NEW YORK CITY — At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York earlier this summer, I fell in love with a dress. Part of the “Camp: Notes on Fashion” exhibit on display this summer, the 1983 Moschino gown was long, with a full black skirt, strapless beige top and a short, tutu-like tulle peplum around the waist. Appliquéd on the front was a pair of life-size ballerina legs in pointe shoes; one standing on point, the other bent at the knee and extended to the side. The effect was surreal, witty, mildly insane and strangely beautiful — it was if the dark skirt became a stage, for an unexpected performance.
Clothes talk, at varying levels of volume, but we don’t always have time to listen. A museum exhibit of fashion, like “Camp” or, here at home, Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI’s) current “Seattle Style: Fashion/Function,” lets us slow down and take a look, to hear what the garments are saying. Sometimes, as with a plain beige raincoat at MOHAI, it’s barely a whisper: I am useful, I am functional, I don’t want to draw any attention. And sometimes, as with that Moschino dress, it’s practically an opera.
Silent arias seemed to be bursting out all over “Camp,” the annual summer exhibit from the archives of the Met’s Costume Institute — and always a good reason to endure New York’s humidity. Inspired by Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp,” the exhibit examines how “irony, humor, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, and exaggeration” have played out in fashion over the years. The 250+ garments and objects in the exhibit, displayed against tulip-pink walls or in bright jewel-toned display cases, date from the 17th century up to the present day.
Though crowded, even on a Monday, the exhibit felt intimate; the clothes were behind glass but lit so beautifully they seemed immediate — every thread glowed. A photograph of Oscar Wilde, lounging charismatically on an armchair in velvet blazer and knee breeches, perches next to a mannequin wearing a remarkably similar Yves Saint Laurent suit from the 1990s; style speaking to style across a century. An Alexander McQueen velvet cape, embroidered with two large gold peacocks, was inspired by Aubrey Beardsley drawings, from Wilde’s era — and was so beautiful that I had to stand in front of it for some time, catching my breath and wondering what it would feel like to wear.
Camp is a slippery concept; though the exhibit was well-curated and thoughtful, you emerge concluding that the term means whatever you think it means. But the idea of clothing as witty conversation — a dress as the equivalent of one of Wilde’s lines of dialogue — is an irresistible one. Among the best bon mots: a lavender Viktor & Rolf dress designed to be worn upside-down (the ruffles on its full skirt point upward, with its waist falling somewhere around the knees); a trio of gowns featuring trompe l’oeil folds and draping (it looked 3D, but wasn’t); a hat that looked exactly like a freshly plucked cauliflower; a handbag that resembled a steam iron. And in this sea of fashion silliness were a few familiar faces: Bjork’s swan gown from the 2001 Oscars; the “Venus” gown by Thierry Mugler — in which the wearer seems to emerge from a splashy sea of pink silk — worn by Cardi B to the Grammys earlier this year.
In contrast to the Met’s over-the-topness, the down-home MOHAI exhibit speaks more quietly; though some of the garments are opulent, all feel lovingly owned and worn. There was plenty of sensible Northwest-wear — a Gore-Tex windbreaker, a Utilikilt, an Eddie Bauer down jacket. But there were also elements here of wit and theatricality: a silk dress fluttering with butterflies, a playfully transparent raincoat, an elaborately embroidered Art Deco evening gown, a gentleman’s suit in a look-at-me olive paisley, a pert skirt-and-blouse duo patterned in a Space Needle print.
I paused for a long time before an airy yellow-and-cream strapless 1950s cocktail dress with a huge bow on the back, the color of spring marigolds. The bow’s size — like angel wings, or perhaps a giant silken butterfly — serves no purpose, except perhaps to make the wearer feel light and impossibly buoyant.
Both exhibits, like all such fashion showcases, left me wondering — why do we choose to put on what we do? What draws us to wear dresses with butterflies on them, or capes with embroidered peacocks, or even the simple but pleasingly poufy black sundress I have on as I type this? I guess it’s because we’re all, in a sense, clothes whisperers; we hear different garments speaking to us.
I remember, as a very little girl, being obsessed with my “strawberry dress,” a pink-and-white summer dress with a strawberry applique, which I would beg to wear (and probably wore out before I could outgrow it). The strawberry served no useful purpose except to make the dress look more whimsical. Was it camp? Maybe. Was it perfect? Oh, yes.
“Camp: Notes on Fashion,” through Sept. 8; Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York; $25; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org
“Seattle Style: Fashion/Function,” through Oct. 14; MOHAI, 860 Terry Ave. N., Seattle; $21.95; 206-324-1126, mohai.org