The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum, NY mounts an annual exhibition of couture every May.
Last year it was the influence of Roman Catholicism on the art and craft.
Resulting, in part, in an evocation of the sublime.
This, for instance, in a corridor of the Cloisters set with German ecclesiastical glass from the 15th century which reflected the light of one of the Cloisters’ four gardens onto a spectacular creation.
As though we were in the Garden of Eden.
Evening dress, spring/summer 2014 haute couture; gray silk net, embroidered polychrome silk and metal thread, brown and black feathers, gold pailettes.
Valentino S.p.A. gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
The inspiration for this spectacular dress is the painting, Adam and Eve of 1526 by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Notes on Fashion: Camp
This year, far from the sublime, the focus is on Camp.
It is not excessive to say that this is a sensibility in which homoeroticism and homosexual ways of being have been the life blood of camp.
This is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. And I can exult that, against all odds, an aesthetic sensibility arising in this community has survived and allowed some members of this community self-expression in the welter of hate amounting to murder directed at them.
Because why do people continue to think that they alone have the wisdom to constrain the self-definition of our species, the double Sapiens?
That said, it is disappointing that the contribution of Blacks historically – not just the performer Billy Porter below – to this aesthetic was all but excluded.
And women existed in this exhibition – I am speaking of Camp in its recent history – mostly as clothes horses. A female designer or two here and there, of course.
But then, nothing new there……
The tuxedo gown made by Christian Siriano for Billy Porter for the Oscars in February 2019
CreditMark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Another tuxedo gown – a bloom with thousands of embroidered flowers opening onto a pair of cigarette pants – worn by Billy Porter, this time to the Tony’s. It was made by Celestino Couture partly of the red velvet curtain in the ‘Kinky Boots’ show which ran 1000 performances on Broadway before it closed.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images from the NY Times
The central issue is what exactly Camp meant and means.
The Met relied for its definition of camp on the essay by Susan Sontag (1933-2004, American): Notes on Camp, 1964.
Camp, she said, is ” is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization….”
Camp is a sensibility, a taste.
It is not an idea. If congealed into an idea, it ceases to exist in the real world.
It is a taste for the exaggerated, for artifice, for over-the-top presentation; for irony, parody, theatricality, humour.
Camp is serious. It is an ironic or humorous comment on the high seriousness of this or that aspect of our lives.
It has a natural affinity for certain art forms: ballet, theater, opera. One of its high expressions is the Baroque.
One Source of the Camp Aesthetic : Beau Ideal
The museum tracks the camp pose to the ‘teapot-like’ gesture
Teapot patented 1881, manufactured c. 1882, porcelain. Worcester Royal Porcelain, founded 1751, British. On loan from the Brooklyn Museum to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2019
of Antinous, the lover of the emperor, Hadrian (76-138 AD).
A bronze statue based on the Roman marble sculpture, the Belvedere Antinous in the Vatican Museums.
The museum notes that this, considered a model of ideal human proportions, is now believed to be a representation of the god Hermes.
Attributed to Pietro Tacca (Italian, 1577–1640). Belvedere Antinous, ca. 1630. Bronze, Image courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
This, the museum notes, the classical ideal of male beauty in the 2nd century AD, was called the ‘Beau Ideal’ from the nineteenth century onwards:
shoulders turned away from the hips, symmetric musculature, weight resting on the back foot, the disposition of the arms denoting relaxation and power.
On the wall, Antinous, 1987, gelatin silver print. Robert Mapplethorpe, 1947-1989, American. Loaned by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, NY
Antinous, Hermes and Ganymede are the figures most associated with the Beau Ideal.
The museum notes that they came, from the Renaissance onward, to be associated with male homosexuality.
Vivienne Westwood‘s ‘Britain Must Go Pagan’ collection, 1988-1992, nude synthetic knit and green acrylic. Part of ‘Voyage to Cythera combining references to Helenistic antiquity and the Regency era.
A Hellenistic ideal of homoeroticism, Antinous became the personification of homosexual love from the 17th onwards.
