Naïve and deliberate

Andrew Bolton on Camp: Notes On Fashion, musicals, Susan Sontag, Judy Garland and dachshunds

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Max Hollein with Camp: Notes On Fashion Co-Chairs Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, and Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele at the press preview
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Max Hollein with Camp: Notes On Fashion Co-Chairs Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, and Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele at the press preview Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In Susan Sontag's Notes On 'Camp' from 1964, she counts Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble In Paradise and John Huston's The Maltese Falcon as "among the greatest camp movies ever made." Marcel Carné's Drôle De Drame, Greta Garbo, Jean Cocteau, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Russell, Gina Lollobrigida, Victor Mature, Virginia Mayo, Tallulah Bankhead, Jayne Mansfield, Mae West, Edward Everett Horton, and Anita Ekberg's performance in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita are noted by her for their camp appeal.

Andrew Bolton when I asked him "Are dachshunds particularly Camp?": "Oh absolutely!"
Andrew Bolton when I asked him "Are dachshunds particularly Camp?": "Oh absolutely!" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Baz Luhrmann, Sienna Miller, Lupita Nyong'o, Emily Blunt, Elle Fanning, Emma Stone, Naomi Campbell, Ezra Miller, Cara Delevingne, Celine Dion, Bette Midler, Hailee Steinfeld, Natasha Lyonne, Katy Perry, Hamish Bowles, James Charles, Gwyneth Paltrow, Emily Ratajkowski, Jared Leto, Sophie Turner, Joe Jonas, Gwen Stefani, Alex Rodriguez, and Jennifer Lopez were among those attending The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Camp: Notes on Fashion Gala, co-hosted by Lady Gaga, Serena Williams, and Harry Styles, with a surprise performance by Cher.

Camp: Notes on Fashion leads us into the incongruous, generous, passionate, ungraspable world of camp where the walls are powdery pink and surplus rules. Inspired by Susan Sontag's influential essay, The Met show takes us all over the rainbow while structuring this elusive fugitive concept through categories, lists and sections - a very, very camp endeavour indeed.

What we hear and and how we physically walk through the exhibition space, designed by Jan Versweyveld (the Broadway productions of A View From The Bridge, The Crucible, Network) are Camp.

There is the voice of Rupert Everett, Happy Prince film director and more associated with Oscar Wilde than anyone else alive, overlapping with little Judy Garland wishing herself into a land that she heard of, once in a lullaby.

Camp: Notes On Fashion Curator Andrew Bolton Camping with Anne-Katrin Titze in Batsheva: "I love all the Busby Berkeley movies. Those with the numbers, like 42nd Street."
Camp: Notes On Fashion Curator Andrew Bolton Camping with Anne-Katrin Titze in Batsheva: "I love all the Busby Berkeley movies. Those with the numbers, like 42nd Street." Photo: Nancy Chilton

We learn of the history in narrow spaces with 17th century paintings of "se camper" and posturing nobility at Versailles. There are sculptures of the Beau Ideal, the early 19th century concept of male perfection, dandies, queer subcultures, Wilde of course, and Isherwoodian camp . The section titles are borrowed from linguistics - the triumvirate of camp as verb, adjective and noun.

A narrow corridor that houses the section where naïve and deliberate camp are juxtaposed is the birth canal that delivers us, surprisingly, magnificently into the wide open, high ceilinged, multicoloured space where we are free to explore the many facets of camp in fashion to our heart's content.

"One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art" - Oscar Wilde (Phrases & Philosophies for the Use of the Young - 1894)

At the press preview, the morning before the Gala, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute Andrew Bolton spoke with me on his take on camp, musicals, Susan Sontag, Judy Garland, and his and Thom Browne's dachshund Hector.

Anne-Katrin Titze: We are listening to Judy Garland here, the colors around us - I can't help but think of Hollywood musicals of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. Stanley Donen died while you were preparing for this show. Do you have a favourite Hollywood musical? Camp or not camp.

Andrew Bolton: I love all the Busby Berkeley movies. Those with the numbers, like 42nd Street. I love those.

AKT: That would be naïve camp?

