to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion [emphasis added].

Image from Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” manuscript
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The show’s most glaring lapse of curatorial judgment was its failure to identify the famous figures for whom some of these ensembles were designed. Bob Mackie, who attended the press preview, was taken aback when I pointed out to him that the label for his contribution to the show was mum about the identity of his famous client, Cher.

Bob Mackie with his 2008 dress of nude synthetic tulle embroidered with iridescent crystals, clear seed beads and clear paillettes
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In this October post I had questioned why Cher, “the unrivaled champ of camp” had been “inexcusably overlooked for the hosting duties” at the gala. I also mused that she “might she be a surprise performer” at the gala (which turned out to be prescient). That still doesn’t explain why Mackie was not listed in the original October press release as one of the designers included in the show.

A Met spokesperson tried to justify this omission in this answer to my query yesterday:

As Cher was performing at the Gala, and we like to keep the performer a surprise, we didn’t include his name, as it could have been a giveaway.

Really? It seems an improbable leap of logic to assume that if Mackie is represented in the exhibition, Cher must be performing.

Anyway, here’s what Andrew Bolton, the show’s organizer and curator in charge of the Costume Institute, told me when I directly asked him why the names of the famous wearers had been omitted from his labels ID-ing the designers:

The collaborations [between designer and client] are important and they inform each other, but we’re prioritizing the creator.

He admitted that he did make one exception, though: The label for the sandal on the left, below, includes the name of the singer/actress whose two renditions of “Over the Rainbow,” described in the show’s wall text as “Judy Garland‘s gay anthem,” provided the relentless soundtrack for the “wow” gallery:

Left: Salvatore Ferragamo, Sandal, 1938, designed for Judy Garland
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The designer of the 2017 rainbow shoe on the right is Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, which was the show’s lead sponsor. Were it not for a desire to flatter the sponsor, wouldn’t this Judy Garland footwear (assuming its museum-owner was willing to lend it) have been a more cogent choice?

Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers from “The Wizard of Oz”
National Museum of American History

Michele’s lengthy address in Italian to the press assembled in the European sculpture court, under the appraising gaze of another long-haired luminary, was a camp moment in its own right:

Left: Alessandro Michele
Right: Bernardino Cametti, “Giovanni Andrea Muti,” ca. 1725, Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In the exhibition, one of Michele’s ensembles was flanked by two 2017 dresses by Bolton’s domestic partner, Thom Browne, who gave them to the Met in 2018. They were installed in one of the upper display cases, making it hard for me to photograph them properly from below (with zoom lens):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Two additional Browne designs are in the show—a wedding ensemble gifted by him to the Met in 2018, the same year it was created; an ensemble, “Courtesy Thom Browne,” from his upcoming autumn/winter 2019-20 collection.

A Browne design was also included in last year’s “Heavenly Bodies.” (A whiff of curatorial nepotism?) Here’s his 2018 wedding ensemble (Courtesy Thom Browne) from that 2018 show, accorded prime space in the Unicorn Tapestries Room of the Met Cloisters:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Also smacking of special treatment for insiders was this prominently placed mannequin-as-advertisement, which namechecks the magazine most closely associated with Met trustee Anna Wintour, the fashion doyenne who organizes the Met Galas (which are almost always exercises in in excess, if not camp):

Gianni Versace, Jumpsuit, spring/summer 1999, Courtesy Versace
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Wintour is Vogue‘s editor-in-chief and artistic director of Condé Nast, a major “Camp” sponsor. The label for the jumpsuit that’s covered with Vogue covers talks up the magazine:

Over the years “Vogue” has shaped the public perception of what is fashionable or “in vogue.” The magazine’s title also lent itself to a dance style known as “vogueing.”

Actually, “vogue” was a word for “fashion” long before the magazine (and the disco dance) co-opted it.

One celebrated wearer of “Camp” clothing was easily identified from the name of the lending entity.

Michael Travis, Ensemble, 1982
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As someone who was entertained by the wearer’s showy pianism in the early days of television, I guessed the name before I read the label revealing that this flashy attire came to the Met “courtesy [of the] Liberace Foundation.” Installed to the right of the exhibition’s exit, it’s engaged in a congenial competition for “most flamboyant” with Cher’s sparkling gown, installed to the left of the exit.

Although its wearer and its circumstances (worn to the Academy Awards) were unidentified by the Met, my art-lings know who famously made waves in this swan dress:

Marjan Djod Pejoski, Dress, 2000-2001
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But you probably can’t guess the names of the famous fashion models who sported the feathery frocks below. I learned their identity by overhearing the dresses’ designer, Anna Sui, tell another reporter at the press preview that they were worn by the supermodels known as “The Trinity”—Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista:

Anna Sui, Ensembles with turkey down, 1994
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

You can relive their cheery walk down the runway in this 1994 YouTube video. Here’s a screenshot:

L to R: Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista

Why does it matter who wore what? Contrary to the old saw, “Clothes make the man,” the converse is often true: The wearers make the clothes, especially when the clients are famous and image-conscious. The clothes are inextricably fitted to the bodies and sensibilities of their celebrity wearers. We need to know who they are.

More important than identifying them is rethinking how the Met’s fashion shows are funded. The Costume Institute’s activities should be supported through regular museum channels, rather than being so deeply dependent on the largesse of self-interested fashion designers and their clients. For now, the shows are largely supported by the industry’s big players (who may also lend clothing on display), creating a sizable perceived (if not actual) conflict of interest, in terms of who gets exhibited, how prominently, and how flatteringly.

In response to my query, a Met spokesperson confirmed that the Met Galas are “the Costume Institute’s main source of annual funding for exhibitions, publications, acquisitions, and capital improvements.” Vanessa Friedman, in her recent NY Times article, took this a step further, stating that the Costume Institute “is the only one of the Met’s curatorial departments that has to fund itself.”

It’s time for the Met’s administration and trustees to provide the Costume Institute with the same financial backing that they bestow upon the Met’s other departments, while subjecting it to the same curatorial and ethical guidelines.

Andrew Bolton, speaking at the “Camp” press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This is not the first time that I’ve found the Met’s costume capers to be lacking in rigor. Here’s what I wrote at the end of Fashion Victim—my 2005 Op-Ed piece for the NY Times about the museum’s Chanel exhibition:

If the Met wants to put its imprimatur on designer finery in the future, it should be far stricter in drawing the line between scholarly presentation and commercial promotion. Control belongs in-house, not in the fashion house.

We haven’t gotten there yet.

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