My Thoughts On The ‘Camp: Notes On Fashion’ Exhibit

Two weeks ago, I finally visited the ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Although, I live a short walk across the park from the museum, it took me this long to visit the exhibit, which started in May and ends beginning of September. 

The star-studded Met Gala back on the first Monday in May commenced the unique theme of the exhibit.  This year’s theme was inspired by Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” published in 1964.

After skimming her essay in preparation for the Met Gala and exhibit, I interpreted her work and the word Camp as freedom of artistic expression, not only when it comes to clothing but to culture in general.  Camp is not boring in any way, but exaggerated, paradoxical, and so on.  The word Camp doesn’t have a cookie cutter definition, which gives the audience the ability to interpret it as they see fit.  So here is my take of the exhibit, the fashion, the word, and what it means to me in this stage of my life.

Camp’s History

Camp can be a noun, a verb, an adjective.  Not a lot of words can do that, showing how powerful and interpretative this single, one syllable word is. 

The first few rooms in this exhibit gave a lesson on the origin of the word.  To my surprise, Camp was first used in the 1600s and is a French word meaning to “flaunt” or “posture.” 

Enter the exaggerated fashion of the French royals.  Think lots of fabric, lots of jewels, lots of tights, and lots of pointed toe heels even for the men.  They strutted, they stood up proud. This was Camp.

Then in the 19th century, Camp was used more as an adjective and took on more of a homosexual context. Camp was used to describe cross dressers or those pushing the envelope when it came to their sexual orientation.  The word was now playing a role not only in fashion, but society. 

Now in the 1900s, Camp was the word use to describe exaggerated gestures and actions, mostly in the homosexual context, but it was during this era that Camp slowly was used to describe the current culture.

I was still confused about what Camp really meant.  I’ve been so use to all my English classes where we were taught that one word meant this and only this.  Anyway, the exhibit continued to include short definitions of what camp is and what camp is not. All of these words were then paired with a nice arrangement of clothing and artifacts.

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirt of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” – Susan Sontag, 1964

“Camp is a mode of perception.” – Fabio Cleto, 1999

“”Camp can be taken on two completely separate levels, and make perfect sense on each.” – Evelyn Satz, 1983

“Camp taste is a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation––not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy.” – Susan Sontag, 1964

Camp Is…

Failed Seriousness” – Susan Sontag, 1964

The exhibit continued to unfold to an even larger room of even more astonishing pieces. It was in this room that I put the history lesson aside and reflected on what the word and actions of Camp mean to me.  

I entered the room of “failed seriousness” and learned that true Camp is “unconsciousness and unintentional.”  I began to realize that some of my mistakes are my best work. For example, how many photos do I strategically “plan out,” but then it’s really those candid, not planned out photos that make for the best content for my Instagram. 

Camp is the proper mixture of unnatural, exaggeration, and passion, much like my life. Whenever I try to be serious, it results in failure because I put too much pressure on myself. However, when I act more raw, in the moment, open to failure and mistakes, it results in the best version of myself.

After the quick, yet relatable definition of failed seriousness, there was a selection of the most outrageous but unique looks.  Like I highly doubt these designers intended to make a giant ball of purple tulle covered in butterflies or a dress that looked like a paper doll cut out.  Maybe they did?  I couldn’t help to think how I would fit on the subway if I was wearing those outfits.

But whatever the case may be, the looks were exaggerated masterpieces, the looks were so Camp.  Because in a world of only Forever 21, Zara, and all the other usual clothing stores, it is easy to get lost in their trends and just stick to the norm. 

“Camp is an outrageous aestheticism.” – Susan Sontag, 1964

It makes sense that the mannequin in (literally) head to toe Vogue magazine covers immediately caught my attention.  Vogue was always the catalyst to my love for fashion. I remember patiently waiting for each season when a new issue would come out.  The glossy pages weren’t filled with the usual advertisements from the usual clothing stores, but instead fancy looks from the most renowned designers in the fashion world.  I remember looking at the ads and designs in awe. This was fashion.  So obviously, I’m obsessed with this jumpsuit, because one day I will work at Vogue or appear in the magazine, but until then I have this exhibit and the magazine to remind me of my dream and where it all started. 