Andy Warhol Self-Portrait - Tomato from Campbell's Soup 1 - Souper Dress
Andy Warhol Self-Portrait - Tomato from Campbell's Soup 1 - Souper Dress Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AB: That would be naïve camp.

AKT: Rather than deliberate?

AB: I would go with most things before [Susan] Sontag with naïve camp. Because what Sontag did was sort of make camp mainstream and made you think about it. Before that it really was a secret code among the gay community.

AKT: The Arthur Freed unit of the MGM musicals [catered to both, the mainstream and the ones in on the code].

AB: Absolutely. camp in the Thirties and musicals were absolutely naïve camp. They weren't aware that they were being camp when they were creating them.

AKT: I love that section where you juxtapose naïve and deliberate camp, by the way.

AB: Me too. It's my favourite section. Naïve and deliberate camp , that's my favourite section too.

AKT: Susan Sontag writes that you can fall into camp [she suggests that maybe in the future Method Acting and the likes of Warren Beatty, Rod Steiger, and James Dean could be considered as camp as Ruby Keeler was in 1964]. I was wondering, can you fall out of camp?

A Second Childhood in Camp: Notes On Fashion
A Second Childhood in Camp: Notes On Fashion Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AB: I think so. Absolutely. It's a great question.

AKT: Did it happen for this show? That something fell out of camp?

AB: Not really, because there was so much. There's a wealth of pieces to choose from. The harder thing was actually narrowing it down to what you're seeing now. That was more difficult. Because it was such a massive subject matter and it was really hard to narrow it down. Less not finding pieces.

AB: Mugler, [Thierry] Mugler I think. That's more practical, because he has a show in Montreal at the moment. There was a few pieces in there that I would love for the exhibition but we couldn't get because they're in his show.

AKT: I was thinking Greta Garbo could wear any garment in this room.

AB: Particularly in that section, the suit section.

AKT: The suit section or the cauliflower hat.

AB: Also Marlene Dietrich.

Mr. Know-It-All by John Waters (out on May 21, Farrar Straus & Giroux) in front of Jeremy Scott dress for House of Moschino
Mr. Know-It-All by John Waters (out on May 21, Farrar Straus & Giroux) in front of Jeremy Scott dress for House of Moschino Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I also love the A Second Childhood section. As you can see, I'm wearing this Batsheva dress here.

Nancy Chilton [Chief External Relations Officer for The Costume Institute]: Very Second Childhood!

AB: There was one statement that says: "Camp is girls who wear starched maternity dresses without being pregnant."

AKT: That works too. It's vintage Hawaiian fabric. Last question, are dachshunds particularly camp?

AB: Oh absolutely!

NC: Hector is!

AKT: Camp Hector!

AB: Because they are exaggerated! Everything. Little, little legs, long body, big nose, big ears. The campiest are poodles.

AKT: Poodles? Not that much.

AB: Maybe. But dachshunds are completely camp.

AKT: Because of the generosity they have?

AB: Hmm, they can be a bit mean too.

Andrew Bolton on Camp: Notes On Fashion: "There's a wealth of pieces to choose from. The harder thing was actually narrowing it down to what you're seeing now."
Andrew Bolton on Camp: Notes On Fashion: "There's a wealth of pieces to choose from. The harder thing was actually narrowing it down to what you're seeing now." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I know. I grew up with one just like Hector.

Earlier Andrew explained that we actually hear two versions of Over the Rainbow sung by Judy Garland, as we stroll through the exhibit: "In the first part of the exhibition you hear the version she sang as a 16-year-old in The Wizard of Oz, while in the second we play a version she sang when she was remarkably frail and near death. At Garland's funeral, the actor James Mason commented: 'Judy's great gift was actually to wring tears out of hearts of stone. She gave so richly and so generously.'"

To quote Susan Sontag from Notes On 'Camp': "The whole point of camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, camp involves a new, more complex relation to 'the serious.' One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious."

And generosity is at the core of camp, which thrives on surplus, passion and innocence of all kinds.

The Costume Institute Camp: Notes on Fashion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art runs from Thursday, May 9 through Sunday, September 8, 2019.

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