On the Domestication of Camp

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WHAT IS CAMP? The very definition of the term remains up for grabs in a way that isn’t the case for other artistic styles.

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Vivienne Westwood’s Leggings, 1989–90, greets you at the Met exhibit Camp: Notes on Fashion.

      Currently, what passes for camp in popular culture is sadly lacking in this innovative critique. In brief, camp has gone mainstream, and there’s no better example than the current mega-exhibition titled Camp: Notes on Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, mounted by its Costume Institute, which attempts to piggy- back on camp’s gay legacy during the Stonewall 50 anniversary. The Met’s spectacle is a cultural and sartorial tour through the history of fashion containing 250 objects, of which 170 are garments. Some of the rest are pictures of people like an 18th-century French nobleman (Chevalier D’eon) dressed in drag (see p. 28) and Oscar Wilde in various poses. Most of it is an awfully long way from authentic camp. Instead, it is a shrewdly selective assemblage of artifacts of high fashion worn by the moneyed classes when it has gone over the top or toyed with gender reversals. To its credit, the show takes its subject seriously. Thus, if one definition of camp is “failed seriousness” (favored by Sontag), then one could say that this exhibition is itself an example of camp.

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Cassandra Langer, a freelance writer based in New York City, is the author ofRomaine Brooks: ALife (Univ. of Wisconsin Press).

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