Interview by Filep Motwary
It has already been 16 years since Andrew Bolton joined The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and less than one since he was named Wendy Yu Curator in Charge, when the position was endowed.
In between, Bolton worked alongside the esteemed Harold Koda on various projects including Chanel, Dangerous Liaisons, the awarded-for-its excellence Poiret exhibition, and Schiaparelli and Prada.
It was through Savage Beauty, the monographic show on Alexander McQueen, that Andrew Bolton had the spotlight entirely turned on him for creating a show that was far beyond educational, an exhibition that contained extreme emotions and plenty of the most majestic garments ever created in contemporary fashion by the late British designer.
Other shows that followed were China: Through the Looking Glass, a personal favourite, a second monographic show on Rei Kawakubo, Manus x Machina and, lastly, Heavenly Bodies (2018)—the blockbuster show that attracted 1.65 million visitors to The Met.
Camp: Notes on Fashion is the museum’s next major show, framed by Bolton around Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay Notes on “Camp”, aiming to highlight camp in contemporary society and highlight its translation through fashion.
According to Sontag, “Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described.
One of these is the sensibility—unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it—that goes by the cult name of ‘Camp’.
Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. (The convertibility of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘person’ and ‘thing’). But all style, that is, artifice, is, ultimately, epicene. Life is not stylish. Neither is nature.”*
FILEP MOTWARY: Mr Bolton, why do we exhibit fashion? Why has it received such phenomenal interest over the past decade?
ANDREW BOLTON: At The Costume Institute, one of our primary roles is to record the evolution of fashion through cultural trends and artistic developments.
We seek to promote the artistry of fashion as an aesthetic medium of equal importance as painting or sculpture. When you see clothing in a museum, you can study and appreciate it in detail. Fashion is so popular today because the Internet democratises access—everyone can see fashion shows live or the next day, something that previously was a privilege for editors and store buyers. The web has promoted and created a global interest in fashion
FM: From your own experience, what is the fashion curator’s task within an exhibition?
AB: To offer new ways of looking at clothes and to interpret clothes through different lenses—of art history, archaeology, psychology, sociology, literature… To offer new ways to expand our horizons around fashion.
FM: What makes a garment worthy of being exhibited?
AB: I gravitate towards objects and designers who have advanced or re-directed the trajectory of fashion through innovation. These innovations can be directed by engagement with social and cultural issues, such as with Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent.
Other designers have engaged more with artistic practices, such as Vionnet, Balenciaga, Azzedine Alaïa and Miyake. There are designers who also provoke conceptually, such as Chalayan, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. Some combine all these qualities, such as Rei Kawakubo. I love when designers engage with social and political issues and are masters of their craft. I appreciate engagement with fashion conceptually and with issues about gender, identity, and sexuality.
FM: In your opinion, where does the body stand in fashion today and how do you consider the body in your exhibition concepts?
AB: The body is central to the art of fashion—it is the canvas upon which clothing is applied and it is critical to the study of fashion. Currently, designers are exploring ideas of body diversity on the runaway, which is encouraging and compelling.
Through history, fashion often tries to alter and transform the body with strategies such as corsetry and crinolines. Clothing can also bring out issues about gender and sexuality in relation to the body that wears it.
FM: What does the museum context and museum display offer to a fashion garment or object?
AB: We create thematic and monographic exhibitions that are dynamic and re-contextualise fashion by juxtaposing the old with the new in surprising conversations. Part of our role is educational, but it is also to entertain. Although entertainment can sometimes be a dirty word in museums, we seek to amuse the visitor—to create a visually compelling exhibition, which tells an engaging story.
We start with a theme, or narrative, and from there divide the exhibition into various sub-themes or chapters based on the material evident in the fashions themselves. Clothing carries many different narratives and it’s up to the curator to tease them out and make them explicit and intelligible. We also strive to create shows that are multisensory and immersive. We sought to do that with the McQueen exhibition  where the environment and the installation helped amplify the narrative.
FM: For centuries now we have had a need to see the body and its form exaggerated…
AB: Clothes were invented to decorate the body. This decoration can be taken to extremes. Historically, some designers honoured the body, like Coco Chanel, while others like McQueen, Charles James and Christian Dior were about altering the body into an idealized form—sometimes creating a parody of the female form. Female designers tend to gravitate more toward clothing that follows the natural contours of the body, while male designers tend to gravitate toward exaggerating and distorting the body.
FM: Would you agree that fashion, now more than ever, has become self-referential, much more closed and solely for those following fashion religiously?
AB: I think the exact opposite. As I mentioned earlier, because of the Internet, everybody has access to high fashion, whether one wears it or not. It is challenging to keep our visitors interested, because there is so much information available. The public becomes much more sophisticated in understanding costume exhibitions. They are more educated about historical fashion and even more so about current fashion.
I also love how the Internet challenges designers: in a trickle-up effect, they have become engaged with the idea of DIY. Clothing is always about consumption and I love the fact that now people experiment much more with their wardrobes. There is more democracy.
Experimental fashion is happening on the streets, while there is a proliferation of fashion identities within the fashion system. I find it a really exciting time!
FM: In your last exhibition, Heavenly Bodies, you spoke about religion and how it intertwines with fashion, their complex relationship. Can we really experience an apotheosis by wearing a garment?