“Camp is a mode of enjoyment.” – Susan Sontag, 1964

Fashion magazines, runway shows, fashion blogs, fashion exhibits, and so on are my sort of enjoyment.  Other people get the same enjoyment from other things like playing video games, skiing, going to see a movie, etc.  Fashion is my hobby, my way to let my eyes gaze at pretty things, the way my mind can escape the troubles of life, and the way I can get lost in my thoughts and think how would that shirt look in a different color or how about adding a belt to that dress.  There is no better way to detox from the digital world than running your fingers through the pages of your favorite magazine or people watching in the trendiest neighborhoods of New York City and admiring everyone’s style.

“Camp is things being what they are not.” – Susan Sontag, 1964

Society is always telling us what to do. Your life has to unfold in this way.  My life, just like others, never followed the “typical” track, meaning I’m 24, single, have my good days, my bad days. But one of the main things this whole entire exhibit has taught me is the beauty of embracing the things that are not the norm.

“Camp is being as playing a role.” – Susan Sontag, 1964

I think what differentiates between a love of fashion and a lover of fashion is someone who doesn’t just look at fashion as clothing, but as a part of their life.

The carnival scene dress and skirt reminded me of my trip to Coney Island last summer and the vintage looking pieces reminded me of my love for the Roaring 20s era. 

It’s incredible that simple prints and patterns can take me back to some of my favorite memories.  It’s true with good fashion, you can pick up a dress or a pair of shoes from your wardrobe and remember exactly when you wore it, where you wore it, who you wore it with.  It plays a role. 

“Camp is cultural slumming.” – Mark Booth, 1983

Maybe you really are what you eat and drink.  In my case, I wouldn’t be McDonald’s or Budweiser, I would be more like wine and cheese and the occasional 2 AM pizza.  The Moschino line featuring the McDonald’s imagery is pretty much a walking billboard. These looks resemble the popular culture side of camp.  Right now, McDonald’s is an extremely well known food chain, anyone can sing their catchy jingle or name at least one item from their menu.  But above this installation was a quirky outfit resembling a TV dinner (think frozen corn and peas and mashed potatoes) that was once as popular as McDonald’s.  However, now a sit down family meal even if it was frozen has been replaced with fast food.  These looks prove that when the times are changing, so is the fashion.

What Camp Means To Me

I was just about to leave the exhibit, when I took one more walk around just to make sure I soaked up all the fashion knowledge, when suddenly I read these two quotes and it really put the exhibit in perspective.

“Camp is seeing everything in a quotation mark.” – Susan Sontag 1964

“Camp is a question mark that won’t let the line be straightened up into an exclamation point.” – Fabio Cleto, 1999

Fashion and life in general is all about the uncertainty, all about asking questions, and all about welcoming those feelings.

Any person I meet always tells me that at a young age of 24, I am very mature and seem to have my life all figured out.  I do agree I’m mature for my age.  But truth is I’m uncertain about a lot, constantly questioning everything…”Why don’t I have a boyfriend?” Why do I suck at blogging?” Why do I not look like her?” “Why must people in New York City walk so slow.” “Why does this simple vodka soda at a rooftop bar cost $18?” And that’s only a small fraction of what goes on in my head at any given moment.

When I am scrolling through Instagram and I find myself getting jealous over how people dress, how people look, how people are so good at blogging, how perfect their family is, I realize that not one person on Instagram or in this packed subway I am currently sitting on is perfect and certain about everything and anything. And I find comfort in that, knowing I’m not alone. 

I wish I could just put a period or exclamation point on a statement and say this is who I am, this is what I am doing, this is how I am feeling, but if one punctuation could describe my life it’s a question mark. 

Anyway back to fashion, it makes sense why a question and quotation mark perfectly describes fashion because fashion has no one answer, just like Camp. Not one person can decide what fashion is or what fashion is not, but can only influence the trends and other designers.  For example, why are biker shorts a huge trend this summer, but wasn’t last year? Will leopard print ever go out of style (I hope not)?  But see much like in my life, fashion is all about pushing the boundaries, being uncertain, asking questions, which will eventually turn into new trends and exhibits like this. 

Although, this post took me four days to write, since I have only been finding time to write on my 25 minute subway ride to work, I am proud I was able to reflect on such a memorable exhibit and relate it back to my life. After all, art and fashion are a beautiful thing because of that. 

I am sorry it took me this long to visit and write about the ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ exhibit, since it is only available until Sunday September 8, but in the next 2 weeks if you do have time to visit, you must.  If not, I hope you enjoyed my commentary and photos.  For all my NYC friends, if you have any museum or fashion exhibit recommendations, let me know.  Until then, I will talk to you all soon. 


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