Still scratching your head and asking yourself, “What is camp?” The beautiful—and quite campy in its own right—catalog for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibition “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” which opens May 9, is here to help. Bound in a pale pink casing, the catalog comprises two mint green volumes that walk the reader through the history and modern applications of camp in all its feathered and frilled glory.
In the first volume, which opens horizontally, the scholar Fabio Cleto provides a comprehensive essay on camp that is followed by a visual guide through the history of the camp sensibility. Here, readers will begin with a plate of an engraving by Simon Thomassin from 1722 of a nude male; journey through camp as a beau ideal; work through ideas of camp as a verb, an adjective, and an Isherwoodian obsession; and finally land on Susan Sontag’s definitive 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” which served as the jumping-off point for the Met’s exhibition.
The second volume, bound vertically like a legal pad with fold-out imagery, is anchored by an essay by the museum’s Wendy Yu curator in charge of the Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton. Over two concise pages, Bolton outlines his inspirations and interpretations of camp as it applies to the exhibition. The biggest takeaway? Camp, whether Isherwoodian, Sontagian, or straight up John Waters, is a sensibility. Trying to define it as one thing, assign it to one person, or sharpen it to a point, well, that just isn’t the point at all.
The 160 pages of images of contemporary garments in the exhibition, photographed by Johnny Dufort, that follow prove Bolton’s thesis. Shot against pale backgrounds, the looks have a subversive spirit—even on mannequins. Marc Jacobs’s 1987 Freudian slip, for example, is shown on a butch male mannequin, while Stella McCartney’s banana-print swimwear for Chloé is presented alongside a teensy pair of banana trunks for dudes by Libertine. Each image is accompanied by a short quote on camp too.
At the heart of the catalog—and the heart of the exhibit—is a single quote from Oscar Wilde, engraved on the book’s center spine in gold: “One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.” Just one note: As campy as it would be, the works in the Met are definitely, totally, and completely not for trying on!