AB: Fashion is a very emotional and expressive art form, which has the ability to move people emotionally and allows for the expression of particular aspects of individual personalities. Fashion is deeply inherent to identity, so while it may not be religious, there is a spiritual connection to fashion.
FM: Is it necessary for the audience to understand the subjects presented in an exhibition or have certain knowledge about them?
AB: One of the lovely things about fashion is that we all wear it and have an opinion about it. It’s very subjective. Curators try to be objective but sometimes fail because we fall in love with the subject matter and objectivity goes out of the window. In exhibitions, there should be a curatorial narrative to engage people. Fashion works of art have an effecting presence and the ability to move you. We want people to engage with the subject and learn from it, as fashion exhibitions should be experiential in a personal way.
FM: Your next show, Camp: Notes on Fashion, opens at The Met this spring. How has Camp managed to have such a great influence on mainstream culture?
AB: Camp has a long history but it became more mainstream when Susan Sontag published her Notes on “Camp” in 1964. Until Sontag provided us with a vocabulary, it was more of a private code among marginalised groups, particularly in the gay community. Sontag makes the distinction between “naïve Camp” and “deliberate Camp”. Naïve Camp is unintentional, not self-conscious, tries to be serious, and fails miserably. Deliberate Camp is much more conscious.
People dismissed Camp as being frivolous and not serious, but today it is extremely powerful. As gay culture has become more mainstream, Camp has been embraced and become part of mainstream culture as well.
FM: In what ways have fashion designers used their profession as a vehicle to engage with Camp? What would you say are the defining elements of Camp?
AB: Designers engage with Camp in different ways, but some elements of Camp are consistent, such as exuberance, exaggeration, irony, naivety, satire, generosity, and humor. Camp is a very amorphous form of artistic expression. Many designers engage with the ironic and satirical aspects. Camp can be seen everywhere if you look at the world through Camp eyes.
There are consistent characteristics, but there is also openness. Designers who engage with Camp are well educated about history and culture, and they play with particular aspects of cultural expression in a Camp way.
FM: A large part of the exhibition focuses on the origins of Camp, which you can trace back to Versailles, and the exaggerated fashions that underlined the 16th century until the late 18th century. Could you elaborate on how the meaning of Camp has evolved over the centuries?
AB: There is no consensus on when Camp originated, but we have traced it to Louis XIV and Versailles through the term “se camper,” a verb for a posture used by aristocrats at the time and described in a play by Molière, as someone who “camps” on one foot.
The next mention of Camp was in a letter between a trans woman and her benefactor, where she talks about her “campish undertaking,” as an adjective. What began as an expression of aristocracy became increasingly associated with gay
culture. In 1909, it appeared as a noun in a dictionary of Victorian slang, after Oscar Wilde’s trials, defined as “actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis used by persons of exceptional want of character.
In 1954, Christopher Isherwood talked about Camp in his book The World in the Evening and makes a distinction between high Camp and low Camp. Low Camp was “a swishy little boy with peroxide hair… pretending to be Marlene Dietrich.” He associated High Camp with Baroque art, opera and ballet. In 1964, when Sontag released Notes on “Camp”, the aesthetic became more mainstream.
FM: Why is there always room for irony in fashion? What does it serve?
AB: With Camp, irony was a tool of power, a way of empowering the community through playing with ideals of gender: the hyper-feminine female or the hyper masculine male. Irony is at the heart of Camp.
FM: What about gender, how is gender portrayed through Camp? Why is gender so often used as a form of resistance.
AB: Camp recognises that gender is performative; it is as much cultural as it is biological. Men and women who employ the Camp aesthetic project an ironic take on gender. The idea of irony in gender is inherent in Camp.
FM: Can we challenge authority by being flamboyant in the way we dress today? Is Camp a reaction to society’s standards?
AB: Very much so! I’ve always loved how fashion is used to challenge or confront the status quo. Camp responds and reacts to culture, and comes to the fore in moments of polarisation and increased conservatism, which is why it is so relevant now.
FM: Is there a debate between the exhibits and the audience?
AB: I’m not sure it’s a debate. I want to challenge people with what they see; I want to make them think differently about fashion or a topic—and with Camp, I hope they will see the relevance to their lives. We always try to find a topic that defines a cultural trend or shift, for people to engage with. We want them to appreciate the artistry of the objects as well as the conceptual side of the exhibition. I want people to realise Camp is a very sophisticated form of artistic expression and a powerful tool, particularly in these times.
Andrew Bolton (born 1966) is a British museum curator and current Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York City. Born in Blackburn, Lancashire, UK, Bolton graduated from the University of East Anglia with a BA in Anthropology and an MA in Non-Western Art. In 2017, he was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art Bolton's show, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, opened on May 10, 2018. Bolton described the exhibition as an examination of "the role dress plays within the Roman Catholic Church and the role the Roman Catholic Church plays within the fashionable imagination." The exhibition features objects from the Vatican Collection alongside designs by Gianni Versace, John Galliano for Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and other designers. Bolton is featured alongside Anna Wintour in Andrew Rossi's 2016 documentary film "The First Monday in May" which is the staging of the Metropolitan Museum's annual Costume Institute Gala.