CAMP: Notes on Fashion


of an Exhibition

by Jasmin Tabatabaee

Published on June 02, 2019

  • Description:

    With long lines winding out the door from the very beginning, I knew that we were in for quite a demanding visit. Maybe I should have turned around then? But no, we persevered, as it has become somewhat of a tradition to visit the Costume Institute exhibition at The Met every year since I moved to New York City. The museum has hosted a fashion exhibition since 1971, which was started as a “salute [to] the fashion industry of New York, whose tireless efforts and financial contributions were instrumental in making the new Costume Institute a reality.”1 The popularity of the Costume Institute exhibitions is evident in the crowds come to see the show.

    This year’s fashion exhibition explored the style and aesthetic of ‘camp’, beginning with its origins. As you enter a muted, pepto-bismol pink pathway, you encounter sculptures, paintings, and ephemera from 17th European queer culture. The main wall text upon entry to the show, informs the audience that the origins of the word ’camp’ in this context, likely derived from the French “se camper”, which means to flaunt, or pose in an exaggerated way. An omniscient voice amplified in the exhibition space also relays this information. However, with the crowds of people in the space, it was difficult to find a vantage point with acceptable sight lines to read that opening wall text or to hear the narrator above the din. It was very easy to miss this key piece of information about the main topic of the show. Moving further along the pink pathway there was only one way to obtain information, and that was through wall texts. There were no individual handouts, no large-print texts cards of wall labels, and I was not offered any type of audio guide when I entered the space. The lack of attention towards these accessibility accommodations is really very shameful for a museum with such prominence, and the means to deliver these needs. Not only were these resources missing, but the wall text that was available was unreadable in some areas. Black text adhered to glass, with a black piece of clothing displayed behind it, made the text disappear from sight! You had to be in a very specific position to read the label, and with the aforementioned crowds in the room, this was pretty much an impossible feat.

    As the crowds push you toward the end of the pink tunnel, you enter a square room with wall-to-ceiling display cases on three sides. This room is dedicated to Sunsan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’”. I learned later that each display is composed of items mentioned in different parts of Sontag’s essay. I love this idea of bringing the text of the essay to life with physical items, but I had no idea that that was what was happening here because again, I was unable to read the wall texts through the crowds. I did enjoy viewing the objects, but it feels like a missed opportunity for someone to completely miss their connection to “Notes on ‘Camp’”. The essay isn’t very long, it may have been beneficial to have copies of it in the space for people to read as they viewed the objects and make that connection independently.

    The last room is definitely the pièce de résistance of the exhibition. It is the largest room you encounter in the exhibition, with floor-to-ceiling, glass, double-decker vitrines, divided into colored squares like a ‘camp’ version of “Hollywood Squares”. Each square contains mannequins dressed in interpretations of ‘camp’ by various designers throughout the years. In this space, it feels like the curators did take into mind the notion that visitors bring their experience with them. The costumes on display fell all along the spectrum, from more subtle to unmistakably ‘camp’. There was something for everyone: extravagant beading, loud colors, cartoons, in-your-face branding, topsy-turvy ensembles, and impractical accessories. There was text for the displays as well as a return of the omniscient voice, reading historical quotes of the form “Camp is…” This room was my favorite in terms of design because it felt like you could finally breathe, choose your own path of movement, and explore the pieces freely.

    The exhibition overall is quite a spectacle to behold, and yet the major issue I encountered was the exhibition was difficult to behold! With all the crowds and the way the space was laid out, it was difficult to view the displays or to read about them. For instance, I observed a person in a wheelchair situated in the center of the Sontag room, unable to get close to and view the displays because of the hoards of people. Maybe it feels authoritarian or restrictive, but I think in this situation, timed tickets or capacity limits with rolling admittance would have been appropriate. Some type of brochure or handout might have also eased the situation, allowing visitors to feel connected and engaged to the space, even while they were waiting to see the objects.

    Additionally, it would have also been engaging and memorable if there had been an interactive component to the show. For example, in line with the featured “Camp is…” quotes and with the idea that camp is an aesthetic that is dynamic, personal, and versatile, it would have been illuminating to see how visitors defined camp. It might have also been interesting to have people answer the question prior to entering the show, and again upon exiting the show to see if their understanding of the style changed after viewing the exhibition. Also, because of the fun, playful nature of the theme, ‘camp’, it seems like a social media component (photo booth, hastags, etc.) would have actually been very appropriate here. It would have also been something else to do while you were waiting your turn to see the costume displays.

    Overall, this was a stunning show (from what I was able to see), but I am inclined to think that if the exhibition designers had even set foot into the exhibition while there were actually people in it, so many things would have changed.

    1 Cavallo, Adolph S (October 1971). Stoddart, Katherine (ed.). “Fashion Plate: An Opening Exhibition for the New Costume Institute” (PDF). The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. 30 (1): 5. doi:10.2307/3258574. Retrieved 2019-05-23.

Latest Comments (1)

good critique

by Kathleen Mclean - June 04, 2019

As I read your review, Jasmine, I was reminded that professional critiques such as yours are essential for reflection and for honing exhibition skills. Without these kinds of critiques and suggestions for improvement, exhibitions stay in a flat comfort zone. I remember that it was common wisdom and a “best practice” 30 years ago to NEVER put text on clear glass or plex, because it was impossible to read. Still, people do it. It would be great if you could talk directly to the designers about your experiences in the exhibition.

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