Karsten Moran / The New York Times

Jared Leto at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala in New York, May 6, 2019. The theme for this year’s Met Gala is “Camp: Notes on Fashion."

August 29, 2019

What is “Camp?” I Still Don’t Know

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When searching Google for the definition of “camp,” the typical result is “a place where makeshift shelters will appear.” But there is a secondary, more informal definition: A secret personality originating from the early 20th century, plainly stated as a “deliberately exaggerated and theatrical behavior.” It’s easy enough to grasp.

This year’s Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Exhibition dives deeper into this description, unraveling the unknown behind the unfrequented connotation of “camp.”

Originating in the 17th century, “camp” started out as a verb. It has been whipped in and out of use by Frederick “Fanny” Park, Ernest “Stella” Boulton and Oscar Wilde, each person progressing the word “camp,” from associating it with the LGBT community to granting it nounship. While these people may have been rejected in their own time, these late heroes and heroines are now all paid tribute to in the Met’s exhibit.

The exhibit Camp: Notes on Fashion is inspired by Susan Sontag’s extensive essay “Notes on Camp” from the Fall 1964 edition of the Partisan Review. As one of the first to vigorously research the concept, she “provides the framework for the exhibition, which examines how elements of irony, humor, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality and exaggeration are expressed in fashion,” according to the Metropolitan Museum Website.

Since the 1960s, this sense of “camp” was only bounced around between fashion icons to advance views on art and culture — all the way to Anna Wintour. “Camp” was reborn into the 21st century as none other than the headline of the 2019 Met Gala. Countless designers and celebrities took their interpretation of “camp” to the red carpet, updating the definition with a modern context. Is there a way to define Janelle Monáe with four stacked hats threatening to topple off her head and a fabric eye covering her right breast? One word to describe Cardi B, literally drowning in a thick, blood-red blanket that requires the help of multiple bodyguards to be fanned out perfectly around her wherever she goes? Well, I, as well as countless others that night, learned that it’s “camp.”

Centuries, even just a few decades ago, using the word “camp” meant outcasting. Some people didn’t know this definition of the word existed. Celebrities would rather be caught dead than associated with the word. Those who championed it were deemed notorious.

Yet, now there is a whole exhibit celebrating that very ambiguity and unconventionality. That might not seem like much, but it speaks volumes for the dramatic shift in political views over the past century. Camp: Notes from Fashion is able to dig through history and present it in a new light: the modern age. Who knows what other present taboo we’ll be honoring a century from now?

Take crossdressing for example. Park and Boulton were infamous for allegedly dressing as women to seduce men in the late 1800s. They were brought to trial in 1871 — but acquitted — for suspected homosexuality and “conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence.” Aside from commonly exchanging the word “camp” in their letters to each other, they also championed cross-dressing and breaking down barriers of which articles of clothing certain genders should wear. Without them, it’s questionable whether or not Michael Urie would have been able to rock a picturesque, light-pink gown, an armful of tattoos on one side and a pinstripe tuxedo on the other and flawless makeup on the 2019 Met Gala red carpet.

Before entering the exhibit, the walls and the nearby gift shop are all bubblegum pink. Walking through, your surroundings slowly become more lively, more neon, more vibrant as your understanding of “camp” deepens. Audio recordings that play a plethora of voices, each voicing their own definition of “camp,” seem to be never-ending.

You become immersed from head to toe with the stories of not just the heroes and heroines of “camp,” but of each piece of clothing displayed as well. Finally, in a grand hoorah, the last ballroom-sized room throws every last interpretation the Costume Institute has all together, from a prosciutto dress to a swan wrapped around the neck of a mannequin.

Leaving the exhibit hallway, I was almost disappointed by how bland the gift shop was when pitted against the mind-boggling color-fest which had just surrounded me. I took away very little — at first. I’d been hit with so many conflicting definitions of one word. But as with any work of art, it prompted personal reflection. For this particular exhibit, the real art and reflection occurs after you leave the museum. It’s completely unique for everyone. The lack of a what is exactly what makes “camp” so special for me.


The Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, New York, is open from May 9 to Sept. 8, 2019.


Jonna Chen is a freshman in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at [email protected].