What is Camp? It’s a question many of us have been asking in the lead-up to the Costume Institute’s new exhibition, “Camp: Notes On Fashion,” which opens to the public on May 9th, a few days after next Monday’s Met Gala. For answers, look no further than Susan Sontag’s text of a similar title, “Notes on Camp,” which inspired the theme: “Camp is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not,” Sontag offers; “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers”; “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious.” Those are just a few of her 58 points.
In short, Camp is capital-F fashion. It’s unbridled. It’s extra. It’s fun! To the average museum-goer, the clothes on display in “Camp” will also look straight-up unwearable. We aren’t arguing, either; the joy of Camp is that it ignores the boundaries of what society has deemed “wearable” or “practical” (or maybe even “clothes”).
That doesn’t mean Camp isn’t accessible, though. In fact, “Camp” might just awaken the least-likely fashion fan out there. The Costume Institute’s annual exhibitions have a track record for influencing the way we dress, perhaps best exemplified by the surge in popularity for robes and silk jackets after “China: Through the Looking Glass” bowed in 2015. In the wake of 2016’s “Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology,” we saw an interest in both the “manus” half—i.e., garments with a sense of the hand, like embroideries and crochet—and the “machina” contingent, which influenced the futuristic, Blade Runner vibes we’ve seen on and off the runway ever since.
You can draw a line between last year’s “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition and the darkly-romantic dresses we loved on the Fall 2019 runways, as well as the goth revival on the streets. It’s not so much that designers and street-stylers are consciously taking inspiration from Met Gala themes; rather, the Met seems to anticipate the mood of the moment or a shift in fashion’s subconscious and start a ripple effect.
How will that play out post-“Camp”? I’m glad you asked. Here’s my pie-in-the-sky hope: First, that celebrities get appropriately campy on the Met Gala red carpet (this is not the year to play it safe!) and that in the months to come, designers, editors, and fashion fans outside of the industry find themselves inspired to have a little bit of fun with fashion, too. Think: exaggerated ruffles, giant shoulders, feathers, kitsch, corsets, trompe l’oeil, gender-bending, and nostalgia to the nth degree. Plenty of designers were already thinking along those lines for Fall 2019, so we’ll have options come September: Prada’s Frankenstein prints, Thom Browne’s trick-of-the-eye suits, Christopher Kane’s fetish gear.
This isn’t to say you have to scrap your personal style and embrace Camp around the clock; that isn’t feasible for most people with limited closet space. You can love Camp and still be a proponent of a less-is-more agenda on the days you aren’t feeling a hot pink dress. Fashion has lately been of those two extremes: going-for-it extravagance or elegant, pared-back simplicity. It’s the middle-of-the-road stuff that feels uninspired.
But there’s a difference between “simplicity” and the chilly, ultra-minimalist vibe we’re seeing from so many of the direct-to-consumer upstarts carving out a corner of the industry and influencing how millennials dress. Allow me an aside, if you will: In subway ads and on Instagram, these companies are hawking subscription plans so you don’t have to make any choices; they’re focusing on basics so you don’t have to take any risks; they’re proposing “uniform” dressing and instructing you to buy fewer garments to streamline your life. Their san-serif logos and branding all look the exact same. That isn’t minimalism; that’s just lacking personality. I’m all for T-shirts and shopping less frequently, but it’s the messaging that bothers me—both as a fashion editor and a consumer—because it suggests there’s something shameful or wrong about self-expression; that it’s a mark of intelligence to reject fashion. (Saturday Night Life even parodied the phenomenon in a recent skit called “Fashion Coward,” in which Emma Stone, Aidy Bryant, and Kate McKinnon shop in a bland store for “clothes that suggest the general idea of a person”: navy T-shirts, brown sweaters, “pants for the legs,” and a zip-up hoodie that “doubles as an invisibility cloak.”) I keep coming back to the fact that fashion is a traditionally feminine, women-oriented industry, yet most of these hyper-minimal brands are run by guys in tech. That doesn’t exactly add up.
I can’t imagine a sharper contrast to all of that than Bertrand Guyon’s flamingo suit and headpiece for Schiaparelli, or Jeremy Scott’s “bouquet dress” for Moschino, or Alessandro Michele’s feathered gown and sequined Paramount logo for Gucci, all of which feature in this year’s exhibition. No, you don’t have to wear feathers and sequins; you don’t even have to wear a ruffle. But at the very least “Camp” should inspire you to let your freak flag fly just a little.