“Nothing succeeds like excess,” waggish 19thcentury author and dandy Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying in “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibit (through Sept. 9). And yet, the fashions that succeeded best in the show – and on the red carpet for the May 6 gala—were the ones that dialed back the campiness.
On the red carpet, gala co-chair and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour could hardly be outdone in a divine crystal-crusted columnar gown, redolent of cherry blossoms and topped with a pink-feathered cape – paging Ginger Rogers in “Top Hat” – that offset a dazzling necklace. Still, Huma Abedin gave her a run for her money in a strapless, floral lime green Oscar de la Renta gown with a red crinoline petticoat peeking out underneath that was the quintessence of edgy elegance, as did Laverne Cox in feathery, form-fitting black with a turquoise turban that dripped 1930s swank; and Ruth Wilson in ‘50s prim off-the-shoulder, high-low, black-belted white tulle.
Inside, it was more of the same: The standouts were those creations that played with one facet of camp – its theatricality or irony – rather than trying to be everything at once to a broadly defined theme. A blush feathered 1965-66 Cristobal Balenciaga gown for philanthropist Jayne Wrightsman echoed Wintour’s pink-feathered cape and the pink ostrich-feathered dress Ginger Rogers wore in 1935 movie “Top Hat.” A periwinkle tulle gown with a terraced bustle was the height of femininity. A vitrine featuring a mannequin head in a scarf by “Camp” sponsor Gucci, anchored by a gumball pearl choker and accented with rhinestone sunglasses, offered a way for the conservative to do camp – with Grace Kelly-style accessories.
Meanwhile, a display window with a sexy 2008 nude mesh Bob Mackie ensemble, caressed by shimmering leaves, reminded us that in addition to creating figure-hugging designs for the likes of Cher and Carol Burnett, Mackie also fashioned the tongue-in-cheek costumes for Burnett’s send-ups of old movies on “The Carol Burnett Show.” (Remember her as Scarlett O’Hara in the emerald green gown Scarlett makes of curtains in “Gone With the Wind”? Mackie threw in the curtain rod. Now that’s camp.)
Too often, however, the show missed camp’s knowing, satiric quality while also “retroactively,” as one critic at the press preview put it, applying campiness to past historical periods.
We’ll have more on all this in June WAG and on my blog at thegamesmenplay.com. But suffice it to say that sometimes you have to fly in the face of Oscar Wilde and acknowledge another adage: “Less is more.”
For more, visit metmuseum.org.
– Georgette Gouveia