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The Met's 'Camp: Notes on Fashion' explores how the 'subversive' style reflects culture

Rihanna's papal look and Lady Gaga's sequined bodysuit at the Met Gala in recent years were inspired by the aesthetic.

The Metropolitian Museum of Art Costume Institute's spring

The Metropolitian Museum of Art Costume Institute's spring 2019 exhibition 'Camp: Notes on Fashion' deals with the history and concept of camp in fashion and how it has come to influence mainstream culture. Photo Credit: JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

The often dramatic, audacious and humorous “camp” aesthetic seen at recent Met Galas — Rihanna’s papal look and Lady Gaga’s sequined bodysuit— is striking a pose as the focus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s spring 2019 exhibition, opening May 9.

“Camp: Notes on Fashion” invites visitors on a journey that explores the camp aesthetic’s beginnings in the 18th century through the present, one fierce or whimsical ensemble at a time — some of which were designed by Giorgio Armani, Cristobal Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Gianni Versace, Vivienne Westwood and many others.

The exhibit pairs the subject matter with the words of Susan Sontag, whose 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” was considered the first serious exploration of the genre.

While it is difficult to define “camp,” — author Andy Medhurst describes it as trying to sit in the corner of a circular room — the word has had different meanings across history.  

It was first a French verb (“to flaunt” or “posture”), then an adjective with a gay connotation in the 18th century, and most recently, a noun to describe exaggerated gestures and actions.

"Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques." — Susan Sontag in "Notes on 'Camp."

The flexible meaning is taught visually throughout the exhibit with about 250 objects, including menswear, womenswear, sculptures, paintings and drawings.

Museum officials see camp returning in full — Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator for the show, said there is a resurgence not just in fashion but in culture in general.

“It comes to the fore in moments of social and political instability,” he said. “Camp is by nature subversive … and challenges the status quo.”

Visitors can see it for themselves. The contemporary fashion is showcased an incredible display that resembles a more colorful and fantastic take on the “Hollywood Squares” game show.

Wherever you look, the drama, exuberance and audaciousness of the clothes, headdresses and accessories by some of the biggest designers pop right out at you. The feathers and sequins, the exaggerated silhouettes and pastiche get-ups drive home the point that “camp is above all a moment of enjoyment and appreciation — not judgment,” Bolton said.

“In the end, the ultimate purpose of camp is to put a smile on faces and a warm glow in hearts.”

‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., from May 9 through Sept. 8. Visit metmuseum.org for more information.

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