In the 20th century, his contrapposto stance was identified with the Camp stance called ‘the teapot’.
A Second Source of the Aesthetic of Camp: The Court and Courtiers of the Sun King
The museum attributes the word Camp to the French ‘se camper’ = to flaunt, to posture.
This, the museum says, originated in the Moliere play, The Impostures of Scarpin, 1671, where one character persuades a second – ‘Strut about like a drama king’ – to camp it up – in order to fleece a third character.
The drama king himself: Louis XIV of France
The court of the Sun King, the museum, says has been, retroactively, marked as ‘Camp Eden’ with its extravagance and flourishes and display and theatrical routines.
The king, an excellent dancer who acted in dancing theatricals, is shown in his most famous portrait as adopting an aristocratic contrapposto pose, the left leg in the fourth ballet position of his training.
And ‘Monsieur’, Louis XIV’s bisexual, cross-dressing brother, Philippe I, Duc Duc of Orléans (1640-1701)
who is credited with inventing the red-heeled shoe
And whose behaviour and sartorial liberties were exceeded only by the cross-dressing Chevalier d’Eon, a member of the Sun King’s Secret Service.
Jean Laurent Mosnier, Chevalier d’Eon, 1743/44-1808, French.
Detail of oil on canvas portrait by Thomas Stewart in 1792. Loaned by the National Portrait Gallery, London to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2019.
The Chevalier attempted to blackmail the Sun King who gave him a pension so long as he dressed as a woman. The Chevalier spent the last 33 years as a woman claiming to have been assigned female at birth.
A third elucidation of the Aesthetic of Camp: Oscar Wilde. And later, Christopher Isherwood
Leaving the Sun King, the museum narrowed sharply the corridor dealing with the ‘modern’ homosexual origins and expressions of Camp.
This was – in some countries still is – more or less, a closed world.
The museum notes that the word ‘homosexuality’ was coined in the late 1860s by the Austro-Hungarian writer, Karl-Maria Kerbeny. It was not before the mid-1890s that the word appeared in English in a John Addington book ( A Problem in Modern Ethics) (?!)
In 1909, the word Camp was first included in an English dictionary with negative connotations.
It was linked with the stereotype of the effeminate aristocrat of whom Oscar Wilde, the writer and aesthete, was the exemplar, scapegoat and martyr.
A frock tailcoat inspired by an Oscar Wilde outfit. Further evolved by Billy Porter as above.
Michele grafted the jacket of a tailcoat onto the skirt of a frock coat, which he pleated to exaggerate its fullness, giving the wearer a peacock-like silhouette. Worn with a string tie and velvet slippers.
A design by Aubrey Beardsley, 1872-1898, British for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, 1898.
? Creator. Photo by Sai Mokhtari for the Gothamist
Christopher Isherwood, the British writer of The World in the Evening, 1935, describes two modes of Camp: high and low with which Susan Sontag mostly agreed.
High Camp, he noted, is the ‘whole emotional basis of the ballet and of Baroque art’: a mode which can produce discussion about almost anything.
Low Camp he considered to be an ‘utterly debased form’ raising stereotypical images of homosexuals
exemplified by a popular image of sailors:
The Fleet’s In, 1934, tempera on canvas. Paul Cadmus, 1904-1999, American. Loaned by the Navy Art Collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019
Untitled, gouache on paper. Tom of Finland, (Touko Valio Laaksonen), 1920-1991, Finnish. Loaned by the Tom of Finland Foundation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
In a much bigger space, the museum highlighted further Susan Sontag’s history of the Camp aesthetic.
A room dedicated to illustration Susan Sontag’s thesis. Her entire essay screened just below the room’s ceiling.
Photo by Dolly Faibyshev for the New York Times
Her distant origins included the painting of Caravaggio and of other mannerists.
The Musicians, 1597, oil on canvas. Caravaggio, 1571-1610, Italian. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
An allegory of music, the museum says, indicated by the presence of Cupid. The artist portrayed himself second from right.
Susan Sontag distinguished the real locus of the forms of Camp in the 17th and 18th centuries because it was then that there developed a feeling for symmetry, artifice and surface.
Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, on canvas, 1779-1788. Workshop of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1755-1842, French.
Musée national du Château de Versailles on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019
Detail of the skirt and bustle of a white silk taffeta French gown withhand-painted floral motif. 18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Detail of a frock coat, British, 1740, of brown silk cisele velvet. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Dress of pink silk tulle embroidered with pink ostrich feathers and pink silk red dots; sash of silk and satin, autumn/winter 1965/66. Christobal Balenciaga, 1895-1972, Spanish. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Dress of pink iridescent silk taffeta with sash of grey of the same material. Christian Dior, 1948/49. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Beige silk georgette embroidered with white cylindrical beads, gold bugle beads, clear cystals and pearls, 1925. Edward Molyneux, French born England. Brooklyn Museum collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
When it came to the 1960s, Camp for Susan Sontag was the leveller extraordinaire.
In the welter of the mass movements which overtook much of the West, the Camp sensibility expressed itself in demolishing the distinction between high art and popular cultures, and between original and replica.
The Smasher Up par Excellence was Andy Warhol.
Joined by many others in the art movements which displaced the hegemony of the New York School (Abstract Expressionism).
The Souper Dress, 1966/67, paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
Andy Warhol began to paint soup cans in 1962. This is a throw-away, paper version of a dress.
Down a corridor with examples of Camp in haute couture
In front, sandal, 1938 designed for Judy Garland by Salvatore Ferragamo whose gift to the museum this is. Gold leather and polychrome suede
In the rear, 2017, Alessandro Michele for Gucci. Italian, founded 1921. Gold leather and polychrome synthetic materal. Gucci Archives on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in 2019
Left, purple silk satin overlaid with synthetic lace and tulle. Cristobal Balenciaga, 1895-1972, Spanish. Loaned by the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Right, purple synthetic satin embroidered with purple ostrich feathers, polychrome printed feathers and paper butterflies, 2018. Jeremy Scott, American born 1975 for the House of Moschino, Italian founded 1983.
Right, light purple synthetic tulle, 1956. Lanvin-Castillo, French, active 1950-1962. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Left, light purple, iridescent silk taffeta, 2006. Viktor and Rolf, Dutch, founded 1993.
Left, black silk velvet and pink silk taffeta, 1951. Christobal Balenciaga, 1895-1972. Spanish. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Right, bodysuit of beige synthetic powernet embroidered with clear paillettes and pearl seeds; dress of black silk velvet and pink silk satin with pink and blue silk satin roses, 1995/96.
Thierry Mugler, French born 1948. Loaned by Mugler Archives to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019
Left, white cotton silk-sateen printed with trompe l’oeuil dress and legs motif, 2017. Jeremy Scott, American born 1975 for the House of Moschino, founded 1983. Loaned by Moschino to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019
Right, silk satin and black silk velvet, 1983-84. Yves Saint Laurent, 1936-2008, French. Loaned by the Fundaction Museo de la Moda, Santiago, Chile to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019
Pieced polychrome cotton spandex embroidered with polychrome seeds, bugle beads and crystal, 1991. Gianni Versace, 1946-1997.
Loaned by Versace to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2019
Jumpsuit of black cotton spandex with belt of black leather, ?date. Jeremy Scott, American born 1975 and loaned by him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019.
You are through to a large room: dark.
Each wall carries two layers of lit display vitrines. In the middle of the room, a rectangle of lit boxes, each with a goodie in it.
You could be shopping.
And in one corner, a rotation of mannequins, above
Throughout, a litter of the definitions of Camp by all kinds of people
Headpiece, 2018/19, beige and black leather and pink and black ostrich and coque feathers. Bertrand Guyon, French born 1965 and Stephen Jones, British born 1957 for House of Schiaparelli, French founded 1927, who loaned this to the museum in 2019
until you begin to think that if the normative definition of Camp has been blown up by Andy Warhol and all his successors,
and if there can be this many definitions of what Camp is
then is a Camp aesthetic still possible?
What is there to be Camp about if everything has an equal cultural value?
When excessive display, artifice, over-the-top presentation of self have been appropriated by everyone, when this has become the norm, what room is there for Camp?
The definition of Camp is losing definition, you think.
(The commentary that follows is not the Met’s who accompanied this part of the display only with many extant definitions of Camp.
I don’t think there was mention of the word kitsch at all!)
You start circulating and you realize that Camp has morphed.
It has altered its DNA and in the process, its meaning, its original signifiers have retreated.
What you see is still over-the-top, excessive, eye-catching, concerned with surface and artifice.
Out of balance with the ho-hum dreariness of quotidian life.
But now it points to something different.
It is pointing exclusively to itself. A presentation of itself, its own gorgeousness, preening like a swan.
It mocks nothing because there are no norms left to knock.
The commodification of excess has been in for decades now.
Mass-marketed, its sale is the basis of the North American economy and of that of much of the ‘developed’ world. It drives the growth of a large part of the world.
Surface, appearance to the exclusion of substance is the air we breathe.
Kitsch, by any other name. A word said to have entered English only in 1926 (from the German).
A world in which any material, any concept yanked from whatever source, is brought into play without reference to anything outside of it. Outside the Me focus.
That would make us think too, too hard.
If you don’t like vegetables or you are outraged about the way pigs are farmed, you can wear it all.
You can wear it even if you do and are not outraged by pig farming methods.
There is a certain haziness about the definition of kitsch.
And now, it seems, a kind of caution hovers around the definition.
Because we have a world where the self-identification of opposing groups has reached epidemic and fashionable proportions and is the basis of much of our battling political life.
Kitsch is what remains – at least, it seems, in fashion design – of Camp when all significance, except the presentation of the self, has been stripped away.
Kitsch is the subversion, the suborning – in fashion, at least – of Camp as Camp was of our normative attitudes towards order, symmetry, plainness, play-by-the bookishness.
Kitsch could be described as an extenuation of Camp so large that the characteristics and meaning of Camp have vanished.
Everyone can do kitsch and there is no price to pay for doing it. It’s the utter democracy. No Ballad of Reading Gaol.
It’s in the Be Everything You Can Be model.
Go ahead, be a Tudor princeling if you want to. A changeling…….
The philosophy of Kitsch is: Follow Your Dream.
Go For It.
Reach for the Stars.
Be a Star. You Deserve It. You are worth It. You are It.
Even if the only people who can really, really, do this, in all practicality, is the One Percent.
And, although kitsch is a derogatory word and refers to the supposed vulgarity of taste of the hoi polloi,
the sweetness of this exhibition is that it displays the kitsch of the One Percent.
Out here to sell us a dream:
Have a wonderful visit.
Enjoy. Enjoy! Enjoy at all costs!
And I did….
Pink silk synthetic taffeta trimmed with grey synthetic lace with silver silk and metal thread, 1995-1996. Vivienne Westwood, British born 1941.
Loaned by the creator to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019.
But then I love embellished textiles.
Vivienne Westwood (British, born 1941) is one of my heroes: a warrior on several fronts.
And, like my other English heroes, David Hockney and David Bowie, born working class to prove, by talent, risk-taking, work and extraordinary skill, the exception to the ghastly British hold-the-hoi-polloi-down class rule.
And I always need candy-striped leggings……
I love textiles for themselves, feel, colours, weight, surfaces.
They are the stuff of life to me.
The stuff of human history.
Among which the long struggle – far from completed – for the liberation of the entire LBGTQ community to their fullest human potential.
So here, it is kiss, kiss and smiley faces all the way
and have a good day!
Go on! Take a look!
We love it. We want it all………
Smiley Face headpiece, 2013, yellow acrylic. Philip Treacey, British born Ireland, 1966. Loaned by the creator to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019
And we have been visiting the Met in large numbers and dreaming about getting it!
The Icelandic singer, Bjork at the Oscars 2002 wearing the dress above.
White synthetic tulle embroidered with white ostrich feathers and orange and black leather embroidered with black iridescent crystals.
Marjan Pejoski, British born Macedonia, 1968. Loaned by the creator to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2019